March 13, 2020
Irrfan, Radhika Madan, Deepak Dobriyal, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Ranvir Shorey, Dimple Kapadia, Pankaj Tripathi, Kiku Sharda, Tillotama Shome, Zakir Hussain, Meghna Malik
Angrezi Medium’s opening does not bode well for what is to come. Text on a black screen at the start offers an amusing definition of the Hindi word “pita” and while translating that definition into English, mistranslates “pita” as “parent”. Ummm, “pita” is “father”.
This is a curious slip-up because despite the post-1960s Bollywood tradition of marginalising women, mothers have been deified to kingdom come by this film industry. And if a deeper meaning is sought to be conveyed here, about the protagonist (a man we have yet to meet) doubling up as Mum and Dad to his child, sorry, it does not come across. This throws up a troubling question right at the start of Angrezi Medium: would the film proceed to take the marginalisation of women to new lows? Despite its opening misfire, the answer is: actually not.
Director Homi Adajania’s Angrezi Medium stars Irrfan as Champak Bansal, a widower in Udaipur who will go to any lengths to ensure his daughter Tarika Bansal’s happiness. Tarika has always, always dreamt of seeing the world, and when an opportunity to travel to London comes up in her late teens, she eyes it eagerly. Champak must overcome his fear of losing her, financial challenges and his penchant for being indiscreet to help her get there.
Through a series of misadventures, Tarika does end up in London, so do Champak and his cousin Gopi. As you would have gathered from the trailer, the men are pretending to be someone they are not, leading to a further series of misadventures, mishaps and misunderstandings.
There is great drama in the plotline, but it is not over-dramatised in its presentation. The result is an even-toned narrative and a consistently funny, consistently reflective story on the balance that must be struck between holding on yet letting go in any loving relationship that does not suffocate either party.
Angrezi Medium is Adajania’s fourth feature. His debut, Being Cyrus, was an edgy thriller. Cocktail was a step down with its revival of outmoded gender and sectarian stereotypes. Angrezi Medium is debatable but interesting.
This new film is a follow-up but not a sequel to the 2017 hit Hindi Medium in which Irrfan and Pakistani star Saba Qamar played a Delhi couple desperate to get their daughter out of the old-fashioned, traditionalist milieu of Chandni Chowk and into an English medium school in the capital’s snootier quarters.
Like Raj from Hindi Medium, Champak too can barely speak English, a language that continues to have aspirational value across India. This, however, is an extraneous point in Angrezi Medium. Champak is not quite as wealthy as the BMW-driving Raj, but he is financially well off. Money too is not the driving force of this plot. The focus of Angrezi Medium is Champak’s single-minded commitment to Tarika that leads him to introspect about his conservatism while she reconsiders her somewhat conventional interpretation of taking flight.
Written by Bhavesh Mandalia, Gaurav Shukla, Vinay Chhawal and Sara Bodinar, Angrezi Medium’s first victory comes with its use of language. The film’s characters speak a Rajasthani Hindi that is a pleasure to listen to, its rhythm rib-tickling to those of us unaccustomed to it. At no point is it used to caricature the characters speaking it though. I did at first wish for subtitles, but after the first half hour it grew on me.
The writing team has managed to broach multiple themes without making the screenplay feel crowded. At a time when Islamophobia is tearing through our social fabric, Angrezi Medium takes a passing comical swipe at those who stereotype Muslims with specific superficial markers. In a film industry and a society that have consistently prioritised the aspirations of male children, it is also refreshing to see a story of a father’s reactions to an independent-minded daughter’s dreams without any self-conscious tomtomming of their gender by the filmmaker.
Hindi films were once obsessed with the mother-son bond. Angrezi Medium deals with a range of parent-child equations from the pivotal father-daughter pair to a significant mother-daughter and a father-son on the sidelines. Even in its unspoken Indian-vs-Western-culture viewpoint, the film is atypical.
Where it does stumble into conformist territory is in brief conversations where Champak speaks of the selfishness of children who leave their parents on reaching adulthood and accuses such youngsters of using their parents for 18 years before dumping them. Of course there are kids who head out without sparing a thought for parents who were good to them, kids who toss such parents out of their lives without any consideration for their needs or feelings, and of course such kids are jerks, but Angrezi Medium fails to acknowledge that in the place where the film is set at that point, it is just as common for parents to chuck their kids out when they turn 18. And in India, where such a practice is alien, parents go to another extreme and interfere in their children’s existence as a matter of right. And what of parents across the world who are rotters? If you do not have the space to at least touch upon all these points, it is terribly unfair to dwell on just one, especially considering that Indian films tend to pedestalise parents or at the very least view them with an uncritical eye.
These passages in Angrezi Medium are aberrations in a film that is largely non-judgemental in its approach to its characters. Thankfully, the screenplay does not stretch the point too far and sort of sorts it out in the end.
Angrezi Medium’s other frailties are not connected to the values it sets out to propagate. A prologue about how Champak has been confused since childhood feels contrived, even if a link is clearly intended between that juvenile indecisiveness and his adult confusion in a changing world. This plot element is marginal to the proceedings though.
Far more problematic is the way the narrative intermittently flags in the second half when it spends too much time on the often improbable, even impossible means Champak employs to get Tarika admission to the college of her choice. Irrfan and Dobriyal are lovely together, but the film loses steam in these portions by straying too far from the Dad and daughter and becoming too much about the cousins. On the whole too, as a result, Angrezi Medium unwittingly becomes more about a devoted father than it is about a father and daughter, it becomes more about Champak than it is about Champak and Tarika.
This is an injustice to Tarika who is purportedly the second lead. Post-interval Angrezi Medium is less invested in her than it was pre-interval, a writing choice that subtracts from its overall impact. The screenplay redeems itself by getting right back to her in the end.
(Aside: This, I suspect, was a Freudian slip. We are so used to placing men, their work and their needs at the centre of our stories – read: our personal lives, our art, our news coverage – that the best of us often do not realise how we have internalised our social conditioning. It shows up in many ways big and tiny, including how a screenplay writer might unconsciously prioritise a male character over a woman, or translate the common-gender “parent” as the masculine gender “pita”, or – if the headline of this review gave you pause, then please note – how socially we casually use masculine expressions such as “thinking man’s film”, “mankind”, “manpower” and “man hours” for gender-neutral circumstances but are startled or offended when anyone similarly uses the feminine gender.)
Radhika Madan as Tarika is a perfect fit for a role that requires her to match up to the formidable Irrfan. In her debut Hindi feature, Vishal Bhardwaj’s wacko Pataakha, she had proved her ability to carry a film on her shoulders as one of two female leads. In Angrezi Medium she stands her ground in an ensemble film, acing the comedy, the fieriness of her character, her pensive moments and her maturing with equal confidence.
I am not sure why Kareena Kapoor Khan agreed to play a supporting character in Angrezi Medium, since male superstars almost never make such choices in Bollywood. That she agreed is the film’s good fortune because she is a stately presence in a small but important role.
Deepak Dobriyal blazes his way through Angrezi Medium with the smashing comic timing that made him stand out in Tanu Weds Manu and Hindi Medium. Give him more, Bollywood. C’mooon, give him more.
Time, trouble and money have evidently been spent on casting even characters who get just a few seconds to minutes of screen time in Angrezi Medium. Unlike most Hindi films that cut corners by recruiting cringe-worthy individuals to play foreigners, this one has good actors in those parts too, which is crucial since most of the film is set abroad.
Irrfan is returning to acting after a long break due to a health scare. He seems to have grown as an artiste in this time away from the public eye. He is so consumed by his character that the strain of doing an accent never once shows, nor does he, unlike many lesser actors in other films, allow that accent to overpower his sensitive performance. After The Lunchbox, Champak in Angrezi Medium must rank as among his best work. A fine performance for a fun film.
Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.75
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: