Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium is about the comparative importance of English and Hindi languages in class-conscious India. But it begins in Punjabi. And, to be exact, inside Batra’s Garments, a small tailoring shop at Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.
The elder Batra is apprehensively taking measurements of teenaged Mita (Saba) who wants him to make a low-back dress she saw in an international fashion magazine. With his son, Raj (Khan), looking on, the tailor does not think that a risqué – he calls it “modren” – dress is appropriate for a middle-class Indian girl like Mita and decides to make his own alterations.
As she worries about her ‘perfect’ dress being ruined (she is a bit of a fatalist, in general, as we learn later), Raj (clearly smitten) eassures her that he will personally make her a “same-to-same” design. He delivers on his promise.
Fast forward 15 years, the tiny tailoring shop is now a sprawling business concern (‘fashion studio’) and Raj is its smooth-talking proprietor. He is also a dutiful husband to Mita, just as determined to fulfil her every demand and cater to her every whim as he was when he was younger, even abandoning his clients midway through a big sale if he has to for her sake.
Despite financial success, a loving home and a happy marriage, Mita – the anti-Anjali of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham ... – wants to move out of Chandni Chowk and move up in “society”. More than anything, she wants her daughter – five-year-old Piya (Dishita) – to get admission into one of the top schools in Delhi.
We all know that class is not just about money. It is largely about a certain kind of education, among other things. And the mark of that education in our part of the world is the ability to speak proficiently in English — with extra marks for a refined accent. Mita’s desperation to get Piya admitted to an English-medium school is really a manifestation of her own desire to be accepted in, and gain access to, a section of society that has kept her out. As Raj notes, “English is not a language in India, it’s a class.”
The Batras move into a rich neighbourhood and throw a large party, but Raj’s poor command over English and his etiquette keep causing cracks in the image Mita wants to build. The guests – aloof, exclusionary and secretly insecure – are not unforgiving of these slip-ups.
As the nouveau riche (that one social group everyone enjoys taking a guilt-free dig at), the Batras find themselves in an odd position where they are not accepted by the rich and are not owned by the poor: they are imposters in both worlds.
But Raj and Mita, the devoted parents that they are, remain unfazed (or are further motivated) by the ridicule. They are willing to go to any length to ensure that Piya goes to a top-ranking English school. They visit a temple, a mosque and a church to enlist divine help for their cause, hoping some god may listen to their prayers. They are pragmatists, after all.
We root for the Batras throughout because we understand that – although they go about things in an overly earnest way – they really just want what everyone wants: a better life for their children. Upwardly mobile and ambitious, the Batras also live in the fiercely competitive world of ‘India Shining’.
Children are enlisted in primary school boot camps that may as well be boot camps for participation in The Hunger Games. Parents queue up in long lines before the crack of dawn to ensure that their children get into the top nursery schools. Even invitations to kitty parties are decided on the basis of which school a child goes to.
How hard a middle-class family has worked to get where it is does not matter. It is certainly not enough. And when honest means do not help people get what they want, some are forced to use bureaucratic connections and corrupt practices to get to the place others have already occupied by virtue of their birth.
Hindi Medium shows how India’s much-celebrated mobile middle class keeps hitting barriers. It may have the right atmosphere for its rise but that rise exacts a high price in terms of time, effort and even self-respect.
The film may be accused of showing crude stereotypes of the rich, but its portrayals are not entirely inaccurate. In fact, a lot of things hit too close to home. Some of us have gone to schools where we were instructed not to speak in Urdu, where people were repeatedly made fun of for their accents or pronunciations.
Overall, Hindi Medium is a wonderful film with great performances by all cast members. Saba proves that she is currently one of Pakistan’s best young actors, if not the best. The film’s major flaw is that it runs on far too long. The second half becomes tedious and the characters get increasingly hackneyed towards the end.
The film, nevertheless, makes us laugh. It reminds us of many things we ourselves have encountered growing up, but we either forget them or we ignore them as we grow older and get caught in the rat race. Give it a watch.
This was originally published in the Herald's June 2017 issue under the headline "Language barrier". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.