When I saw the trailer for Rani Mukerji’s Hichki, I assumed this was going to be all of the classism/racism/casteism of Michelle Pfeiffer’s 1995 Dangerous Minds + Tourette Syndrome, a neurological condition from which Mukerji’s character, Naina Mathur suffers. And it was, but in a surprisingly good way that explored both tropes, living with disability and the way caste and class oppression can play out in schools.
Hichki’s trailer, and the legions of unruly school kids meet reformatory schoolteacher books and movies that came before it, made me believe that this would be a straightforward story about a teacher with Tourette’s, cruel children, and their transformation into better students and people thanks to the ministrations of their kind, upper class teacher.
Given that I’d thought the movie was all about Tourette’s, I was also pretty annoyed to glean that the kids Mathur was in charge of, and therefore the kids who would necessarily be shown making fun of her condition, were all underprivileged children who had been brought into the posh St. Notker’s School in Mumbai by the RTE Act. Why use this classist trope of poor kids being rude and cruel to highlight Mathur’s suffering, when all kids can be cruel and just as effective in creating some hurt and pain to overcome together later in the movie?
Thankfully, that wasn’t it at all. Sure, it is the section comprising entirely of students who were admitted under the RTE Act, 9F, that Mathur has to teach, and you don’t see any of the other students ever being rude to Mathur in the movie, but the 9A (read, upper class, upper caste, anaemic looking class topper) kids do more than enough to show themselves up as really gross human beings, and this is where the crux and climax of this movie actually lie.
The movie isn’t a portrayal of the “bad manners” and rudeness of economically oppressed kids. In fact, the 9A kids come across as much more genuinely detestable.
And while it is indeed a story of an upper-class woman “saving” lower class children, the nice thing about the way Hichki does it is that she isn’t saving them from themselves. She never once teaches them anything about manners, clothes, bearing or any of the other things you see, say ER Braithwaite teach his kids in To Sir, With Love. Mathur teaches her students physics, and maths, and chemistry, not deportment or speech or anything like that.
She’s “saving” them, but from an inability to access education, and from the others who are out to deliberately bring them down. This small addition does go some way in setting Hichki apart from other stories like it.
You only wish the stark economic difference between Mathur and her students hadn’t been highlighted quite so much. The scenes where Mathur goes to the basti where her students live (to take house-call PTA meetings), for example, was a nice addition to the film, because it showed how the parents of 9F were unable to come to the school themselves because they were all so hard at work, and unlike the privileged parents of the other kids, simply couldn’t take the time to come to the school. But you wish they hadn’t felt the need to include a scene where she looks surprised and horrified as people jostle past her and bump her shoulder as they rush to the water tank, or always have her family meet pretty much only in funky restaurants.
Surprisingly, Tourette’s doesn’t play as huge a role in the movie as one would think. Mathur suffers from it, the movie is named after the noises she makes, but it’s more a passing detail among many others, like Mathur’s cheerful straigthtforward-ness, or her rocky relationship with her dad (who apparently left the whole family when she was a child because he felt “sad” he couldn’t “cure” her of Tourette’s.)
Perhaps the lack of overt fixation on Tourette’s is slightly unexpected in a movie named Hichki, but pleasantly so—while it would have been interesting to see a female character explore what it means to live with this kind of condition, it’s also pretty satisfying to see a movie centre around such a character without essentialising her disability or pretending that nothing else matters in her life. And the rest of the plot is interesting anyway.
Mukerji, unsurprisingly, delivers a straight-forward and emotive performance, so natural that you don’t really know what else to say about it, but the kids, particularly the class topper Arundhati and resident glue-sniffing bad boy Aatish (who Anne MM Vetticad, writing for Firstpost, delightfully reminds us is National Award winner Harsh Mayar, who won for his role of Chhotu in Nila Madhab Panda’s I Am Kalam (2011)), really own this movie. Their performances are sharp, utterly believable and really satisfying to watch.
In fact, the kids are so good you even feel like forgiving the weirdest scene of the movie, where the kids track Mathur down and troop into the fancy coffee shop she’s sitting in to apologise. The otherwise consistently excellent Aatish is forced to deliver the only inauthentic speech in the film. After this improbably dramatic apology, the students all call Mathur the Pole Star and raise their hands in a weird Heil Hitler-looking salute of gratitude towards her (it is apparently how sailors raised their hands to the sky to navigate using stars in the olden days).
The thing is, the movie would have been equally emotional, and it’s cheerful, uplifting plot largely unaffected, if Mathur had not been from such a pointedly different class than her students, and you wish the filmmakers didn’t exhibit such a dogged dedication to highlighting it.