The right job. The right address. The right school. For some cognizanti, there are hallmarks of success. In the peculiar form of Indian affluenza, however, a couple of other idioms can also be tossed in. Borrowing from both Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee’s Bengali entry Ramdhanu (2014) and also Rajesh Nair’s Malayalam language comedy Salt Mango Tree (2015), Chaudhary and company spin the same theme to come up with a sharp satire of India’s education system and also the tools for equal opportunity embedded therein to level the field for more applicants.
For successful Delhi dress shop owner Raj Batra (Khan) and his wife Meeta (Qamar), the chase to enroll their four-year old daughter to the right school is in full gear. The daughter is academically gifted and, provided they land a coveted spot on the admission list, the couple can easily afford any of the top-rated schools. This should be a slam dunk. Not so fast. Why so, the Batras ask the admissions “coach” hired to chaperone them through the cut-throat jungle of competitive pre-school —yes, pre-school and not high school let alone college admissions. The teensy problem is that the Batras’ shop is located in Chandni Chowk, a famed, teeming old Delhi neighborhood which happens to fail the “criteria” the top-rated schools desire in Indian zip codes for where they recruit from.
The Batras find themselves in a social minefield trip-wired with landmines comprised of judgmental playground tart-mommies and show-off party attendees whose weapon of choice is accusatory, disapproving visual darts. The Batras’ limited command of English is used against them as amounting to not only a necessity for communication in the modern world—which it truly is—but even more heavily as a moral flaw. For wannabe social ladder climbers, this is precisely the doctrine the British used against Indians when mandating English-first on sub-continent curriculums in the 19th century; that the Indians could not be considered “civilized” if they were to only use their indigenous languages. Thumbing its nose at that very notion, therefore, makes the brilliantly self-reliant title Hindi Medium, and not English Medium, sparkle even more.
The Batras’ greatest “shortcoming” is not where they live or how they dress but it is their limited command of English. India has by far the largest number of half-English speakers in the world, thanks to its colonial legacy. Many Indians routinely weave in and out of English interspersed with a local language and knowing even a few words of English can rightfully be a source of pride for them. Maddening as that can sound, it is essentially a charm Indians use to open up their country to outsiders—indeed, no tourist with even a rudimentary grasp of English would ever get lost in India or be made to feel unwelcome in asking for directions. That is the Indian spirit at its raw best—adapt or adopt, mingle and move on.
So how does a family cope? Can one move to a more desirable locale? That would have commuting pitfalls for sure. Can one overcome the mean, iron-fisted headmistress (Singh) who controls admissions at one school? The dimming chances of successfully assailing the awkward yet mandatory “interview” required of applicant parents could put chances of landing admission fair to middling at best and disastrous at worst. Can one find a way to apply through the interview-free quota system used to encourage economically disadvantaged students to apply? As funny as that could be, mind you, it could just spiral into an unintended yet perhaps telling experiment in downward social mobility. For the Batras, the angry gods have laid out a meticulously perfect and cruel parent trap.
In superb lead, Khan is all fidgety with his English diction and provincial mannerism while Qamar, a Pakistani beauty making her Indian debut, nails the neurotic urbanite intent on outshining all her poser so-called girlfriends. Singh as the dowdy schoolmarm and especially Dobriyal as the factory worker that may impart for Raj a lesson in humility round out a fine cast. With Sachin-Jigar’s decent score—check out Atif Aslam’s romantic “Noor” and Guru Randhawa and Arjun’s catchy “Suit Suit” —and tremendous plot pacing, Hindi Medium rekindles all the insightful, observant and fun reasons for going to the movies.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.