It is a great tragedy that Irrfan Khan is not the biggest star in India. Over decades, the man has brought life to his roles, stayed away from embarrassing caricatures, and has been bold enough to call Bollywood out on its bullshit.
It pains me that Irrfan still has to act in smaller budget films, competing with headache-inducing monstrosities like “Half Girlfriend”.
But a few minutes into watching him on screen, I was glad he wasn’t a mega superstar.
“Hindi Medium” drives home a topic that we are all aware of. English prejudice.
The Britishers took away not only our resources but also our pride in our native languages. This thought pains me for two reasons:
1. As a comic, most English stand-up in India is limited to elite, urban spaces. In most shows, half the jokes are on poor English. We are so comfortable with our privilege that we mock those without it.
2. As someone who grew up in a lower-middle-class household, English helped me enter social circles that my economic status wouldn’t. It’s something I am guilty of.
I walked into the hall with this baggage, only to have Irrfan Khan blow my mind in the first few minutes. There is a gentle casualness about Irrfan’s acting. Unlike most of our stars, he is not loud, striking, or garish. He does not require the showmanship of a lion or the exhibitionism of a tiger. Irrfan has the lazy elegance of a cheetah. He does not roar or leap at you through introduction shots. He waits and he purrs, and he traps you and then snarls. Such is his conviction in the role, that he mutters his punchlines, sometimes whispers them – and still has the audience laughing hysterically. What a joy it is to see this man on screen!
Director Saket Chaudhary and writer Zeenath Lakhani give him the best lines, and the field to play his shots. It helps that Irrfan is surrounded by a stellar cast of actors. My perennial crush Tillotama Shome plays an education consultant with such aplomb, Irrfan himself takes a backseat.
Deepak Dobriyal, who appears on the screen to hoots and whistles, walks a tightrope on a role that could so easily slip into caricature. And yet, he steers his role so well, you cheer him on as he takes sharp turns on the bend.
And finally, Pakistani actress Saba Qamar brings from across the border an unbridled feistiness to her role. She is petty and high-strung and lovely and strong and vulnerable at the same time, and is an absolute joy to watch. It’s a good thing they didn’t cast an Indian actress, for most Indian heroines have stock expressions to scenes.
When they come together, this fantastic ensemble of actors elevates this story into an immensely watchable film, even if the writers let the story run wild.
If there is any grouse against the film, it is that the director and writer allow the film to meander about like a drunk cow in the second half. The plot points shift without giving the audience any notice, and it is up to the actors to amp up their performance in reaction. This could partly be due to the fact that the film has already been made twice before, in Bengali and Malayalam, and perhaps the writers were staying true to the original story.
“Hindi Medium” also left me wondering if the Indian practice of adding an interval in the middle of the film is the reason our films are so bad. Imagine the plight of the writers – they have to create an engaging story, only to have a 20-minute break where people buy cola and popcorn, and children run to the toilet, and ads of Vicco Vajradanti play on the screen!
The writers then have to draw the audience back into the story, and this is where most Indian films falter. People walk out of the theatre, mouthing brilliant lines like – “First half mast hai. Second half tatti hai (The first half is awesome. The second half is shit).” But they will not let go of popcorn and coca cola for 15 minutes in the film!
Be that as it may, the actors of “Hindi Medium” elevate the story with their honest performances. Go watch the film to see Hindi cinema’s finest leading man paint a canvas for you. Watch him play audacious shots, and touch risky notes.
Also, watch the film for Saba Qamar’s terrific performance.
But mostly, watch “Hindi Medium” because as you read this, the film is losing out to “Half Girlfriend”.
A version of this post was previously published on the author’s blog.