Raj (Irrfan Khan) and Mita (Saba Qamar) are a young, married couple who have lived in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk their entire life. They are financially well to do (Raj owns a garment boutique in Old Delhi) and happily in love. Trouble starts brewing in their paradise as they get ready to admit their daughter Pia into nursery class in a good school. It’s not about getting Pia into just any school either, it’s about securing the jackpot that is a nursery admission seat in one of the city’s top 5 schools. Preferably the most notable among them – Delhi Grammar School.
As the couple soon learns, even with all the money and the contacts, it is no easy task. One of the reasons is that Raj cannot speak English, an unstated requirement for parents in the schools. This, however, doesn’t stop the couple from trying every trick in the book to get a foot in the door.
They start with switching neighbourhoods and moving to a ‘posh’ South Delhi locality. Then, they change their friends and even their lifestyle. They throw parties just to try and fit into an English-speaking society. They try bribing officials and contacting politicians. When being rich doesn’t work, they feign poverty, fudging documents and moving into a slum, to get their daughter admitted in the 25 percent EWS quota under the Right to Education act.
But just why are the parents willing to go through so much trouble for a school, one may wonder. Well, because, as is explained to Raj, “English isn’t just a language in India, it is a class and in order to get into that class, it is essential to get into a good school.” It’s also a major premise of the movie, a message that the movie seeks to continuously debunk throughout its duration through some feel-good comedy and incisive social commentary.
Anyone who has experienced the harrowing gauntlet that is the Delhi nursery admission process will find themselves identifying with Raj and Mita’s story (even if the humor seems a bit exaggerated at times). In that sense, the movie does manage to do a good job of capturing the havoc that the nursery admission season wreaks on thousands of parents each year.
But the movie is about much more than just the nursery admission process. Through Raj and Mita’s journey, the viewer also gets to see a ring side view of the various problems afflicting the country’s education system today – the business of private school education, the donation culture that it thrives on, and the total breakdown of public funded education that forces most parents to give in to this culture, in the absence of an alternative.
Both Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar deliver powerful performances with impeccable comic timing as the quintessential Old Delhi couple trying their best to fit into a society they clearly don’t belong to. Zeenat Lakhani’s dialogues lift the movie, managing to convey a very serious message through some light hearted humor that keeps you entertained throughout.
The only letdown? The plot gets a little predictable towards the end, and we are left wondering if the makers couldn’t have done better in that department. Ultimately, though, it is the message of the movie that saves the day.
By taking the viewer on a journey through two very different Indias, the movie exposes the divide that separates the rich from the poor, the urban from the rural, the Hindi speaking from the English speaking, the India from the Bharat. It reveals the skewed reality we live in where fluent English marks you as ‘modern, fashionable and worthy of respect’, and the inability to do so condemns you to the backroom and makes you a second class citizen.
Because “Hindi-Medium”, despite its name, is not just about English or Hindi. The language is just the placeholder. It is breezy, light-hearted cinema that urges us to re-examine our own place in society in light of our privileged existences.