India (2018) Dir. Siddharth Malhotra
Living with any kind of disability is hard, whether it causes serious physical and mental impendence, or is a neurological condition resulting in relatively minor discomfort. The biggest struggle is not so much the condition itself but the acceptance in a society where the natural reaction from other people is to either mock or ignore.
Naina Mathur (Rani Mukerji) has everything going for her – attractive, kind, bubbly personality, determined, and academically gifted to degree level. However, in the five years since graduating as a teacher, Naina has been unable to secure a teaching job because she has Tourette Syndrome, her tics and odd noises being seen as a hurdle as much for the students as Naina herself.
After five attempts applying with her alma mater St. Notker’s School, Naina is finally offered a job there, the principal (Shivkumar Subramaniam) having no issue with Naina’s Tourette’s. Naina is given class 9-F, made up of unruly students she gradually wins over with her empathy upon discovering they are all from the slums, and treated like pariahs by the other kids and class 9-A teacher Mr. Wadia (Neeraj Kabi).
Hichki literally translates to “hiccup” which is one of the sounds Naina makes when her Tourette’s strikes the other being like a dog yap, accompanied by a jerky movement of rubbing the underside of her chin with the back of her hand. If we learn anything from this film, it is Tourette’s doesn’t always mean the random shouting of profane language per its usual depiction for cruel comedy laughs.
This film is in fact a translocated remake of a US TV movie Front Of The Class which in turn is based on the autobiography Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had by Brad Cohen, though the story has had a major overhaul. This is partially due to the relocation of the setting along with shifting the focus onto the students as well as the teacher.
It is never easy to make a drama on a sensitive subject like Tourette’s without being succumbing to one of the two extremes – being too preachy about teasing sufferers or using it too much for comic effect and end up being cruel. The idea here is to tell two stories about social acceptance in which the adult saviour to the kids isn’t pontificating through any sense of righteousness but because she knows whereof she speaks.
Poverty really shouldn’t be grounds for discrimination but privileged people do tend to grow up with a putrid sense of entitlement sadly endemic across all scenarios in life. Mr. Wadia may scoff at Naina’s chances of being to control a class like 9-F but his real grip is having this slovenly lot in this prestigious school, which is simply a political consideration by the government to help the underprivileged.
Mr. Wadia is the villain of the story, his snobbish, dismissive attitudes shared by many of the students, explaining why 9-F are rebelling against a system that doesn’t want them. The chief troublemaker is Aatish (Harsh Mayar), quick to seek revenge against anyone who crosses him, and the last to warm to Naina. He of course has a crush on one of the clever girls in 9-A which may be reciprocated for the obligatory Romeo and Juliet riff but this remains an undercooked subplot.
Such antagonism is rife throughout the film, which Naina valiantly tries to quash, but progress is regularly halted thanks to the class’s behaviour. When it reaches breaking point and looks like the class won’t be able to pass their exams as wagered by Naina with her job on the line, Aatish stands alone in his rebellion until a much needed wake-up call see him get his act together.
With a script that throws little in the way of surprises at us, following every convention to the letter just as you expect them to, the parts which remain from Cohen’s own tale involve Naina’s family life. Like Cohen, Naina’s parents are divorced, her father (Sachin Pilgaonkar) walking out because he couldn’t handle Naina’s affliction, leaving her mother (Supriya Pilgaonkar – yes they’re a real life couple) to raise Naina and younger brother (Hussain Dalal) alone.
Now as adults, Naina is still being told she shouldn’t be a teacher by her father and gives her little support when things get bad, a personal conflict she hides from the class and carries with grace when receiving the same treatment from Mr. Wadia. Because the focus of the story is shared with the plight of the class, these are only fleeting moments which seem to put Naina on the backburner, the only bounding factor being Naina is the one suffering for the class playing up.
Curiously in this modern day setting, the amount of people Naina meets who have no idea what Tourette’s is suggests it is either very rare in India or a deliberate ploy to make Naina more sympathetic. Regardless, the message sent is positive and clear – it is not the disability that defines a person or limits them, just the ignorance of others, which can also apply to the kids, reminding us where you come from has no bearing on what you can achieve.
Rani Mukerji is one of India’s most popular and bankable stars and it is easy to see why, with her infectious energy, general amiability, and consistency in which she applies the tics. Since Bollywood is known portraying their woman as impossibly beautiful, it is nice to see a woman so realistically rounded and relatable, only slightly undermined by some of the male kids looking much older with their facial hair!
Hichki is quite a moralistic film that stays on the right side of being didactic, only slipping occasionally to force a point home each time Naina proves Mr. Wadia wrong. Otherwise, this is every bit the gorgeously shot, well-acted, feel-good, tears and redemption drama perfect for a Sunday afternoon.