Hichki: A Cliche-Ridden Film that Underserves Rani’s Comeback

Bollywood

Hichki: A Cliche-Ridden Film that Underserves Rani’s Comeback

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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here’s a scene halfway through Siddharth P Malhotra’s Hichki that is a fine example of the vivid vulnerability that Rani Mukherji is capable of. Rani plays Naina Mathur, a newly appointed teacher with Tourette Syndrome tasked with teaching – rather surviving – the “notorious” bunch of 9F, a class of 14 slum kids enrolled at the elite St Notker’s High School.

The scene comes in the aftermath of her unruly students destroying the science fair project and being suspended from the school premises until the final exams. After conveying their predicament to the punished students, a defeated Naina runs to the farthest corner of the school, struck by a severe case of vocal tics that result in her making involuntary loud grunts that sound like hiccups. As she vigorously tries to quieten down, the helplessness of the situation grips her and she breaks drown, hitting the window railings in her anger. It is to the actress’ credit that she easily infuses her breakdown with flashes of frustration and sadness solely through her expressions.

This poignant scene is evidence of the versatility and acting prowess that Rani — who returns to Bollywood after four years can still boast of. Unfortunately, this scene that exploits Rani’s propensity to evoke emotions is also an exception in a film that’s otherwise riddled with cliches and hoists a weak character on its lead.

Hichki ends up being a film that inspires at the cost of exploiting the reality of the poverty-stricken.

Hichki, in a way, comes off as a reversal of Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par: Naina is a headstrong but generic underdog whose template to defy all odds is as predictable as it gets; there’s a well-meaning principal (a sleep-walking Shiv Subramaniam), a rebel student, an absent overbearing father (Sachin Pilgaonkar), and an evil snooty teacher (Neeraj Kabi). Take the Tourette’s out and Hichki is School of Rock meets To Sir, with Love.

While it is indeed laudable for a mainstream film to normalise a neuropsychiatric disorder and goad introspection on a society that discriminates individuals with disabilities, Hichki also does a massive disservice to Rani Mukherji. This is an actress who has given one of Hindi cinema’s finest performances as Michelle McNally, a blind and deaf girl from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (no matter what your feelings about the film). Come to think of it, she’s also one of the few heroines from the ’90s who has successfully managed to adapt to the grammar of modern Bollywood. Look no further than her mercurial turn as a feisty police officer investigating human trafficking in Mardaani for proof. And, this is also an actress who elevates every frame that she inhabits in Hichki, a few notches higher with her empathy, charm, and luminous screen presence.

But there’s only so much heft she can afford a half-baked role.

In a way, Hichki suffers from the same condition that afflicts most films with a social message: a severe case of good intentions that justifies the lack of risks. In numerous interviews and promotions for Hichki before its release, its makers and its lead have gone hoarse about the film’s aim to use Tourette Syndrome as a “metaphor for overcoming obstacles and discrimination in life.”

Hichki Movie Review

Hichki, in a way, comes off as a reversal of Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par: Naina is a headstrong but generic underdog whose template to defy all odds is as predictable as it gets.

Image Credit: Yash Raj Films

It is then ironic that the film resorts to doing what it claims to fight: abject discrimination. Invoking the RTE Act (similar to last year’s Hindi Medium), the film houses a neglected class of slum kids in a school that segregates students in classes based solely on the marks on their answer papers. It could have been an unusual device used to lay bare the duplicity of the Indian education system that prioritises rote learning, limits honours such as “prefectship” to a select few, and looks down on financially impoverished students. But Hichki stops short of capturing something very accurate about the dichotomy of elite Indian schools by painting the class of 14 students in broad stereotypical strokes that come off as offensive, if not classist.

For instance, all of the slum kids are shown as disinterested in securing an education until Naina walks into their life; they either place bets, smoke, abuse, exhibit their angst through a rap (which obviously mentions Dharavi) or are behind every prank or fight in school. Not only are they not allowed to have any redeeming trait, but are also chosen to be the ones disciplined. The unruly bunch are made to look the part too: their uniforms are dishevelled and they’re either annoyingly obedient or aggressively rebellious.

In fact, the school’s arrogant teacher actually goes as far as referring to 9F as “municipality garbage” while the camera focuses its privileged gaze on giving us a tour (and a lesson) of the slum these students reside in. Even the bit about them being brought to the right path by a teacher with a neuropsychiatric disorder seems a little contrived. Are we to understand that only the disenfranchised need educating? The message that Hichki claims to ride on would have been no different had these students been a part of a class where they coexist with “normal students”. And, yet the film chooses to alienate them.

Hichki ends up being a film that inspires at the cost of exploiting the reality of the poverty-stricken. And if not for Rani Mukherji, it might have not even managed to get pass marks.

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