Ms. Representation: Social justice, in its heart
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week it is Rani Mukherji's character Naina Mathur in Hichki
Hichki, starring Rani Mukerji isn’t just about her character’s Tourrete Syndrome, as has been touted. The film, in fact, is a metaphor for privilege and the way it operates, one well used to drive home the message of social justice, in among the most nuanced writing on the topic one has seen from Bollywood.
Hichki becomes the first mainstream Bollywood film to wade in to the Right to Education (RTE) debate. And it does so without the in-your-face messaging, while also staying true to the High-School-Teacher-Student genre that one has seen in Hollywood for long. Naina Mathur has Tourette’s and wants to be a teacher very badly. She knows it pays pittance and perhaps that’s why she has a part-time job as an animator. She wants to teach, so that she can pay-it-forward— the kindness one good teacher bestowed on her has stayed with her all along, after having been tossed around schools all her life. ‘Life is a circle,’ her mother says to Naina when she’s called back to St. Notker’s as a teacher, out of the blue, in the middle of the term.
As she walks towards her assigned class, Naina realises, she’s there for a reason. The school has its own caste system. The class she’s going to teach is 9F, has clearly been designed as a way to mark these students out and keep them ‘separate’. And as she learns in her little walk from the Principal’s office to her assigned empty class, 9A is filled with the ‘best students’ while 9F is home to kids who have come in through the RTE Act. Not without benefit to the school —these children were going to a Municipal school whose land was usurped by Notker’s for its playground in exchange for seats for the children who studied there, all of whom come for the nearby slums.
The plot revolves around Rani rallying for the kids, getting them to trust her and then helping them turn the fears weighing them down into the very things helping them soar. Her own character, too, goes through a journey – as she finally gets her father’s approval and he says he’s proud of her.
The film places a mirror in front the upper classes and castes, and asks them what makes them so uncomfortable about sharing their classrooms with ‘these’ children. Mr Wadia, a teacher with a preference for 9A, and a strong belief that only this class deserves the ‘Prefect-ship’, and the ability to win science projects stands in as a metaphor for the larger society’s ideas of merit and disdain for reservation.
The film features perhaps Rani Mukherjee’s finest performance, particularly in one scene where she’s frustrated and literally in a corner. The jury is still out in the debate over casting an able bodied actor in the role of someone with disabilities. Personally, I think casting someone with Tourette syndrome would have lent the film what it needed the more of, an air of authenticity, although I am not sure about the visibility it would have received then.
The gaze of the film, what it chooses to focus on and what not, also showcases very high self-awareness. Nothing is spoken of her love life, for instance. Because it’s none of our business so far as this plot is concerned. When Naina goes to the students’ homes, she’s allowed a moment or two of privilege – that typical ‘oh wow, I feel bad. I am lost here, etc,’ before the gaze is inverted. One of her students, working at a puncture shop, fails to engage with her and instead gives her a look of utter disapproval. Naina walks away. There are no explanations. She had no business being there with that look on her face. And she knows it. In the end though, when Naina says everyone’s got their own ‘tic’ (hichki), it does gloss over the needs of people with disabilities by trying to paint everyone as being the same. Not all of us are equally disadvantaged. Some people are more disadvantaged than others.
As the film draws to an end, in a wonderful twist, two girls from 9F make ‘Prefect-ship’, having aced the exams, a mixed group of students wins at the Science Fair and the ‘arrogant’ boy from 9A turns in his shiny, ‘Prefect’ badge that he has worn with smugness all along, after being taught a lesson. That badge might as well as read ‘Privilege’. In my reading, Hichki is a call for social justice, to follow the RTE in its spirit, for the privileged to make way so that the oppressed may find that ‘escape velocity’ through education. The film answers the question that elite schools seem so very worried about —how can our kids get along with ‘those’ kids? With images of all the kids getting along just fine. Each aware of the disadvantages society has put them in and privileges, society has accorded them with.