Hichki Review: Well intentioned but uninteresting
The film deals says the right things, shows the right things but only at a surface level
Sidharth P. Malhotra's Hichki hits the ground running. And then keeps running for a while. Naina Mathur (Rani Mukerji) is attending an interview for the teacher's job at a school and as is the situational compulsion she's been through a million times, she must explain Tourette Syndrome to everyone like they are five years old. We get this definition multiple times. In different interviews. Naina defining it to an auditorium full of adults, herself not much older than five then. We get different reaction shots. Naina gets the job at a school named after Notker the Stammerer. A school bang in the middle of Mumbai named after a monk from what is modern day Switzerland. But for Hichki, Naina and the subjects Malhotra wants to talk about, it works. Now that we've got several versions of the definition out of the way, can we get on with the film?
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Neeraj Kabi, Supriya Pilgaonkar
Director: Sidharth P Malhotra
At Notker's, Naina is given the task of managing 9F, the section named after a loaded letter, informing the humourless nature of the person who named it. It was probably Mr. Wadia (a prim and wry Neeraj Kabi), the class teacher of 9A, gifted with gifted - economically, socially or by any measure - students. Wadia was never for the Tourette Syndrome-afflicted Naina, and her taking on 9F, made of students from underprivileged backgrounds, amuses him, and he counts down the number of days she'll survive teaching students, who, according to Wadia, don't belong there. The Right to Education term is thrown around and we meet the kids, more than just education wrapped in their minds. One of the girls might not have brought a lunch box but she has a bag of okra to chop when there is no class. Another boy is never seen without a pair of headphones, and breaks into a rap from stray phrases, clearly someone modelled on the street music scene of Mumbai, someone like Divine (aka Vivian Fernandes). As if to stress on the authenticity, we get a song with rap in Tamil that mentions Dharavi.
The first half of Hichki (written by Malhotra and Ankur Chaudhry, based on Brad Cohen’s Front of the Class) is the classic underdog film apparatus - there is the inspiration in Naina, someone who has had an experience of othering, as the only person empathetic towards the kids. The kids themselves unwelcoming of Naina, who must win them over gradually. The evil villain in Mr. Wadia who is just waiting to see Naina and her proteges fail. An ultimatum of final exams.
The practical jokes the kids pull to drive away Naina are fun and Malhotra makes sure they don't exist in vacuum. They tell Naina a few things about the kids and it becomes a learning experience for both the parties. Malhotra himself pulls off some nice touches. He makes the arbitrator, the school principal, who has to manage Naina and Wadia, concerned but cynical. There is also a fun offhand moment where the staff room pervert is the teacher who is teaching poetry. Malhotra also has two reflective sequences where the kids and Naina try to enter each other's spaces. When 9F's PTA meeting becomes a colossal failure, Naina flips the idea and visits the spaces occupied by her students. What was supposed to be a chance for the parents to get to know their kids becomes a chance for the teacher to get to know the original life of her kids and their parents. As Naina's desensitizing process becomes complete, the kids have their own. Their attitude towards Naina changes and Malhotra chooses to film their realization and acknowledgement in a posh outdoorsy coffee shop, the kind of space inhabited by Naina. The setting plays up the drama, but it establishes the meeting halfway deal between Naina and her students.
For a film that surrounds itself with disability, social inequality, caste, class and something like Right to Education, Hichki does have a cookie-cutter approach. It deals with most of these issues at a surface level, hoping we'd buy into its good intentions and empathy signalling wisdom. Its characters are lovable and Mukerji comes up with an unfussy performance that goes a long way in keeping Hichki interesting. We throw around the phrase "well calibrated performance" but in the case of Naina Mathur, there might be something literal about that. Tourette Syndrome isn't a visible disorder that, as a performer, one can understand and develop a method to perform. It is undefinable, and its tics can be intangible, so an actor can bring her own idiosyncrasies to the performance. Rani Mukerji seems to know when to let it play out, when her tics are pronounced and when to say something without an interruption from the tic. Hichki says the right things, shows the right things (there might be a redemption arc that is problematic in the end though) but it could have been more, a lot more. It is that amenable but uninteresting woke person in your social media.