Tag Archives: Tillotama Shome

Movie Review: Hindi Medium (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

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Hindi Medium strikes a perfect balance between the academic and the emotional, humorously illustrating how the class system impacts education.

While the title refers to the language of instruction — Hindi versus English — the film’s lessons translate internationally. The story is as relevant to America as it is to India, so audiences worldwide can easily connect with the material.

Raj (Irrfan Khan) and Mita Batra (Saba Qamar) own a successful bridal store in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk neighborhood. Though they have plenty of money, overprotective Mita worries that their middle-class status will limit future opportunities for their preschool-aged daughter, Pia (cute Dishita Sehgal). Mita convinces her reluctant husband to move to a fancier neighborhood, hoping that will help Pia gain entrance to one of the city’s prestigious elementary schools.

While the family has the money to afford their lifestyle upgrade, they lack the cultural and social capital to take advantage of it. Raj’s local tastes in music and food embarrass Mita in front of the Continental types she wants to befriend. Kids ignore Pia because she’s not English-fluent. When the Batras ask the few influential people they do know for help, they’re told that personal recommendations are taboo among this set. Bribery? Don’t even think about it.

There are myriad codes and status signifiers that Raj and Mitra don’t know about and have no hope of mastering, even with the help of a professional school-placement coach (Tillotama Shome). On top of that is an absurd layer of bureaucracy instituted by the schools simply because they can.

The most damning indictment of the class system is when the coach shares with them a common placement interview question for parents: “How will you introduce the concept of poverty to your child?” The children at these elite schools are so privileged and sheltered that they’ve never encountered a poor person, even in a city as crowded as Delhi.

The poor people from a nearby neighborhood already know that the system is rigged against anyone not from the upper crust, something Raj and Mita gradually realize for themselves. The couple finds a loophole when they learn that twenty-five percent of the spots at the elite schools are reserved for economically underprivileged students, who compete for spots via a lottery. The Batras decide to pose as poor temporarily in order to win one of the lottery spots, shifting house once again.

Writer-director Saket Chaudhary depicts the Batra’s behavior as reprehensible, but almost logical, using humor to ensure that the audience never loses affection for the characters. The Batra’s economic and social standing puts them in a uniquely desperate situation, especially within India where job inheritance within families is common. They’re successful enough to envision a broader future for their daughter beyond the walls of a Chandi Chowk bridal boutique, but doing so means breaking out of entrenched class hierarchy.

Chaudhary deserves kudos for the way he illustrates complex ideas like class and social capital, but particularly so for how he explains the importance of public schools — an ideal that mainstream American conservatives and liberals alike have forgotten, thanks to intense marketing by the for-profit charter school industry. The head of the local government school explains to the Batras that, when middle- and upper-class families put their children in private schools, it deprives the public schools of resources.

The director also makes an important point about poverty through the character of Shyam (Deepak Dobriyal), a kind neighbor who helps the Batras adjust to their newly “poor” status. “Living in poverty is an art,” he explains, as he and his wife Tulsi (Swati Das) teach Raj and Mita a whole new set of social skills appropriate for their diminished standing. Shyam insists that the poor don’t want charity, they want their rights. Just using the word “rights” scoffs at the idea that “opportunity” is enough.

Hindi Medium falls prey to some of the pitfalls of the Bollywood “issue movie” formula. There’s an awkwardly placed song number that interrupts the build-up to the climax, which is Raj giving a speech that no one has any reason to listen to. Chaudhary tries to invert the cliché with a twist on the requisite audience “slow clap,” but that’s trying to have it both ways.

Thanks to his immense talent, Khan comes out of this speech unscathed, the movie cementing his status as the thinking-person’s leading man of choice. Qamar handles Mita’s complexities beautifully, making even her most maddening qualities understandable. Yet another thing director Chaudhary does well is writing every character with their own goals and motivations. Having accomplished performers like Dobriyal and Amrita Singh (as the prep school principal) in supporting roles certainly helps.

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Movie Review: Turning 30 (2011)

Zero Stars (out of 4)

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Writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava wanted her debut film Turning 30 to portray young, urban Indian women in a fun yet realistic way. I hope Shrivastava’s portrayal is inaccurate, because the female characters in Turning 30 are pitiable.

Days before her 30th birthday, Naina (Gul Panag) seems to have an ideal life: a house, a good job at an ad agency and a boyfriend, Rishabh (Sid Makkar), who’s ready to propose. When Naina’s ideas are stolen at work and Rishabh abruptly breaks up with her, Naina falls apart.

This is a fine set up for a story, but a set up is all it should be. Instead, Naina’s despair over her unsettled life is the story of Turning 30. Any time she sees or thinks about Rishabh, Naina gets a forlorn look in her eye and cries in the rain. She begs him to take her back, accosts his parents and belabors anyone who will listen about how lost she is without Rishabh and how she doesn’t know what to do with her life. It’s pathetic.

That’s not to say Naina’s reaction is unrealistic. It’s just that being sad isn’t the interesting part of getting dumped: it’s how a person gets over it. Naina doesn’t make any attempt to get over Rishabh or take charge of her career until the last fifteen minutes of this two-hour movie. Her plight devolves from dull to excruciating.

After Naina is dumped, she quickly rebounds into a sexual relationship with her ex-boyfriend, Jai (Purab Kohli), a successful artist who’s ready to settle down. Despite knowing that Jai’s in love with her, Naina sleeps with him repeatedly, but always with the caveat that she’s not over Rishabh yet — as though her honesty absolves her from leading him on.

This level of self-absorption would almost be forgivable if Naina were a nice person, but she’s not. In addition to her cruel treatment of Jai, she’s short-tempered with her mother, her maid, and her coworkers. When her friend, Malini (Tillotama Shome), breaks down in tears and discloses that she’s a lesbian, Naina looks at her as though she’s a freak and makes no attempt to comfort her.

As uninspiring a heroine as Naina is, Shrivastava is almost misogynistic in the way she writes Naina’s other best pal, Ruksana (Jeneva Talwar). Ruksana discovers her husband is cheating on her at the same time she learns that she’s pregnant. The pregnancy temporarily puts a halt to hubby’s wandering, but he strays again as soon as the baby is born. Ruksana tells Naina and Malini that her husband’s cheating no longer bothers her, now that she has a baby to love her.

Excuse me?

What’s worse is that Naina and Malini don’t even challenge Ruksana. No “you deserve better than that” pep talk. Just a shrug and an “as long as you’re happy” that seems to indicate that this is to be expected.

So, in a nutshell, Shrivastava’s realistic portrayal of the life of a modern Indian woman amounts to this: Get educated. Get a job. Land a husband before you get too old/before the unrelenting parental pressure to marry becomes unbearable/before he finds somebody with more money. Get knocked up and quit your job. Hubby will (and, judging by the women in this movie, maybe should) ditch you for a younger, hotter woman. But, hey, at least you’ve got a baby.

Why bother?

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