When Raj, a father who joins a queue late in the night for school admission forms, states that it’s madness to see a fellow parent waiting in line from midnight, sleeping in a bag in the queue to hold his own spot, and having to come prepared with a plastic bag in case nature calls, merely to collect the said form, he is greeted with the response: “It’s not madness, it’s school admissions.”
Earlier that day, Raj is shopping for a new television. At the store, he watches a news presenter describe the Delhi school nursery admissions as the city’s biggest race for parents, not just a typical marathon. A total of 1,400 schools will begin passing out admission forms, the presenter says, ending his telecast with “Let’s see which parents win this race.”
And so, Raj and 253 other fathers—more join the queue early in the morning—are in line to collect forms from top-ranked Delhi Grammar School for their children. So begins the rat race for Raj and his wife Miththo (Saba Qamar) as they seek a top school for their daughter Piya. These are parents who want their children to not suffer through the problems they went through as students of a Hindi medium government school whose education Miththo in particular feels was subpar. She, and later Raj, believe that a top English-medium school will open up opportunities for Piya, which Miththo herself was deprived of. Raj, in a couple of tragicomic moments, is terrified that their daughter will turn to drugs if she doesn’t succeed in school and in life. And so, for the love of his daughter and to make his wife happy, Raj goes along with her plans.
The movie is a social commentary on the school admission system in Delhi, and, by extension, in India. The director illustrates his point without making it sound too preachy. He uses a small family that faces the absurdities of this system and the extent to which desperate parents have to go to win the mad race for English-medium education and to get entry into the elite social circle of so-called success.
Irrfan Khan is, as always, delightful with his lively acting. He plays Raj. Born and brought up in Chandni Chowk, Raj is more connected with mainstream cultural pulses and unlike his wife, he doesn’t understand the intricacies of an English medium system. He is perfectly at home in Hindi and can barely string together a full sentence in English but he is thoroughly funny and lively with his sarcastic remarks on matters relating to their daughter’s admission.
Meanwhile, one cannot help but sympathize with Saba Qamar’s heartfelt motherly instincts as she tries her hardest to maneuver her family through the admission system and ensure her daughter’s future.
Despite doing well for himself with an expanding business in Chandni Chowk, Raj and his family move homes because their residence is not close enough to the school and not in a posh enough community. When Piya’s admission applications are denied, the family move again, this time to a truly poor neighborhood, hiding their true identities to be able to apply using the “poor people quota” to get Piya into a good school. A lot hilarious moments follow along with some hard-earned lessons for the family.
At such a time, one begins to wonder what has happened to the basic values of education and the education system in this part of the world. Why is a person’s value tied up to getting into a leading school and being accepted by the English-speaking elite? Why does one’s education determine one’s status and one’s future, rather than one’s humanity, passion, compassion, and hard work to succeed in life?
It is understandable that Miththo and Raj, like most parents in general, just want their children to have the best chances in life. Nonetheless, it’s important to put a mirror up to everyone to show there needs to be a limit to the rat race, and this film is pretty good at holding up that mirror. It’s important to bring changes to a system that forgets to treat people as people. The movie aptly reminds viewers that there’s more to a person’s status than is at first perceived.
Hindi Medium makes perfect sense in the context of Bangladesh, too, as a shameful lack of respect for Bangla is rampant while the hegemonic status of English is overwhelmingly increasing. While most countries in the world prioritize their native tongues, and rightly so, we have chosen to turn the language balance upside down, and worse still, instead of feeling guilty or ashamed we feel proud of doing so.
Against such a backdrop, Hindi Medium comes as a powerful artistic expression about the absurdities of inclining toward English medium education.
Sayeeda T Ahmad is a poet and nonfiction writer. Her debut poetry collection, Across Oceans, was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2016.