Hichki views the poor as threatening outsiders

Hichki views the poor as threatening outsiders

Hichki views the poor as threatening outsiders

The story of a dedicated teacher bringing unruly students around and the story of a disadvantaged person succeeding are different, and Siddharth Malhotra's Hichki's greatest achievement is that it combines the two into one quite plausibly.

The female protagonist suffers from 'Tourette's syndrome,' which also featured briefly in last year's Cannes winner The Square. It causes uncontrollable nervous tics which in Hichki causes people to laugh out. This side of Hichki, which has attracted most critical attention, is predictable. The story of the teacher winning over her students is more interesting.  As in films like To Sir with Love, the unruly students transformed by Naina (Rani Mukherji) come from the slums, but Hichki put them in an elite school, where they are admitted under the RTE Act. Naina, after being refused employment repeatedly, finds a job at St Notker's High School as a replacement. Fourteen students admitted to Class 9F are so unmanageable that the person assigned to them has gone on indefinite leave and the students are without a teacher.

The way of assigning students and teachers to classes at St Notker's is apparently hierarchical. The best students are all put into Class 9A while the poor students are clubbed together in Class 9F. Instead of circulating each teacher among the classes on the basis of subject expertise, 9F is reserved for Naina who must teach every subject. This distribution scheme may have been intended to extract drama out of Naina's story but it also places 'poor students' in a special zoological category, with Naina as their keeper.

When Naina sees them for the first time, they seem a treacherous lot. The boys smoke or play cards while the girls appear no less wild. One of them, for instance, is carrying a wire cage with two enormous rats as pets. Girls are usually uncomfortable with rodents but the film tries to show that slum girls are different. The students, boys and girls, are all threatening, but that is not Naina's viewpoint. She watches them affectionately, and it is the film that views them as threatening. What is important here is that the students in the other classes are disciplined and easy to manage.

In a school in which order runs exceptionally high, the unmanageable poor seem like untamed beasts amidst an assembly of normal children. A boy from Class 9F destroys a football with a compass from a geometry box, as its genteel owner watches. This sense of menace is actualised by the sexual innuendo that follows---posters put up with Naina's picture and phone number announcing her 'loneliness'. School children have never
before been shown in Hindi cinema as capable of such things.

Later in the film, Naina needs to visit the children at home when their parents don't show up for a PTA meeting. Then we see that the children of Class 9F are actually employed in various kinds of activity, like fixing punctures, spray-painting cars or selling vegetables. Even the most difficult is usefully employed, but the film still thinks it fit to suggest they are outside the law as the police pursue them hopelessly. Their transformation through Naina's kindness is therefore akin to a pacification process; at the conclusion, we see an older Naina retiring as principal of St Notker's, and being met by her former students now 'respectably' attired in middle-class clothes. They have been inducted into the 'mainstream'.

The portrayal of the poor as 'threatening' and needing to be pacified is a new development for Hindi cinema because they were generally (eg Madhur Bhandarkar's Traffic Signal, 2007) treated only as victims.

Though Hichki tries to see them sympathetically and as products of social wrongs, their primary characteristic is their quasi-criminal nature, a characteristic that unites all the children, including the girls. That they are 'brought into the mainstream' may be my insinuation but that is the sense to be got.

Because of the multiplex revolution, many of the smaller films are meant for a more affluent public and Hichki tells us quite a bit about this public. While comprising less than 10% of India's populace, it views the remaining 90% as essentially lawless outsiders, and a threat to the 'socio-economic mainstream' in India. Now, that view I would regard as a distinct threat to the nation's egalitarian principles.

(The author is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). His interest in Indian society, politics and culture informs his books on film. )