The message of this film, oft repeated, is that there are no bad students; only bad teachers. This is a great sound bite, but a sweeping and inaccurate generalisation of a vocation that is based on a long and complicated process of learning, aptitude and empathy. The story is about a school teacher who miraculously turns around a classroom full of losers into achievers, and who frequently reminds her skeptical fellow teacher that bad students are created by an unhappy environment, and that any teacher who gives up on them is a bad one.
‘Hichki’ is an uplifting film about challenges to both the students of class 9F (the F is significant) and their teacher, Naina Mathur (Rani Mukerji), who has Tourette syndrome, a neurological condition that causes a distracting set of tics, apparently triggered by electrical impulses, particularly when emotionally agitated. The story is adapted from a book by an American called Brad Cohen, who suffered from similar tics, and whose job application as a teacher was similarly rejected by many schools before he was finally hired.
Unsympathetic though it may sound to the condition, watching Rani Mukerji speak is an engaging cinematic experience. Nothing really spectacular happens in the plot for the first hour during which her character is given the thankless job of getting the kids to focus, while they mischievously turn her classroom into a circus. But the teacher’s tics – a burst of uncontrollable sounds, followed by her attempts to hold her chin and stop the jerky head movements – are riveting, and hold your attention throughout. She displays her defective motor movements with skill and, like it or not, the tics are of major entertainment value in the movie.
From the reports of the speech patterns and behaviour of both Dr. Samuel Johnson and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it sounds plausible that these highly intelligent and gifted personalities too had Tourette syndrome. Swearing loudly and in startlingly abuse language, is an additional symptom of ‘Tourette’ that the makers of this film neglected to add. Though it might have seemed inappropriate, coming from a gentle personality like Naina Mathur, a few good rounds of abuse in unchaste Hindi might have worked wonders on the short attention span of her students.
The kids of class 9F are wonderfully cast. They have been admitted into this prestigious and upmarket school in Mumbai despite their working class background, thanks to the ‘Right to Education Act’. Each one of them is a distinct character, totally uninhibited and completely natural. Perhaps because of the challenges they themselves face in the shanty towns they live in, the 9F girls and boys are the only ones in the film who pass no judgement on Naina Mathur’s tics, and who see her condition as a minor and welcome distraction from their dull study routine. In turn, perhaps, the teacher turns protective of her disruptive wards and gives teaching them her all. She makes their learning fun and something that they can connect with in their harsh living environment.
Though it is, after all, a ‘feel good’ movie that gives you catchy one liners on the vocation, ‘Hichki’ is also quite clear headed and objective on the actual process of good teaching. To its credit, the film does not romanticise the profession. After a long time, there is a good Hindi film to watch.