Rishi Kapoor and
Simi Garewal (left) in
a scene from Mera
THE TURNING OF the seasons is the sign that it’s time to go back to school. The August Bank Holiday on the last Monday of August in England has a feeling of desperation as one tries to hold on to the long days while knowing they will soon be over. I imagine it’s different for people who haven’t been in education all their lives because the slight nip in the air provokes the Pavlovian response of rushing to one’s desk. I still feel the phantom missing limb of not having to check I have set square, compass and protractor, being of the generation after the slide rule but before the calculator. I don’t know if anyone still uses one but I still have my wooden ruler from the 1960s which I keep in a drawer in the kitchen to check pan sizes, revealing that I started out with imperial measures and never quite shifted to metric.
I have my 40th school reunion in October which I am attending as I will be in Newcastle for the launch of Dan Jackson’s amazing book, The Northumbrians: a New History of North East England and its People. Jackson looks at the distinctive features of this part of the UK, most famous today for its supposedly incomprehensible (Geordie) accent, and its proud industrial heritage, which largely crumbled post-War, of coal, shipbuilding and science. The regeneration of the city in recent years is striking with its magnificent nineteenth-century architecture cleaned and this has attracted people back to the centre as the once forbidding quayside area has also been gentrified.
School was not always a happy time for me. I was restless in infant school, moved up a year to a private school where I was not the ideal pupil. Love of several subjects—Latin, Greek, chemistry, French—probably saved me but I was restless and wanted to move on to a new and exciting life in London, which I read about in the papers. Let’s see how I feel at the reunion though sadly my favourite teachers are long gone.
I’ve taken interest in seeing my nieces and nephews, godchildren and other children of friends go through school in a different world. Some have gone to state schools, music schools, others to the big public schools, then on to vocational training, art school and a range of universities. Some have had great times, others less so, but all have survived in some way.
Books about boarding school were staples, even the dated Billy Bunter series proving entertaining. My brother read the boys’ books and I, the girls’, in those strictly divided times. Enid Blyton’s kids had much more fun at school, though I didn’t enjoy her series set at St Clare’s and Malory Towers as much as the Famous Five who had wonderful holidays on islands and ruined castles, with massive feasts which were always washed down with ‘lashings of ginger beer’. Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series, written between 1925 and 1970, was set in a boarding school in the Austrian Tyrol, founded by Madge Bettany when her brother returned to India to work for the Forestry Commission. The heroines and the locations changed over the years but the fascination was for pre-War Europe where the characters spoke French and German, went walking in the Alps or enjoyed Kaffee und Kuchen, all of which seemed very exotic but not impossibly remote. The background of the war and the move of the school wasn’t as exciting as the characters and the near-fatal disasters they always encountered. I’m sure all of these books are unreadable now and have horribly racist and sexist elements, which were seen as normal by the readership of the time.
Films set in schools included the famous Saint Trinian’s, where the girls ruled the roost, and television series, such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with floggings and beatings which were terrifying. The film If.… (Lindsay Anderson, 1968) was a revolutionary experience with its uprising at a boys’ public school with its final shootout, perhaps the first ‘X’ (18) certificate film I ever saw.
Many major Indian films have parts set in schools, such as the Marathi film Shyamchi Aai (dir. PK Atre, 1953) with its scene of the children satirising the teacher who just beats them singing, ‘Chadi lage cham cham’, or Devdas’ school in Devdas (dir. Bimal Roy, 1955). Mera Naam Joker (1970) had a heavily sexualised crush by a schoolboy on his teacher. These are films which deal with the character’s entire life, as films set in schools are child-centric, requiring child actors and not the usual themes of mainstream Hindi films. Among the most engaging is Taare Zameen Par (2007), where a dyslexic child is helped by an inspirational teacher, while others show a much darker side of childhood, notably Stanley Ka Dabba (2011) and Udaan (2010).
Mera Naam Joker (1970) had a heavily sexualized crush by a schoolboy on his teacher. These are films which deal with the character’s entire life
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Much more frequently featured are colleges, where students study to get a ‘first-class-first’ degree. However, these always seemed to be packed with rivalry and competitions. In Yash Chopra’s debut as a director, Dhool Ka Phool (1959), the students had a singing competition (‘Tera pyaar ka aasra’), which is a duet about love. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) has a bike competition as part of an inter-collegiate rivalry, many films focus on college events and competitions, such as in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Student of the Year (2012), where there are love triangles. In the latter, they compete to find favour with the dean, played by Rishi Kapoor, who shows the youngsters how to dance with style.
In Mohabbatein (2000), the first time Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan appear together, the conflict between discipline and love and creativity has a suicide and several crises before the celebrations. Although a comedy, 3 Idiots (2009) found resonance worldwide with its conflict between individual fulfilment and family duty, finding in favour of the former if one seriously follows one’s desires.
Aarakshan (2011) engages with the rarely discussed issue of caste reservation policy, while Hindi Medium (2017) looks at class and language issues. In English Vinglish (2012), a middle-aged housewife finds friendship and respect by going to night school to learn English.
When an army officer (Shah Rukh) returns to school in Main Hoon Na (2004), he is lucky to meet the most glamorous chemistry teacher of all time, the chiffon sari-clad Ms Chandni (Sushmita Sen)—‘Tumhe jo main dekha’. The films have little about the old system of education, of guru-shishya parampara, except where it survives today as an essential part of learning music, often the performance itself, such as the lovely ‘Manmohan manmein ho tumhi’ in Kaise Kahoon, 1964, where Mohammed Rafi and Suman Kalyanpur sing together as teacher and pupil.
Meanwhile, it’s back to polishing up the term’s readings and returning to university once again to meet a new batch of students who, I hope, have a great future ahead of them.