An English medium school is not just a colonial hangover but also a modern-day status symbol: one that Chandni Chowk couple Mita (Saba Qamar) and Raj Batra (Irrfan) want to acquire, for themselves and their daughter Pia. Eager-to-please husband Raj agrees to leave his ancestral home to move to an upscale neighborhood in south Delhi to improve Pia’s chances of gaining admission in a leading English medium school.
Raj and Mita put on a show of being upwardly mobile and classy, an act Mita is far more comfortable with than Raj (she insists he drops the nickname “mithu” for the anglicised “honey”). But entry into the elite club is not so easy, and their snooty neighbours can smell the difference between vintage wine and cheap rip-offs.
Raj and Mita begin targeting the top five schools, and when options run dry, they enlist the services of a coaching class that prepares both children and parents for the crucial school interview. Till this point, the film has a wonderful tone, satirical yet warm. Director Saket Chaudhary introduces a series of interesting characters: a Punjabi mother and daughter shopping in Raj’s garment store, which specialises in Bollywood fakes; the coaching class head played by Tillotama Shome; and the stern headmistress (Amrita Singh) everyone wants to woo.
The film, co-written by Zeenat Lakhani and Chaudhary, starts to flag post-interval. Hindi Medium is clearly written in two halves. In the first, Raj and Mita dress to impress; in the second, they pare down their lives. The only route to getting into Delhi’s most coveted school seems to be through the underprivileged quota. So Raj and Mita go from being millionaires to slumdogs.
While the idea of exposing the corruption in the school admissions system and the brokering that goes on behind the scenes has some freshness, the script soon slides into simplistic stereotyping. All the rich folk are shallow and unkind and the underprivileged folk believe sharing is caring. Deepak Dobriyal plays a selfless factory labourer whose kindness is the catalyst for Raj suddenly discovering he has a conscience.
In sum, capturing the notion that English establishes class and that parents across the country are desperate to earn this hallmark is a great idea. Hindi Medium delivers that with a wink and a wag of an un-manicured hand. Irrfan and Qamar are well-paired—he bringing a natural charm, she suiting the character of the dolled-up yummy mummy.
Hindi Medium is obviously playing to the gallery. It makes you laugh, it makes you think, but its one-note characters and black-and-white divisions mean that while it makes the grade, the film is no topper.