Class, Education, and Culture in Irrfan Khan’s Cinematic India – An Examination of Hindi Medium & Angrezi Medium
July 1, 2020
Anvesh Jain is a rising senior at the University of Toronto, pursuing a specialist degree in International Relations. His work has been featured by the NATO Association of Canada, the Mackenzie Institute, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Synergy Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, among others.
“Politicians take food from the poor. Builders take land from the farmers. Here we have the opportunity for learning, and you’ll take that too?”– Shyam Prakash, Hindi Medium (2017)
Indian cinema is in mourning. Irrfan Khan’s passing at the mere age of 53 marks the loss of the industry’s most thoughtful and dazzlingly complex persona, a master craftsman at the peak of his powers. Lovingly, and to all, he was just Irrfan. In his last film released before his passing, Angrezi [English] Medium (2020), and in its spiritual predecessor, Hindi Medium (2017), Irrfan refines his brand of ‘social cinema’, eschewing the Bollywood masala traditions of sappy love stories and big dance numbers in favour of a more reflective tone and message. Both films faithfully illustrate the rigours of life in modern India, examining class, status, and the education system through the shifting lenses of language and culture, while managing to retain a laugh-out-loud sense of humour throughout.
In Hindi Medium, Irrfan joins hands with director Saket Chaudhary and Pakistani actress Saba Qamar to produce an intimate rendering of Delhi, in splendour new and old alike. The film depicts the difficulties of a couple raised in public (hindi-medium) education, who have since found new wealth and aim to send their daughter Pia to one of Delhi’s elite english-medium academies. With its finger on the pulse of urban India, Hindi Medium perfectly captures the affectations and mannerisms of various Delhi locales, from playful scenes at Raj Batra’s (Irrfan Khan) clothing store in the hawking Chandni Chowk marketplace, to satirizing the westernized and upwardly-mobile denizens of Vasant Vihar neighbourhood. One yearns to be taken back to the yellow and green of India’s capital, to be immersed in the bustling streets and slums and stalls of the old city.
Raj and his wife Mita (Saba Qamar), try and fail to assimilate into the upper-echelons of Delhi society, held back by their poor command of the English language. Throughout the film, Mita taunts Raj, challenging him to spell various words in English. Language here, not money, is the true marker and barrier of class. In playgrounds, their five-year old daughter Pia is shunned by her agemates for speaking to them in Hindi, and her mother admonishes her for doing so. Hindi and its many variants are a neglected tongue, in high-end social circles and indigent government (sarkari) public schools alike. After multiple school rejections, the Batra couple desperately moves to the slums of Bharat Nagar and illegally file for Pia’s admission through the RTE (right-to-education) quotas reserved only for impoverished families. This narrative inversion and deception set up the rest of the film’s story.
The cinematization of class struggle in Bharat Nagar is where Hindi Medium truly shines; as the main characters attempt to understand how to be poor, they learn that “one cannot understand poverty in just 2-3 days”. In India, there is always the memory of past generations, themselves risen in struggle. There is always the fear of losing hard-fought gains – a piece of the grift and graft mentality continues to thrive in the minds of Middle India. In this process, children spend their lives studying, and parents spend their lives sacrificing for those studies. Both Hindi Medium and its spiritual successor shine light on the centrality of education as the vehicle for forward movement in subcontinental society, and the resultant pressures heaped on children.
Irrfan Khan – filming through disease – reprises the role of a doting parent in Angrezi Medium, playing Champak Bansal, a dedicated single-father to his daughter Tarika, who herself harbours dreams of studying abroad in the United Kingdom. Amid delightful recreations of Rajasthani dialects and culture, the film tackles the youthful desire for freedom and the tensions of grown parent-child relations. Once again, Irrfan emotionally dramatizes the lengths parents will go to realize the dreams of their children.
Many Indians will find familiarity in representations of kafka-esque public bureaucracies and the corruption that plagues all levels of the judicial and educational system. Despite legal disputes and the quarrels that accompany the Bansal clan and brothers in their Udaipur haveli, they all still pull together to ensure Tarika has a chance to study in London. Where mothers and grandmothers in generations past were made to forsake their continued education to the demands of familial and maternal responsibilities, here we see a marked and determined shift in attitudes. Over the course of the film, attitudes and assumptions towards both education and India are challenged from a variety of angles, as the movie takes the audience (in often unexpected ways) overseas to London, exploring the dynamics of the father-daughter relationship abroad.
Though billed as comedies, these two films carry undercurrents of extreme poignancy and cyclical tragedy in the tale of middle-class India. There is the frustration with globalization’s effects, that have both provided real-term material enrichment while simultaneously failing to alter the prostrate status of India’s middle and lower classes, pitted against one another in the face of larger, systemic constraints.
The charm of Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium is that we’ve met all these characters before – from the boy who takes the bat home in gully cricket, to bossy mothers and bossed-around fathers, to the dukhanwallas and labourers who ply their daily trade in the hopes that their child’s education might prove a kind of greater salvation. The world of these films is our world; and this is our life. These are our families – that mirroring is what endows the films’ core messaging with such genuine weight. While many Bollywood directors choose to use the country and its sights as a cheap means of generating sentiment in national and diasporic audiences, Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium portray the setting of India as another character that impacts and informs the stories and ideas being conveyed.
Irrfan’s last franchise before his untimely passing lovingly thematizes an Indian middle class that has at once arrived globally, while continuing to grow and mature domestically. Moreover, these films explore traditional Indian values and choose to affirm the best of them: the responsibility to one’s family, the bonds of community, the lyricism of Indic languages and language-dialects, and the sacrifices parents always make for their children’s education. In Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium, Irrfan urges audiences to resist the ever-present rat race of building status and saving face, and to rather direct one’s energies towards living honestly and embracing one’s roots. Perhaps when we spend less time dreaming of great escapes, in both our cinema and our personal lives, we can begin to cast a critical eye inwards and make amends at home. Until then, we continue to laugh, cry, and revel in the visionary performances of an actor well before his time; one who saw in Bollywood the elevated potential for a more conscious and ultimately representative national cinema.
Image Source: Still from Angrezi Medium, Huff Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/angrezi-medium-review-irrfan-is-charming-dobriyal-hilarious-film-regressive_in_5e694aa8c5b6bd8156f0def1
Still from Hindi Medium, Deccan Herald, https://www.deccanherald.com/entertainment/entertainment-news/rip-irrfan-khan-hindi-medium-actress-saba-qamar-is-at-a-loss-of-words-831646.html