Rani Mukerji in a still from Hichki. Photograph:( WION )
The times, they are changing. Years back, a 40-year-old actress would not be getting to play a lead role with no male lead opposite her. Even if she had gone on a maternity break at the peak of her career, Bollywood and the country at large would not have had accepted to watch a film without a male lead. But Rani Mukerji's latest Hichki is perhaps a change in the right direction. The change came sometime in 2015 and made its place in 2017 with films like Piku, Anaarkali Of Aaraah and the recent Tumhari Sulu - where women took center stage sans the stereotypical hero.
Devoid of the frills and melodrama or a hero, Rani Mukerji's first film post maternity break, Hichki, rests firmly on her delicate, petite shoulders. And the actress solely takes the story and the film forward. Mukerji plays Naina Mathur, a qualified teacher in search of a teaching job. While her records are meritorious, it is her disorder that proves be to the biggest roadblock or rather the hiccup or hichki in her career. Naina suffers from a neurological disorder called Tourette Syndrome that has Naina making unusual noises and hand movements in the middle of a sentence. Sort of a stammer, that most people think she creates knowingly but in reality are not in control by Naina. Her syndrome leads to job rejections multiple times until she lands herself a job mid-term at the prestigious St Notker's School to teach a group of students who are shunned by the rest of the school.
Rani Mukerji in a still from Hichki. (Twitter)
Naina is inducted into the school as a last minute resort to teach the notorious 9F Physics and Maths. The students are part of lower strata of the society and are only in the elite school because of new rules imposed by the government on right to education. And while the rest of the school scoffs at them, they themselves aren't too keen to learn. Instead, they try every trick possible to make Naina, their eighth teacher in 7 months, leave them. But Naina is not the sort who gives up that easily and students slowly come around and fall in love with Naina's unique way of practical teaching. But time is running out and Naina has not only got to cover the syllabus but also convince the naysayers, including fellow Physics teacher Mr Wadia and the Principal of the school, that her students will pass the annual exams with flying colours.
Based on the book, Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had by Brad Cohen, Hichki solely concentrates on Mukerji's character and how despite the odds, she made a difference in people's lives. Writers Sidharth P Malhotra(also the director) and Ankur Chaudhry keep the narrative linear while concentrating on Naina and her life. Which is why Naina is perhaps the only character which is fleshed out and given backstories. Having faced rejections throughout her life, Naina is assured about her drawbacks and even knows how to make it a part of her life.
While the film talks in details about Naina, there are no back stories given of the students. Multiple times it is reminded that how they come from the lower strata of the society and hence behave irrationally because life doesn't treat them well but the director restrains from delving deeper into their stories. Yet the actors who play the students shine in their limited roles especially Harsh Mayer - who plays the troublemaker, adamant Atish perfectly.
A still from the film Hichki. (Twitter)
Mayer complements Mukerji's performance to quite an extent as the actress plays the adamant teacher who despite disapprovals and zero support from people around her, wants to change the lives of her students even though they themselves aren't convinced about their future prospects. Mukerji doesn't disappoint at all as she is pitch perfect as Naina Mathur the woman suffering from a disorder.
Such roles are often difficult to portray as one tends to go overboard trying to show the disability, but not Mukerji, who gets into the skin of the character, making Naina a memorable character. The idea is not to make the viewers feel bad or sympathetic about her disorder but to make them aware of it and take them through Naina's journey as a successful teacher.
The formidable Neeraj Kabi also delivers a fine performance as the stoic, uppity Mr Wadia who doesn't want to give the students of 9F a chance to outshine. His character is the dampener to Naina's energy as he openly criticises her unique ways of teaching and challenges her time and again to prove her students'worth.
The film though falls flat in certain aspects. The school seems to only concentrate on one class, and just one teacher and the film revolves around the rivalry between 9A and 9F - making it appear as if the school only has select few students.
The transition of the students- from being completely anti-Naina to warming up to her and becoming her favourite students- is also shown too hastily. Neither is it ever explained that why Mr Wadia is so anti certain students. I would have also liked to see a back story of certain students to understand why they behave the way they do.
Hichki makes you aware of a syndrome that most people do not know of. It gives you Rani Mukerji in top form but it falls short of being outstanding. It doesn't overwhelm you or make you too emotional either, which is not a bad thing at all but the story of an underdog-triumphing-all-odds may not stay with you after you are out of the theatre.
Watch Hichki solely for Rani Mukerji. The queen is at her usual best.