Second to last review of Rani Week! Her most recent film, which was….fine. Not a groundbreaking message, not really worth a rewatch, but fairly painless for one watch in theaters and Rani is still charming.
This is a very safe movie. In all ways. The kind of plot that has been done over and over before, backed up by solid (but not super experimental) songs, a cast of experienced character actors, one excellent star, and young people used carefully so as to not have too much responsibility put on them. And cheap! Reports say the full cost, including promotions, was something around 30 crore. And it looks it. Sort of. There’s very few sets used, no expensive actors, and it’s not even that long.
But it doesn’t feel “cheap”, it feels small. They didn’t start out planning for a big film and then cut corners, they started out planning for this film and they didn’t bother wasting money on anything they didn’t need for it. It’s a very well-made film in that way, no giving in to the impulse to promote it bigger than they needed to or make it bigger than they needed to in any way.
The center of it all is Rani. It’s a great role for her because it doesn’t feel like it is trying to make her a star. It’s an interesting role, with some difficult acting challenges, and Rani is one of the few actresses with the ability and experience to have pulled it off. Vidya could have done it too, Anushka Shetty (yes Shetty, not Sharma), but there really aren’t that many working actresses who are naturally charming and warm in a way that makes you want to keep watching them, and also have the experience to be able to pull off the complications of the role.
Rani’s character has Tourettes. Which is quite the acting challenge! There are several scenes where she has an attack in the middle of sobbing or laughing or some other natural function. The pure physical challenge of that, fake-sobbing and then fake spasming without breaking the sob, is something I don’t think an actress just starting out could handle.
On top of the physical challenge, there’s also the need to create a character we care about. We have to believe in Rani’s desire to be a teacher against all odds, her care for her student, her struggle to succeed, and her own personal drama. The trick of it is, we need to have faith in her intelligence and ability, while at the same time being sincerely concerned that she will not succeed, to have tension about the happy ending.
Rani does a great job with her part, I believe she is truly capable and not showing false confidence, but I also believe she is sincerely struggling to figure out her next steps. The flaw is in the plot supporting her, which needs to keep throwing in ridiculous villainy and foolishness in order for Rani to fail despite her abilities.
The other flaw is that the plot is not actually revolutionary. The message is “conform conform conform”. For all the talk of “hichkis” and thinking outside the box and so on, it never really takes that extra step to question the system itself rather than finding a new way to succeed within the system. This is Rani’s movie, but should it be Rani’s movie? Should the focus be on an upper-middleclass uppercaste Hindu woman or should it be on the children who she is helping? This film is a clear imitation of American “magic teacher” films and, like them, it also falls victim to the “magic white [in this case upperclass Hindu] woman saves Black [in this case, slum dwelling] children”. If we are talking about “hichkis”, that is the hiccup in this film, the need to ultimately reinforce the system which is destroying these children by making them succeed within it instead of outside it. It’s the ultimate “safe” angle to this film, safe budget and safe cast and safe plot, and also safe message.
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Whole plot in one paragraph:
Rani is desperately trying to find a teaching job, but cannot get hired despite her high qualifications because of her Tourette’s syndrome. Instead she stays home and works as a part time animator living with her little brother a chef and her mother, estranged from her father who couldn’t handle her condition. She is finally hired by her alma mater, the first school where the principal made an effort to accept her and get other’s to accept her as well, to take charge of a difficult class of charity students from the slums. Obviously they challenge her and she challenges them, they find a common ground and she inspires them with her unusual teaching methods, and so on and so on. The “villain” is Neeraj Kabi, teacher of the top class in the school who wants Rani and her class to fail. He encourages his students to taunt and tease the slum kids until they finally retaliate and destroy the science project Kabi’s class has been making. The kids are expelled from school but still allowed to come back and sit for their final exams. Rani helps them learn, teaching them in her house and in their hang out places in the slums. They sit the exams and all pass, with two of them topping the whole school. But, they were set up, one of Kabi’s students passed fake test papers to them, they are accused of cheating and will be expelled in front of the whole school. Until, at the last minute, Kabi finds out what his student did, realizes the error of his ways and makes a public speech taking responsibility for passing the test papers himself and pointing out that they were fake papers and so the class passed on its own merit no matter what. Finally, in a leap forward, we see Rani twenty years in the future retiring as principal of the whole school, surrounded by loving students, including that first class that has returned to thank her, all of them now dressed in middle-class gear, showing that they succeeded after all.
So, here’s the problem. The film establishes the structures that are keeping these kids down, how they have to take care of younger siblings, wait in line for water, work all night, all these reasons that they can’t focus on their studies the way the rich kids they go to school with can. And the film establishes that the only reason they are at the rich school is because the municipal school was torn down to make a playground for the rich school. Clearly there is massive institutional injustice here, these kids have the odds stacked against them from the beginning.
And the solution is: try to be like the people oppressing you. Accept the rules of the rich kid school and succeed within it. Pass the exams at the top and become a prefect. And eventually, find middle-class success and send your kids back to this school not as charity cases, but as real students.
(The one moment when they unite and support each other, all sharing the blame and all being expelled together, is shown as stupidity. Better to abandon your lower class allies in order to please the upper-classes and avoid punishment)
Generally speaking, I lean more liberal/progressive than revolutionary in my political philosophies. I would rather change the system to be something better than throw it out altogether. Democracy is fine, capitalism is fine, I just want massive reforms instituted to both. However, the education system is perhaps the area where I am most open to the “throw the whole thing out” perspective. Because in my own personal experience, I know it is possible to throw the whole thing out and still succeed.
Have I mentioned before here that I was homeschooled? I was! Illinois, the state where I live, is the 5th richest state in America and the 50th in school funding. The school I went to from age 5 to 9 was so poorly funded that we were having classes in the boiler room. I learned how to read upside down by the time I was 7, because we had to share text books, one to every two students. And it was the best school, public or private, available in my town. The community just did not care about education.
My parents did everything they could to try to reform from within the system (volunteered hours of their time to help improve the school, aggressively worked for political reforms to the funding systems, spent hours talking with our teachers and working with us outside of school), but eventually my family realized there was just no solution possible. The school funding bills failed to pass, the classes were getting more and more crowded year by year, the private schools were no better than the public, and my sister and I were getting more and more miserable every year. It was a systemic problem. All of our teachers, even the school administrators, were intelligent caring people doing the best they could. But the system they worked in was broken, broken beyond repair. And so the only solution was to reject the system entirely, move outside of it. With a lot of trepidation and care, we decided as a family to pull my sister and myself out of school and let us learn in our own way at home.
(A lot like this actually, only without the rich fancy private school setting or the professional teacher, because we didn’t need the school or the teacher, we just needed to be allowed to learn what we wanted to learn in the way that worked for us)
I won’t bother giving you all the details of everything we tried and everything that happened over the next ten years, I’ll just give you the end of it. Turns out, you don’t actually need school. You need to learn, but school is not the only place to do it. At the end of the day, tests and grades are completely meaningless. My sister went on to go to the 3rd best university in America. I got a full scholarship to 3 different good schools and picked my favorite of them. Neither of us applied with grades or advanced classes or teacher recommendations, or extra curriculars or prizes or any of those things that are supposed to be so very important. Neither of us struggled in college either, actually we did better and had an easier time of it than most of our friends, got straight As with minimal studying and were easily able to balance school and life. And after college, my sister with the undergrad degree from the 3rd best school in America and the graduate degree from the 5th, has had about the same amount of career trauma and struggle as I have, with my undergrad degree from the 129th and graduate degree from the 120th. The system doesn’t guarantee anything, it’s all about what you get out of it and what you put into it, is what I learned. No grades, no perfect university degree, no amazing test results, none of that is actually going to show how smart you are, how capable you are, and how happy and successful you will be in life.
This isn’t to say school is terrible. If you have teachers who have time for you, and who want you to be happy and learn. If you learn how to think, not just memorize. If school is part of a balanced life. Then all of it is wonderful. But, if those things are not true, it’s okay to break the system utterly.
(Heck, if Rani is born to be a teacher and is spending all her free time applying for jobs, why can’t she spend that same free time just setting up her own school or teaching people for free? Why be locked into the idea that a teacher can only teach within a school structure?)
In this film, our slum kids have been killed by the system. And Rani is “helping” them by convincing them the system is just and fair. They tell her that school is pointless for them, that they can make more money right now on the streets, that no one will ever give them a fair chance, and her response is “just work harder and pass the tests”. She says she is teaching them like life would teach them, bringing every subject into her lessons at once to solve problems, but the ultimate goal is still rote learning and memorization in order to pass an exam. There is no discussion of the pointlessness of exams and awards, how they convince kids to keep running on a treadmill towards a false goal, how maybe if Rani can teach them better than any other teacher and they can be the best in the school with no resources, maybe they don’t even need the school?
Heck, there’s no thought of even putting this whole thing at that “municipal” school that was torn down! Why can’t Rani be teaching there? Why can’t the triumphant end of this film be her walking away from the rich school and bucking the whole system having realized that it is the slum kids who truly need her? And that education should be available everywhere and to everyone, not just in certain exclusive schools?
It’s very frustrating because this is one of the major issues in India today, and it is one that film has been struggling with in various interesting ways, and yet this movie completely toes the party line. Education takes place in old British-founded wealthy private schools and “success” is measured by exams. Intelligence is measured by exams, ability is measured by exams, exams are where you live or die and don’t bother trying to question it. Questioning the system just means you are afraid you won’t succeed within it, not that you see through its innate weaknesses.
Even Student of the Year was more interesting than this! Siddharth, the angry scholarship student wanted to do well because he knew it would be a step on his way. But he knows it isn’t the final step, if he is thrown out or doesn’t win the award, it doesn’t matter, his own intelligence and ambition will get him to where he needs to be no matter what happens with this little test. Varun, the rich kid, knows that the system is unfair because he lives within it. He wants to be the best in order to show how pointless the test is, that he could win and still walk away and choose a different kind of life. And the end of the film is an angry speech about how frustrated school administrators set kids up against each other for their own satisfaction, aware that it is all meaningless and impossible to really win.
And then there’s English Medium, 3 Idiots, upcoming Super 30, heck even Mohabbatein! In which the system itself is questioned, the unfairness and cruelty and illogic pointed out. All of them better than this film, which played it safe, which gave the people what they wanted, which said “school is good, exams are good, teachers are good, the slum kids should be grateful for the chance to work twice as harder in order to go half as far.”