Naina Mathur (Rani Mukerji) is a trained and qualified teacher. However her various applications for teaching positions over five years have been unsuccessful. The primary reason is her speech impediment. Naina has lived with Tourette Syndrome since childhood, and made peace with it in adulthood. But the world around her, including her father (Sachin Pilgaonkar), is uncomfortable with the involuntary sounds and movements that emanate from Naina’s mouth. “Tourette is in my speech, not in my intellect,” she says.
Very early on, Naina (Rani Mukerji) educates a panel of school administrators, and the audience, about the nature of Tourette’s. When she bags a job commandeering a classroom of misfits, inducted into the school system under the Right to Education mandate, she educates the 14 delinquents (and us) on what it’s like living with a tic. The school principal (Shiv Subramaniam) has appointed an underdog to school division number 9F which is populated with underdogs who come from the wrong side of the tracks.
Naina’s path is not an easy one. Not only must she convince the school board, and her fellow teachers, of her abilities but also win over 14 cocky, disinterested, rebellious and disrespectful students who could be on permanent detention. “There are no bad students, only bad teachers,” she declares defiantly to her nemesis and colleague Mr Wadia (played villainously by Neeraj Kabi), a conservative and snooty educator.
Director Siddharth P. Malhotra keeps the narrative moving, without unnecessary side plots, focussing on the student-student, student-teacher and staff room politics. Naina’s daily life is shown through her interactions with her family which includes a supportive mother (Supriya Pilgaonkar) and brother. Avinash Arun’s lensing is delightful and the design and direction of the classroom scenes is wholly believable. (During an exam scene I actually felt the nerves associated with finals!)
Based on Brad Cohen’s memoir Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had (which was adapted into a film in 2008), Hichki is no Dead Poet’s Society, but there are scenes that will remind you of Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating and a class that saluted him with “O Captain! My Captain!”
Mukerji delivers an earnest performance incorporating the tics and involuntary gestures seamlessly into her portrayal. The school children and her colleagues offer indispensable support.
At times Hichki feels too righteous. Loaded with messages from equality, right to education, tolerance to a gratuitous walk through a Mumbai slum with the camera gingerly peeking into the difficult lives of class 9F. Fortunately the story is strongly underlined by the instances of the resourcefulness of the students and the idea that education should not be a one-size-fits-all concept.