Rani Mukherji’s teacher Naina Mathur in Hichki is the stuff of legend. While it is common for educators in films to stand unmoved in the face of their students’ apathy and disdain, Naina’s challenge is more complicated. Apart from overcoming her students’ resistance to formal education, she must also cope with a neurological syndrome that causes a speech defect. Armed with ceaseless optimism, superhuman fortitude and boundless compassion, Naina manages to inspire a group of underprivileged and unruly children to embrace their textbooks.
While Atul Kulkarni’s character in Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar’s Marathi film Dahavi Fa (2002) manages to accomplish the same task as Naina with equal dexterity, he does not have to face the complications that Naina’s gender creates. When Naina shares her mobile number with her students, her wards create posters featuring the number, her photo and a caption promising “pleasure”, and paste them in public spaces. Naina’s safety is seriously compromised, but Hichki continues to depict her as mostly invulnerable. The tremendous emotional labour involved in educating the class goes unaddressed.
The lack of human vulnerability in screen teachers is a natural consequence of the culturally accepted norm that equates educators with gods and gives them unchallenged authority in classrooms. While there is no dearth of inspirational male teachers in Hindi films – consider Vinod Khanna in Imtihan (1974), Raaj Kumar in Bulundi (1981), Naseeruddin Shah in Sir (1993) and Aamir Khan in Taare Zameen Par (2007) – inspirational female teachers, whose bodies are not emphasised, are considerably fewer. A female teacher’s body and sexuality are vividly highlighted, and become as important as her competence or personality. Her power in class either acquires a distinctly sexual edge, or is constantly challenged by male students.
The bodies of female teachers are a subject of discussion no matter what shape they come in. In Chupke Chupke (1975), the plump botany teacher is teaching a classroom of girls, but she is turned into a caricature because of her size.
The power dynamic in the class of an obviously sexually appealing teacher, on the other hand, is more diverse. While some screen female teachers are fully aware of male reactions to their body and are not above using them, some become flustered.
In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), English teacher Miss Braganza (Archana Puran Singh) attracts the principal’s chagrin when she wears short skirts to class. He asks her to refrain from wearing such attire in college because it might prove to be too much for the male students to handle. But Miss Braganza also freely flirts with male students, asking her class to answer questions like “What is love?” She is incredibly impressed when her student Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) responds with “Pyaar dosti hai, love is friendship.”
In Desi Boyz (2011), economics teacher Tanya (Chitrangadha Singh) extracts an inexplicable kind of revenge when she expels Jerry (Akshay Kumar) from class because she once had romatic feelings for him which he did not return.
When the sexuality of screen female teachers is sharply highlighted, they frequently lose control of their class. Pratighaat (1987) offers a most extreme and dramatic example. Laxmi (Sujata Mehta) is a principled teacher in a lawless town. She is sexually harassed by the local politician’s thugs and is forced to accept lewd comments because of the power they wield in the area. After she is disrobed in public by a local criminal, she is greeted by lewd grafitti and sexual jabs in class, which cause her to break out into an anguished song. Traumatised and tortured, Laxmi faints in class at the end of a musical monologue denouncing sexism, but there is no real change in her students’ attitudes until she overthrows the local goon.
The female teacher’s authority in class is so tenuous that if she is able to retain control in class after being heckled by a male student, she often winds up falling for him. In Main Hoon Na (2004), Ram (Shah Rukh Khan) is mesmerised by the chemistry teacher Miss Chandni (Sushmita Sen) and asks her to leave her hair open in class because she looks prettier that way. Miss Chandni is appalled and asks for an apology, but she capitulates to Ram’s charm eventually.
It is not uncommon for adolescent boys to disover their sexuality because of their attraction towards a teacher. In Nagesh Kuknoor’s Rockford (1999), 13-year-old Rajesh feels all grown-up for the first time after finds himself aroused by his teacher, Miss Vegas (Nandita Das).
Since teachers are meant to be principled, upstanding and powerful, female characters who have firm political opinions are often educators. Smita Patil’s Jyotsna in Ardh Satya (1983) is a fierce and intense lecturer, while the resilient and opinionated Anu (Shabana Azmi) in 15 Park Avenue (2005) is a successful academician.
Inspirational female teachers in class are often filed under the shelf marked “motherly”. Sparsh (1980) offers a more realistic perspective on how teachers gradually come to grow into their roles as educators. Kavita (Shabana Azmi), finds her way out of the dark when she begins to volunteer at a school for blind boys. As she visits the school more often, she begins to understand her students better, making a meaningful difference to the quality of their lives. She is never harassed or troubled by the boys, but the power dynamic between Kavita and her students is considerably different because the boys call her “auntie” instead of “teacher”.