From the plight of school teachers being paid barely enough to sustain, to the toxicity fostered in a flawed education system, here’s a look at films and shows surrounding academia
Last Updated: 03.46 PM, Sep 22, 2021
It is perhaps safe to say that most human folks are not particularly excited by the prospect of studying, especially those that have spent their formative years under the Indian education system. So, in order to counter the effects of rote learning, this writer started seeking out aspirational films about schools. Jack Black’s Dewey Finn in School of Rock (2003) and Aamir Khan’s Ram Shankar Nikumbh in Taare Zameen Par (2007) assumed the figure of role model in our lives, who made education seem like a cakewalk.
As most films that underwent a change in ethos in the 2010s, with the flurry of realistic portrayals supplanting aspirational narratives, so did content around academia.
Do Dooni Chaar (2010), for instance, was about a middle-aged teacher who struggles to provide for the cushy life most of his students have managed to make for themselves. Although nimble and heartening, Do Dooni Chaar was emphatic about the paltry salary school teachers are paid in India. It posed the difficult question — how do we compensate for the thankless service that school teachers provide, inculcating in us value systems that buoy us through the rest of our lives? It investigates what kind of moral dilemma teachers undergo when they realise that they are unable to afford luxuries despite dedicating their life to a noble cause.
The film spotlighted a family of four in a Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood trying to buy a car. The car is a symbol of the family’s desperate attempt at social upward mobility after decades of stasis. The film’s central conundrum is this — should he capitalise on the opportunity to take bribes in exchange for making students (who would otherwise find it difficult to pass) pass. Habib Faisal’s directorial blithely avoided the sentimental territory to offer a nuanced portrait of a teacher’s life beyond the classrooms.
While Do Dooni Chaar focused on the plight of teachers in India, Hichki was about a teacher tasked with teaching a class of financially disadvantaged students who find decorum to be a capitalistic extraneity. Rani Mukerji played Naina, a woman suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, who wishes to return to her school as a teacher to pay homage to the many teacher figures who have helped shape her personality. From class divide within the classroom, perpetuated by teachers themselves, to the pressures of the family to opt for a more secure job at the bank, Hichki touched upon throbbing issues faced by the Great Indian Middle Class with assurance and aplomb. Naina’s teaching methods were similar to that of a Ram Shankar Nikumbh — they are both unconventional in their methods of teaching. Yet, Hichki isn’t just about a teacher learning the ropes of handling an unruly bunch of kids. It’s about how Naina, who happens to have a condition that has dictated all her life choices, refuses to let her students surrender their fate to their insecurities arising from financial distress. Naina resists a classist male teacher from alienating the underprivileged.
Classism, however, has been a significant theme in many films around academic institutions. There are hit movies that have followed the same template of a lower-middle-class student taking over a premium academic institution by sheer force of grit.
Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Aamir Khan and Ayesha Julka’s 1992 sports film, pitted the modest Model school students against the elite Rajput College ones. Needless to say, after 169 minutes of investment, it is Aamir Khan’s Sanju on a rickety cycle who takes the cycling race trophy home. Almost a frame-by-frame copy of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was Rok Sako Toh Rok Lo (2004), where Bharti school kids battle it out in a sports tournament with the affluent students at Valley High School. Sunny Deol played the role of a mysterious mentor figure, who guides Bharti school students to take ownership of their fates and stand up to classist bullies. Similarly, in Student of the Year (2012) and Student of the Year (2019), the poor kid wins the prize in both cases, because it’s the kind of wishful drama that makes Bollywood the unrivalled dream merchant.
Although purportedly about education, many of these films have deflected discussions on education itself. But in 2017, Biswa Kalyan Rath’s Amazon Prime Video India Original show Laakhon Mein Ek took a deep dive into our flawed education system that gives more importance to marks than acquiring knowledge. The protagonist is an aspiring mimicry artist, but a career on YouTube is a distant dream for a middle-class family with little to no disposable income or capital. Hence, he is shipped off to an IIT coaching institute in Visakhapatnam. From discrimination on the basis of ones socio-economic position and academic prowess, to parents suffocating their children with the weight of their ambitions, Laakhon Mein Ek was a gritty portrait of life for all the non-Ranchos (from 3 Idiots) who are unable to cope up in this nexus of meritocracy and class divide.
Emraan Hashmi’s Why Cheat India (2019) took the premise of a flawed education system to argue a case for smart hacks. Rakesh (Hashmi), an unsuccessful medical school aspirant, spearheads a scam where candidates appearing for the qualifiers are replaced by a fake one whose chances of cracking the exam is higher. The film exposes the inner workings of the education system and how the worth of a candidate is often measured on a standardised scale that does not take into account a person’s individuality. Another 2019 film that left little to no mark, Setters exposed the frenetic madness surrounding the clearing of competitive exams.
Kota Factory was a definitive take on the preparation for IIT in a cutthroat world. It followed a 16-year-old school topper who quickly realises that his new friends at the Kota coaching centre are as talented and academically bright as he is. As TVF’s celebrated series Kota Factory returns for a second season, it’s important to remember how Aspirants (2021), another show from the TVF stable, dissected the grimness of the UPSC-aspirants’ lives and how the cycle of disappointment is a constant throughout one’s life.