Tourette’s Syndrome is an incurable neurological disorder that has been documented in about 1% of children. Those afflicted regularly experience involuntary physical and verbal tics. Contrary to popular perception, most Tourette’s tics are discreet, such as blinking, shrugging or throat clearing. Director Siddharth Malhotra chooses to document a character with Tourette’s in his 2nd film Hichki, which is loosely based on American Brad Cohen’s autobiography, Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, with co-author Lisa Wysocky.
Rani Mukerji stars as Naina Mathur, a charming M.S. degree holder who has been looking for work as a teacher for 5 years. What’s keeping such a winner from employment, you might ask? Her Tourette’s Syndrom alienates recruiters at job interviews. Naina’s affliction causes her to involuntary make a loud hiccupping noise, which gets exacerbated by the stress of the interviews.
One day, a principal feels compelled to hire her after the 8th teacher after 7 months quits teaching Class 9F; the school is coincidentally named after St. Notker the Stammerer. Naina finds out right away why she’s Teacher #9: the class is full of Dennis the Menaces: smokers, drinkers, pranksters and one girl who brings her enormous pet rats. The adolescents immediately try to break Nania’s will through nasty and sometimes elaborate means, but Naina resolves to break through to the kids with patience and by understanding their personal issues.
The film does a good job of drawing correlations between the plight of the poor and those with disabilities: being born into the wrong circumstances can spell a lifetime of social isolation, employment exclusion and self-doubt. These children are too often counted out by parents, teachers and classmates for something that they have no control over. The film also subtly explores the caste dynamic of Indian inequality: the star students are all fair-skinned and wealthy, while Class 9F is full of impoverished members of the lower castes.
Cinematographer Avinash Arun captures some great skyline shots juxtaposing skyscrapers and slums, while teenage rapper David Klyton ingeniously captures the Tamil street-kid’s mindset in the song “Madamji Go Easy.”
Hichki manages to transcend its formulaic script, thanks largely to the humanity exuded by Mukerji and the child actors. Naina isn’t a character who demands pity from the audience, but empathy. Too often, TV/film typecasts characters with disabilities as nothing more than helpless victims. Naina, by contrast, is a character who not only feels unshackled by her disorder, but strengthened by it. As the director and star explain in promotional interviews, we all must wrestle with our own “disorders,” whether it’s Tourette’s, anxiety, low self-esteem, etc. We don’t have to limit ourselves to our neurological imbalances or to what society thinks of us.