[On the inspirational teacher trope in films]

Blackboard Jungle

In Vikas Bahl’s Super 30, which released this week, Hrithik Roshan plays real-life teacher Anand Kumar, who enables a group of underprivileged students to crack the challenging IIT entrance examination. Shunning a lucrative career as a star professor at a profitable coaching institute, Anand constructs a makeshift classroom and hostel at his own expense, running afoul of the powerful figures who control the coaching business in town. He guides the children through mathematical concepts and urges them to look for problems to solve in their day-to-day experiences. In the process, he also becomes a father figure to them, arranging for food and helping them work out self-esteem issues. Although based on a real personality, Hrithik Roshan’s Anand is the latest iteration in a long tradition of inspirational teachers in mainstream cinema.

The figure has been made familiar through countless Hollywood films: an initially-reticent protagonist who takes charge of a class full of “challenging”, “disadvantaged” or “impoverished” students, typically teenagers. The youth have no desire to make the teacher’s job easy and the teacher is faced with the daunting task of winning the students over. But (s)he believes it is possible and that the children could be saved, if only (s)he could find a way to gain their trust. The teacher then single-mindedly dedicates herself to her mission, generally at great personal cost. (S)he may, in a few instances, have a character flaw – alcoholism, drug abuse, minor moral transgressions – but is eventually redeemed through her work. These “classroom dramas” demonstrate a liberal charitability towards the wayward students, whose difficult behaviour and casual cruelty are tolerated with a Catholic forbearance.

Classroom films, like courtroom dramas, are an invention of talking pictures, hinged as they are on the communication between the teacher and the students. A significant, sometimes excessive verbal exposition is the chief characteristic of these films, where the quality of the dialogue is sacred. This often makes for some hackneyed, fatiguing visual ideas. The teacher is frequently filmed against the blackboard, just as a preacher would be photographed sermonizing against the altar. His/her discourse is intercut with reaction shots of the students, as a group or as individuals. Or it’s the student who is holding forth and the teacher reacting. Special attention may be given to the sound mix representing student voices: the more inventive films seek to differentiate the students and make their quips intelligible and witty. The spatial interest of the scenes almost wholly derives from what the actors bring to it, rather than from any consistent idea of blocking.

More regularly, however, these films draw their drama from the conflicts inherent in the material. It’s said that all stories begin with the protagonist either riding into a town or riding out of one. Inspirational teachers, who belong to the first category, are always positioned as outsiders who walk into institutions and communities that they will inevitably run up against in their quest to effect change. In Blackboard Jungle (1955), one of the earliest and most typical embodiments of the trope, Glenn Ford portrays Richard Dadier, a World War II veteran now teaching English in an inner-city school. Dadier’s shock at the lack of discipline at the school is compounded by the thorough cynicism of his colleagues, who advocate treating the difficult students like animals. Actor Sidney Poitier, who plays one of Dadier’s hot-headed students, would later portray a teacher himself in To Sir With Love (1967). As a Black teacher in a predominantly white classroom, his Thackeray has to gain acceptance among both his students and the community at large.

The intentions of Robin Williams’ John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989) are at complete loggerheads with the deep-rooted tradition of discipline and propriety at the purist New England boarding school he comes to teach at. So much so that the primary value he instils among his students is that of rebellion. The inspirational figure sometimes goes beyond simply being a beacon for his students, and becomes a community leader. In Lean on Me (1989), Morgan Freeman plays Joe Clark, the newly appointed head of a crime-ridden school in New Jersey, with the physicality of a hoodlum and the zeal of a preacher. His tough but artless approach to student problems and his radical measures to clean up anti-social elements from the school galvanize the Black-dominated community into emphatically supporting him. Edward James Olmos’ Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver (1988) helps overhaul the popular impression about the academic performances of Latino students in Los Angeles.

Even when the community is not explicitly depicted, classroom in these films are microcosms incarnating the conflicts of larger social groups. Schools with mixed-origin students are always taken to be metaphors for a country coming to grips with its diversity. The Blackboard Jungle means to be a portrait of American youth who grew up without fathers during the war. To Sir With Love presents itself as a capsule of British racial relations in reality and on screen. Discussing the nuances of the subjunctive mood with a class that can hardly put a few sentences together, the white teacher of the Palme d’Or winning Entre les murs (2008) finds himself lost in face of France’s vastly changing demographic that his students collectively represent.

If the students stand for societies in transition, the teachers, in turn, become paternal or maternal figures, and often offensively so, marshalling these recalcitrant children to unity and acceptance. Dangerous Minds (1995) converts the academic and social issues of Latino-Black students into an opportunity for Michelle Pfeiffer’s Marine-turned-teacher LouAnne Johnson to feel good about herself, just as Kamal Haasan’s Selvam hijacks the already-vitiated narrative of Nammavar (1994) into a vehicle for self-pity. In Freedom Writers (2007), Hilary Swank’s Erin Gruwell attempts to correct this narcissism and give the students a chance to express themselves by encouraging them to write their own stories. But, as always with Hollywood filmmaking, the overarching triumphalism, emphasizing Gruwell’s personal success and the students’ graduation to college as end goals in themselves, runs against the grain of the film’s declared intentions.

Part of the reason the inspirational teacher trope invariably devolves into a celebration of bourgeois individualism is that it’s rooted in the unshakeable middle-class belief of education as a ticket out of poverty, which in turn is predicated on the belief in the possibility of social mobility. (Hollywood sports movies do that too and their tough-love-dispensing coach is a variation on the teacher figure). The predictable way teacher roles are conceived according to the economic profile of their students gives a clue. Writing in the New York Times about the depiction of teachers in films, Motoko Rich notes how stories set in upper-class educational milieu tend to be comedies involving incompetent teachers while those unfolding in disadvantaged, impoverished areas lean towards dramas of inspirational educators. A film like Dead Poets Society is negatively instructive in this regard. Widely considered to be a touchstone for classroom dramas, it is, in fact, opposed to the conventions of the genre. Unlike in most of the works above, the students in the film are super-competitive, highly-disciplined and from affluent backgrounds. And what Williams’ Keating imparts to them is a healthy disdain for conformism. It’s an unusual, softly-concocted marriage of the inspirational teacher trope with the anarchic tendencies of student rebellion films such as Zero for Conduct (1933), If…. (1968) and Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982): down with Educashun, long live education!


[First published at Film Companion]

Road to the Oscars?

Road to the Oscars?

The official entries for the Academy Award have been made and as many as 67 countries are vying for the coveted award this year. Among the leading contenders for the nominations are Germany’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, Italy’s Gomorra, France’s Palm D’Or winner The Class, Iran’s The Song of Sparrows directed by Majid Majidi and Israel’s Waltz with Bashir. And the Italian entry is already making waves and being termed as one of the best crime dramas from the country.

The film interweaves five stories of five individuals – all inhabitants of Camorra (the notorious society of Naples known for its criminal activities) – a designer who sells himself to the fake manufacturers of the underground, a kid who fascinates getting into one of the gangs, two teenagers who wish to tackle everything with their newfound arsenal, an illegal businessman who pays the land owners in order to dump industrial waste and a plumber who tries to earn by other means. The narrative crosscuts irregularly from one story to another and it would a miracle if one could remember all five threads during any point in the film. But all this only adds to the harshness that the film depicts.

The basic atmosphere of the clan resonates what goes on there. There is no law, no neutrality and no word called crime. Everyone seems to belong to a gang and the gang wars are the courts that decide the future of the inhabitants. Everyone assumes that they are on the right side and are fighting for a cause. If Meirelles gave us the City of God, Matteo Garrone gives us the City without God. Gomorrah apparently refers to an ancient city that was decimated by God for the immense depravity of its residents. Indeed, it feels like God has deserted the settlement and has left everyone on their own as we see the figure of the Good Shepherd being dismantled and suspended by ropes (a possible nod to La Dolce Vita) as a family moves out of one of the buildings.

As Roy Stafford notes at The Case for Global Film, the locality forms a vital part in the narrative as we see in a fleeting shot that the whole establishment is so geographically close to the rest of the world, yet is culturally isolated from it. And like these structures, the film is completely devoid of any decorations that we see in conventional storytelling. It never once shows the trappings of a tale of crime, punishment and redemption that one expects at the starting of the film. Though it becomes a bit difficult to digest, it does provide the sense of confinement that the characters feel and the absence of any effort to come out of the vicious circle.

Also remarkable is the film’s photography that uses the camera as an active entity rather than as a tool for documentation. Like a thug staring at an intruder or like a dog sniffing a stranger, the camera gets close to the character, almost intimidating him and carefully peruses each one of his moves as if supervising his activities. It chooses to see what it wants and leaves out what it thinks is unwanted. It effectively becomes one of the clan members, even looking over corners and hiding behind people. For most part, the cinematography feels like hand held work, but never becomes nauseating even in the most dramatic moments.

The film is in the news for all the wrong reasons as the author of the book on which the film is based is under a life threat from the gangs of Camorra and a couple of the actors have been arrested in connection to the Camorra case. All this only assure that the director has been successful in exposing the inner working of one of the most arcane societies of the world. With the Academy’s policy towards violent and brutal films drastically changing, Gomorra may well cruise through to the last five and one can be sure that the weak Indian entry Taare Zameen Par has one less slot to compete for.