[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]

Super 30

In a face-off marking the film’s intermission, the local IIT coaching business head Lallan (Aditya Shrivastava) comes to warn a renegade star professor Anand Kumar (Hrithik Roshan) of dire consequences if he continues running his free coaching centre for the poor. Pockets of sunlight trickling through the makeshift roof creates dramatic zones of shadow and light on the character’s faces. As Lallan cranks up his challenge using colourful metaphors of a horse derby, music swells and a wind from nowhere sweeps across the room, making the asbestos walls rumble. Lest we miss the cues, Anand asks Lallan to brace for a storm.

Multiplying signifiers is part of all melodramatic expression, but Vikas Bahl, the director of Super 30, uses it exclusively as a crutch to prop up an uninspired material bordering on formula. The strings are pulled even before the first shot, violins and choruses preparing us for a soundscape that will be set to 11 through the remainder of the film. The film opens in London in 2017 at a gathering to felicitate a successful student of Anand’s. After a brief rollcall of Indian-headed corporations, he pays tribute to his professor, who, even before the flashback, is presented as a genius educator to be lionized. The second scene is a gathering too, this time in Patna twenty years ago, and sets up a lazy opposition between education and politics that characterizes the film: a slimy education minister (Pankaj Tripathi) makes false promises to Anand, who has just won a top medal.

He goes to show the medal to his romantic interest Ritu (Mrunal Thakur). In the first scene of a gratuitous romantic track, shoehorned as in all biopics of men to show that these men have Feelings, Ritu sits wearing the medal looking sideways at Anand, who crouches on the floor, talking about PhD while playing pittu. The scene, like all others in the film, plays out exactly as you imagine; a romantic interlude between a math geek and a plain Jane: she expects him to declare his love while he, in a parody of 60s Hindi cinema bholas, holds forth on phi, the golden ratio. A first meeting with the girl’s father, Anand’s appointment with the minister seeking financial help, all the exchanges with Lallan, the minister’s rude dismissals of Lallan, a scene at the police station seeking protection, Anand’s pep talk as he shuttles between students standing around him in the room, they all proceed with the predictability of the Fibonacci series. The villains recognize themselves as villains, the amir log address themselves as amir log. A story’s dramatic value is already diminished when its antagonists themselves are convinced of the hero’s moral superiority.

This bloodless quality of the script might have been made up for with a dynamic style, but Super 30 is so formally inert and conservative that the sole visceral impact that Anand’s victories provide comes from its booming soundtrack. Outside of a few ominous close-ups of a cycle chain (whose delicious ambiguity is soon dispelled by the turn of events) and three meal scenes, none of which the film seems to be really invested in, there’s hardly an organizational principle at sight. The visual culture of IIT coaching institutes, with its fatigue-inducing self-promotional ads and banners, is dispensed in a single second-unit montage. The better part of the film is given a burnished DI look to evoke some vague sense of the rustic while once florescent-lit scene at a hospital, with stroboscopic effects on cue, sticks out like Hrithik’s grey eyes in the hinterlands of Bihar.

What does hold the attention and ground the film is, however, the figure of Hrithik Roshan himself. Successively outfitted in old sneakers, half-sweaters (= innocent man, per Bollywood), pilled T-shirts, checked shirts, oversized kurtas, his top button always open making his neck crane out even further in the frame, a pen in the shirt pocket, a large-dial wristwatch on the right hand and sometimes a red towel on the shoulder to signify his modest means, Hrithik is always interesting to watch here, despite the raw deal the script offers him. Like Gary Cooper, he effaces himself in the early part of the film, blending into the crowd and sticking to the edge of the frame. He squats twice in the film to indicate overwhelming joy – one when he gets an admit at Cambridge and again when his students clear IIT – he pulls up his belt that wraps around a too-tucked-in shirt when he meets the girl’s father (borrowing from his man-child repertoire from Koi Mil Gaya), he uses his middle finger to point at objects and stands in the classroom against the table leaning on his right elbow or with his right foot on a chair, looking like a pretty hieroglyphic. And, of course, he swallows his saliva to show that he is overcome with emotion. His Adam’s apple is a compositional element of its own.

Does Super 30 take on feudal forces as it repeatedly claims in its punchline? I believe not. The film inscribes itself into a Hollywood tradition of individual triumph in which the nominal social problem (the exclusion of the poor from the social ladder) becomes a wallpaper to the protagonist’s journey of self-realization (the success of Anand’s academy). Think Dances with Wolves, Schindler’s List, Amistad. Like the heroes of these films, Hrithik’s Anand is a paternal figure who not only must do his professional duty as a teacher, but also prepare his children to face life’s challenges. In an extended set piece – perhaps the film’s most inspired moment, pulling off with a straight face what is otherwise unintentionally funny – he orders his students to put up a play entirely in English in order to help them find self-respect and overcome their complexes of not being able to speak in English. The play, set at the town square on Holi day with coaching institute posters all around, starts out as a funny skit around Sholay, but soon becomes a resistance song against the hegemony of English. While Anand’s prowess as a life coach are amply demonstrated, the cognitive challenges in teaching and learning advanced mathematical concepts, themselves, are side stepped. Turning abstract physical problems into real world questions or pretty animations doesn’t, despite what the film thinks, make them any more pertinent, leave alone solvable.

The event the entire film prepares us for – the IIT entrance exam – is placed right after a shootout worthy of Anu Club, in which the students employ various scientific concepts to ward off gun-toting henchmen sent by the minister. The exam itself is not depicted and the day of the exam results becomes an excuse for the camera to linger long on Hrithik’s expression of relief and vindication. The film’s end credits present a list of international laurels for Anand’s programme, not what it did to its participants or what IIT means to its aspirants today. It reads no differently than the promotional banners of other coaching institutes.

Part of the problem stems from the film’s wholesale purchase of the bourgeois myth of Education as a ticket out of poverty. Not only will education help you get a job, but you can build slide projectors with rubber bands and fend off a criminal outfit with solenoids and lenses. Pervading the film is the idea that were the children allowed a shot at the IIT, all the systemic problems facing them for generations would vanish. No matter the lack of institutional support once you get into top-tier colleges as an underprivileged student or the continuation of inequalities in performance through accrued academic capital. The notion of education as panacea and an ultimate goal to be pursued reverberates throughout Super 30, with its thundering Sanskrit chorus about education, its unironic reverence of the IITs and its belief that education lies somewhere beyond the corrupting realms of business and politics. These are talking points that you will invariably find echoed in middle-class living rooms and corporate offices.

“A king’s son will no longer become the king. Only he who deserves it will become the king,” a line that’s uttered a handful of times in the film. This seeming rebuttal to zamindari era is actually a cover for the belief in pure meritocracy the film embodies. Super 30’s dodging of the question of reservation is not simply a curiosity, but essential to its functioning. It has to pit rich kids who have all the means at their disposal to prepare for the exam and poor but gifted kids who have to fight for everything. In a sequence depicting competition between the two camps, the former group turns out to be winners by a couple of marks, and the film plays it out as a defeat for Anand. It would not sit well within the moral fabric of the film for an underprivileged student with lower marks passing the exam over a rich student with higher marks. In an early scene at a university library, Anand Kumar is thrown out for not giving out his full name. What first appears to be a rebellious gesture to withhold caste name is extended to every character in the film, who are all to be read only as tropes such as evil politician, corrupt businessman, doting father, helpful reporter etc. I hope this objection to the film for trying to remap caste-class inequalities solely along class lines doesn’t seem like an unfair or irrelevant criticism. What I intend to point out is that, in doing so, the film falls in line with the same outlook it rebukes. Super 30, however, is not special offender. This narrative of the triumph of merit over mediocrity, talent over entitlement is part of the enduring myth that culture industries such as Hollywood and Bollywood – without a hint of irony – tell us, if not themselves.