I clearly remember her from Class 3. Let us call her Y. When she joined us, our teacher announced in Y's presence that she is poor " not with any overt malice, but as if seeking our consideration towards the new girl. What can one say of that act of godawful insensitivity by a well-intentioned, unintelligent adult?
Y spoke not a word to us as far as I recall. That day or perhaps the next, a student lost something. I am not sure what it was " maybe cash, maybe a pencil or sharpener. You know how eight-year-olds can be. Our teacher deemed it fit to single Y out and publicly, in a gentle tone, ask her to confess if she had stolen the missing item. Then, as she searched Y's bag before the whole class, Ma'am said by way of explanation to the rest of us, "Poor child. She might have taken it because she is poor, you know." (words to that effect)
Y did not return to class the following day.
In the decades since, I have often thought of Y and wondered about the effect of such humiliation on one so young. She came to mind again while I watched the boy Bulbul in this week's Hindi film release, Pareeksha - The Final Test, as he is belittled by a teacher on his first day in an English medium school for the "bade log" (big people).
Pareeksha is a heart-rending account of a poor rickshaw puller determined to help his son escape poverty by giving him the best education available in the city. Towards this end, Buchhi persuades a school for Ranchi's upper crust to admit Bulbul into its hallowed realm, despite the back-breaking financial burden this move places on him and his wife Radhika who is a factory worker.
Some scenes in Pareeksha involving the faculty and students' reactions to Bulbul at that educational institution suffer from stilted dialogue writing, lax execution and sub-par acting, some are even simplistic, but at no point are they beyond belief. In fact, if you have tracked the experiences of youngsters who get slotted as "quota" folk by the offspring of the well-heeled and upper castes in Indian colleges, you will know that a real-life Bulbul would most likely have faced far worse.
Pareeksha is written, directed and produced by Prakash Jha. The National Award winning veteran's interest in the education system was evident from his debut.
Pareeksha takes several unforeseeable turns that keep it interesting through its 1 hour and 42 minutes running time. It diminishes in strength occasionally when it moves away from Bucchi and is weakest in the snobby school scenes, but just when it appears that Jha is losing his hold on it, he tightens his grip on the reins.
There is a significant and meaningful episode in the film involving a senior policeman played by Sanjay Suri (likeable as always). It is a crucial sub-plot, but when it went on for too long, I began to fear that Pareeksha would fall victim to a saviour complex. Just in time though, Jha pulls back, which is a good thing, although it must be said that the ending of that passage is abrupt and inconsistent with the characterisation of the policeman until then.
Pareeksha is that rare contemporary Hindi film that is not afraid to examine India's caste system. Article 15 in 2019 had placed atrocities against Dalits at the front and centre of its script. Dhadak the previous year was more typical of Bollywood, pretty much rubbing caste out of the storyline taken from the pathbreaking Marathi film Sairat. Pareeksha does not use the word "caste" anywhere but with a scene featuring a reprehensible father from Bulbul's school, the family's address and the mention of Buchhi's surname at one point, it leaves us in no doubt about his background.
According to a press note from ZEE5, the streaming platform on which Pareeksha releases today, the film is inspired by true events in the experience of former Bihar DGP Abhayanand. The storytelling here is not as sophisticated as Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari's brilliant Nil Battey Sannata (Zero Divided By Zero), which starred Swara Bhasker as a household worker who returns to school to inspire her ambitionless teenaged daughter. Pareeksha's narrative has questionable patches and the production design is not always convincing, but the larger story it tells is inspiring and extremely poignant. Some parts of the film may seem fairytale-like, considering the cruelty of the real India's caste and class divides, but there are enough newspaper reports around to tell us that they are not impossible.
A bonus comes in the form of little touches, such as the opening on an aerial view of the city with the azaan rising in the background followed by what sound like temple bells and cymbals. This is an unconventional choice for a Hindi film since the leads are not Muslim, so what it is " along with the undramatised, unhyped, non-cliched, random presence in the narrative of Muslim neighbours and a Christian school staffer " is an unobtrusive reminder in these divisive times from a politically concerned filmmaker: that multiculturalism is the natural order when our society is left to its own devices.
These touches, as much as the primary theme, are vintage Prakash Jha.