INTERVIEW

Saket Choudhary clears the air on plagiarism charge, says ‘Hindi Medium’ is an original film

The director of ‘Pyaar Ke Side Effects’ denies that the May 19 release is a copy of the 2014 Bengali hit ‘Ramdhanu’.

One of the themes of Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium is the privilege attached to an English medium education. Raj (Irrfan), a wealthy businessman from Delhi, is not fluent in English, while his wife Mita (Saba Qamar) is adamant on enrolling their daughter in a posh school. They go to great and often seriocomic lengths to secure their daughter’s future.

Chaudhary made his big screen debut with Pyaar Ke Side Effects (2006), which he followed up with Shaadi Ke Side Effects (2014). He had previously worked in television, spoofing Dhoom (2004) as Ghoom (2006). Hindi Medium is a light-hearted comedy that also addresses anomalies in the Right to Education Act, which has attracted the ire of Bengali filmmakers Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee. They have accused Chaudhary of copying the themes explored in their Bengali hit Ramdhanu (2014). Choudhary spoke to Scroll.in about the plagiarism charges and the reason behind the long gaps between his films.

What is the status of the allegation that ‘Hindi Medium’ is plagiarised from ‘Ramdhanu’?
I think people jumped to conclusions too early. As more and more information about Hindi Medium came out, it became evident that the scope of the film was entirely different. My film is based on original material that my co-writer Zeenat Lakhani and I developed. It was during the research of my previous film Shaadi Ke Side Effects that we stumbled upon an article about a man whose daughter was rejected by a school because he had an arts degree. So he enrolled in an MBA programme to get her through. That struck a chord and triggered the idea.

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Hindi Medium (2017).

What were the challenges in writing the script?
Hindi Medium is about a couple wanting to put their daughter into a good English medium school for which they themselves have to score through an interview, so in a way it’s a test that they have to take and pass to get her through.

The first draft was not up to the mark, so we went back to the story. We incorporated the element of the Right to Education Act, according to which both child and parents do not have to sit for an admission interview. That important message had to come through the comedy narrative, and it gave our film a much stronger impact.

Was Irrfan your first choice for the main lead?
Yes, he was the only one I absolutely wanted for the role.

Did you fear that the film could court controversy due to Pakistani actress Saba Qamar’s presence?
When we started finalising the actors, she fit the part because I had seen her work in some Pakistani serials. We approached her without thinking about nationality. It’s only towards the final days of the shoot in 2016 that Pakistani actors were being asked to leave the country. Since ours was a small film, it didn’t affect us. We had shot her portions by then. Some time passed and the noise about banning Pakistani actors died down. So by the time of the release, she wasn’t a prime target.

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Suit Suit from Hindi Medium (2017).

‘Shaadi Ke Side Effects’ was criticised for mansplaining – the narrative centred on the hero’s point of view and the woman’s voice was missing. Have you balanced this out in ‘Hindi Medium’?
See, I understand that criticism but I don’t think of it like that. One must understand the perspective when we are writing a script if we want to take a certain approach to a story. Even accepting that I chose to tell a story from a particular person’s point of view is what ultimately should be acknowledged.

Hindi Medium is a totally different set-up. It’s not about a sparring couple, but a family of three and a busy world around them, where everyone is equally important and clearly heard. It is about the privilege of class and position in society and also about this well-to-do couple who have no clue about how the poor survive and how they learn about things beyond their cushioned lives.

Your debut ‘Pyaar Ke Side Effects’ was in 2006 and its follow-up was after an eight-year gap. Does it take so long to move from one film to the next, especially if the first one is a big hit?
I know. The script got delayed and getting an actor on board took time. But since I am financially sound, I can afford to go slow. I am not interested in churning films every year.

You don’t want to be like Woody Allen, who has a film out every year?
I did grow up thinking I want to be a great director like him, but I don’t think I have his talents.

Saket Chaudhary.
Saket Chaudhary.
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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.