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MIT student blogger Afeefah K. '21

H I C C U P S by Afeefah K. '21

takeaways from a Bollywood film

A few Fridays ago, I sat down (as I normally do at the end of a long and tiring week) to watch a Bollywood film. All I was really looking for was a good-old three hours of minimal brain activity and the occasional musical sequence. When my younger brother hit the play button, I was already half-asleep. It’s been a while since a movie has kept me up past my internally strict bedtime. It’s been even longer since a movie has lingered with me past a good night’s sleep. Hichki (which roughly translates to hiccup in English), however, has had me scrambled in thoughts for days now. And as I’ve navigated my way through those dangerous waters, I like to think I’ve approached something meaningful.

(might want to turn on english subtitles for this)

In short, the film follows Naina Mathur, an aspiring teacher with some pretty heavy baggage: Tourette syndrome. A nervous system disorder in nature, Tourette’s causes her to make uncontrollable noises and movement. For a career as speech-dependent as education, Naina’s disorder serves as as big of a “hiccup” as she’ll find on her path to fulfill her dreams. But things always work out. And they work out for her as well, in a rather unconventional way. In a interesting turn of events, Naina is hired by her own alma mater to take on the disdained responsibility of teaching a group of 9th grade misfits. A group of low-income kids with both zero motivation and the potential to redirect their lives. The film in its entirety spews with messages of all kind. Messages about self-confidence. About perseverance. About redefining yourself. But there’s one message in particular that sticks out.

In addressing her students wasted potential, Naina unfolds the following sequence of dialogue:

“Ravinder, you can do calculations in your head that the average person needs a calculator for. And yet you fail in Math. You have a gift, so use it wisely. You want to bet? But bet legally. Not streetside gambling, but the largest level of gambling in the world: the stock market. Who knows? You might become a big investment banker.”

“Killam, you repair bike tires right? Why does a car go faster in 4th gear than 2nd gear? (student replies about the difference in friction) That’s physics!”

“Tammanah, when do you add salt to your okra? At the beginning? Or the end? (student replies that she adds salt at the end to prevent okra from getting watery). Adding salt releases moisture in anything, that’s chemistry!”

“If you ask me, you’re all experts of your own subjects. But there’s one more thing you all are also masters of-blaming your situations.” 

BUT THERE’S ONE MORE THING, YOU ALL ARE ALSO MASTERS OF-BLAMING YOUR SITUATIONS. Call me crazy for having that line on constant repeat for weeks now, but there’s a level of raw truth in that statement. A kind of truth that I think we all should be able to and absolutely need to recognize. We’re all products of our environment. And more often than not, we use our environments as excuses for our shortcomings. Our own personal journeys of self-growth and self-development stand permanently at the yield sign. Because hey, we were born that way. Or we were raised that way. Or we didn’t know better. Or that was how things were going to play out anyways. And frankly that’s the saddest form of failure there is. To retreat and helplessly accept the way things are.

Don’t get me wrong, our environments are critical to who become. But because we never fully get to pick the environments we grow in, we take it for granted. We don’t take advantage of our environments but let our environments take advantage of us.

There is a quote that goes something like “when a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment, not the flower.” And while I’ve always found value in those words, I don’t entirely agree anymore. Our environments and experiences in life make us who we are in the most basic way possible. By “changing environments” we somehow recognize that the environment wasn’t good for is in the first place. But it’s not that simple. Fortunate experiences set the bar high, forcing us to stay with par. Less fortunate experiences set the bar low, pushing us to want better. The environments we live in ultimately help us grow into our skins. Good or bad. So I disagree. I don’t think a flower fails to bloom because of the environment. But because it fails to take something away from that environment. For the students in Hichki, it’s not their slum lives that ill-prepared them for life, but their inability to see what they had learned from it.

At the end of the dialogue, Naina has her students write down all of their fears, all of the things that are holding them back. They then fold their sheets into airplanes and make their way out to easily the most beautiful scene of the film. Standing side by side on the school terrace, fears and confusions in mind, the students throw their planes far into the sky. Because our environments and situations can become the reason to fly, if we let them.

We all have our own hiccups in life. Our own Tourette’s. Our own street-side gambling. Bike repairs. Okras. What are my hichkis? I stem from a community that hesitates to send their girls far. I let things slide because I hate confrontation. My acne has been scratching at my self-confidence for YEARS. I think that the answer to a bad day is isolating myself till it’s time to sleep. I repetitively associate my self-worth with how people perceive me. And so the list goes on. But with each hiccup, we fold another paper airplane. We learn something new about who we are. About where we come from. And what all we are capable of in moving forward. So grab a cup of *water* and take a seat.

Because I want to know what your hichkis are. And maybe. Just maybe. If we start talking about our hiccups, we’ll become better because of it.

p.s. this post would not be complete without saying that Rani Mukherjee is a literal queen