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Teachers’ Day: Cult teachers in English films and how Bollywood doesn’t quite match up

Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love to Amitabh Bachchan in Black, here’s how these onscreen teachers continue to inspire us

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri Calcutta Published 05.09.22, 02:13 PM
(L-R) Amir Khan in Taare Zameen Par, Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love, Amitabh Bachchan in Black

(L-R) Amir Khan in Taare Zameen Par, Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love, Amitabh Bachchan in Black

But how do you thank someone

Who has taken you from crayons to perfume?


It isn’t easy, but I’ll try

If you wanted the sky

I would write across the sky in letters

That would soar a thousand feet high

‘To sir, with love’

The time has come

For closing books and long last looks must end

And as I leave I know that I am leaving my best friend

A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong

That’s a lot to learn

What, what can I give you in return?

If you wanted the moon

I would try to make a start

But I would rather you let me give my heart…

I owe the discovery of my favourite onscreen teacher to a stroke of serendipity. A sultry autumn Sunday in 1985. Only a few hours ago, we – my brother and parents – were on our way to Paras cinema in Nehru Place, New Delhi, where Amitabh Bachchan was going great guns with Geraftaar. Out of the blue, my father had a brainwave: there is this classic English war-actioner showing at Chanakya, why don’t we watch that? He rattled off a few star names. What! Give up Bachchan for some random English film? No way. But he had made up his mind, and so off we went, my brother and I muttering under our breath all the way. Five hours later, we emerged from the theatre, gobsmacked by what was a life-altering experience. The film was The Guns of Navarone.

As we literally came out into the light from the dark (the hall), my eyes fell on the ‘Next Change’ poster. Bachchan was forgotten, and English films were to be my new passion. One look at us and my father was making his way to book tickets for the next weekend. The film: To Sir With Love. A world apart from Navarone, that film opened another frontier in my love for English films and struck a chord (possibly also because only the previous year, I had come to Delhi, leaving behind my favourite teacher, Ms Julie Hazarika, in Shillong).

Cult onscreen teachers in English films

Watching it 40 years later, one cannot deny the sentimentality in To Sir With Love (the reviews at the time were generally scathing). And indeed Hollywood and British cinema have given us some memorable onscreen teachers in films that are better.

Leading the list would be the 1939 classic directed by Sam Wood, Goodbye Mr Chips, based on James Hilton’s novella of the same name, starring Robert Donat as Mr Chipping, a teacher and headmaster at a boarding school who reminisces on the generations of students he mentored in a career spanning six decades from 1870 to 1933. The student-teacher relationship has seldom been better expressed than when Mr Chips, now on his deathbed, overhears his colleagues talking about him. “I thought I heard you say it was a pity… pity I never had any children,” he responds. “But you’re wrong. I have! Thousands of them, thousands of them… and all… boys.”

Other unforgettable screen teachers of more recent vintage include Frank Bryant in Educating Rita (1983), John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989) and Glenn Holland in Mr Holland’s Opus (1995).

Educating Rita

Frank Bryant (Michael Caine), a jaded and alcoholic professor, prone to describing his skills as a tutor as “appalling but good enough for his appalling students”, finds his passion for literature reignited when Susan/Rita, a working-class hairdresser, enrols with him for an open university course. As he plays Professor Higgins to Julie Walters’s Eliza Doolittle, complications arise, with Rita gaining in confidence and adopting the airs of the very culture Frank despises, to provide a layered exploration of the teacher-student dynamics.

Dead Poets Society

Though criticised, most famously by Roger Ebert, as a “poorly constructed collection of pious platitudes”, Dead Poets Society, based on Nancy H. Kleinbaum’s book, is quite a striking film about a teacher (played by Robin Williams) who encourages his impressionable students in a fictional elite conservative boarding school to “seize the day, make your lives extraordinary”. The teacher inspires them to look at poetry and art in a new light, not because “we read and write poetry because it is cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for”. And that final sequence when student after student stands up on the bench reciting “O Captain My Captain” – it’s very much in your face, admittedly overdramatic, but irresistible.

Mr Holland’s Opus

Boasting, arguably, Richard Dreyfuss’s finest performance, Mr Holland’s Opus is the story of a high-school music teacher who wants to compose his own symphony while dealing with his musically challenged students whom he marshals into an orchestra in the face of budget constraints threatening the school’s arts programmes. Further complications arise when he becomes father to a son who is deaf and unable to share his love for music.

Spanning 30 years of American history — the assassination of Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, the sex, drugs and violence-fuelled 1970s, the Regan years — it is a heartwarming tale of a teacher who manages to impart more than just music lessons to his students, even as he learns a timeless lesson from his son. Consider, for example, the untalented clarinet player Gertrude Lang, who struggles with music. Mr Holland does not make a musician of her. What he gives her instead is a sense of self-esteem that helps her to chart a course all her own. Paraphrasing Roger Ebert, if the task of a teacher is to enable students to outgrow themselves and move from the contemporary to the timeless, this film captures that beautifully.

To Sir With Love

Despite these better films, it’s impossible to deny the charm that Sidney Poitier exudes as a schoolteacher in the tough East End of London who by sheer dint of his personality and perseverance wins over a band of recalcitrant students, enabling them to reach out for a life not constricted by their social, racial and underprivileged circumstances. Though the film does address these contentious issues, it excises the interracial relationship that is a crucial part of the novel by E.R. Braithwaite on which the film is based, leading the author to practically disown the film.

However, it remains, for me, the definitive portrayal of a teacher onscreen, in the way he abandons the textbook and drives his students to respect each other, which in turn will lead them to value their own lives. And how can one not love Judy Geeson as Pamela Dare, the student who becomes infatuated with ‘Sir’, persuading him to be her partner for the ‘Ladies Choice’ dance, and of course, Lulu singing the definitive ode to all teachers, To sir with love.

Teachers in Hindi cinema

Unfortunately, Hindi cinema has little to offer by way of good, credible teachers. Filmmakers across decades have had little sense of what constitutes life in an academic institution marked by authentic student-teacher relationships. I am hard-pressed to recall one Hindi film that captures school and college life with any verisimilitude (barring a Raakh or a Haasil). Bollywood’s portrayal of teachers is as poor as the state of a majority of teachers in this country, with Anupam Kher’s I.M. Lathi and Bindu’s girls hostel principal in Shola Aur Shabnam (1992), Sushmita Sen’s Chandni Chopra (Main Hoon Na, 2004), Rishi Kapoor’s Yogendra ‘Yogi’ Vashisht, the dean in Student of the Year (2012) scraping the bottom of the barrel.


Take Imtihan (1974), for example, a remake of the K. Balachander-helmed Tamil film Nootrukku Nooru (1971), where a college professor is accused of sexual harassment. However, it is to the Sidney Poitier film that the HIndi movie owes its debts — in its story of a professor who encounters and sets out to reform a group of undisciplined and rowdy students.

With buffoonish teachers like Asit Sen and CS Dubey being played for laughs — the template for teachers in a host of films — and Bindu as a student singing Bujha de, jal gayi and Dekho idhar bhi to seduce her handsome teacher, Imtihan is laughably bad, redeemed only by its iconic Kishore Kumar number Ruk jaana nahin and a very dishy Vinod Khanna in oversized glasses and era-defining sideburns. That it remains almost the first Hindi film one is likely to mention when a teacher character is mentioned says a lot about the paucity of plausible teachers in Bollywood.


Among the notable exceptions to the Imtihan school of teachers in Hindi cinema is Satyen Bose’s Jagriti (1955), with Abhi Bhattacharya playing the superintendent at a boarding school. Seventy years later, the almost godlike teacher who sings the anthemic Aao bachchon and Hum laaye hain toofan se seems like an anachronism, but the film and the character captured the zeitgeist of hope and dreams the early 1950s had symbolised for the nation.

Hip Hip Hurray

Prakash Jha’s directorial debut Hip Hip Hurray (1984) is that rare Hindi film — a coming-of-age drama, a sports film and an authentic depiction of school life with a relatable teacher. Sandeep (Raj Kiran), waiting for a job as an engineer, takes on the temporary assignment of a sports instructor at a school in Ranchi. A growing relationship with the history teacher Anuradha (Deepti Naval) and, more importantly, his interaction with a band of rebellious students led by the volatile Raghu (Nikhil Bhagat), who has a crush on Anuradha, and the apathetic principal, steels Sandeep as he galvanises the students into a winning football team. Gulzar’s realistic script that incorporates the bittersweet nuances of the student-teacher relationship, his rousing lyrics for Ek subah ek mod par and Rajen Kothari’s innovative cinematography that enlivens the football bits make Hip Hip Hurray a winner.

Other iconic teachers in Hindi cinema include Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan) in Black (2005), Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) in Chak De India (2007), and Ram Shankar Nikumbh (Aamir Khan) in Taare Zameen Par (2007).


Inspired in part by Hellen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, that dealt with her relationship with her teacher Anne Sullivan, Black is the story of the blind girl Michelle (Ayesha Kapur and Rani Mukherji) and her teacher, the eccentric and mercurial Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan), who is determined to break through Michelle’s darkness. Years later, the teacher is in a mental institution, battling Alzheimer’s, and it is time for the student to repay her debt.

Though I personally feel that Black is too overwrought and somewhat undermined by the theatrics of its two star leads (young Ayesha Kapur is a different league altogether) — particularly seen in light of The Miracle Worker, the 1962 film that dealt with the relationship between Helen and Anne and eschewed all sentimentality — there’s no doubt about the emotional heft of the relationship between Michelle and Debraj, something hitherto unexplored in Hindi cinema.

Chak De India and Taare Zameen Par

Shah Rukh Khan delivered one of his most loved performances as the coach of the down-and-out Indian women’s hockey team. What makes this work is not just the underdog story where the protagonist is saddled with a bunch of no-hopers whom he has to inspire to punch above their weight, but that it offers him his only chance at redeeming himself in the eyes of a nation as much as his own. No Hindi film boasts of the nuances that underline the growing relationship between a teacher and his students (warring as much with him as with each other) than Chak De India.

The same year, 2007, Hindi cinema came up with another memorable teacher in Taare Zameen Par, a pioneering film for the way it addresses the character of an eight-year-old boy with dyslexia (brilliantly played by Darsheel Safary), who is inspired by his art teacher to overcome his learning disorder and give free rein to his unbounded imagination.

A bleak landscape in Bengali films

Bengali cinema, too, has little to offer when it comes to teachers. The one exception in a bleak landscape: Saroj Dey’s 1984 classic Kony, based on Moti Nandi’s novel. The indefatigable Khidda (Soumitra Chatterjee in one of his best roles), a coach who trains the underprivileged, picks up a girl, Kony, from a slum and grooms her to be part of Bengal’s swimming team.

The inspirational film tracks the relationship between the two as they battle petty politics in Indian sports, poverty and social bias to emerge victorious. Khidda’s exhortation “fight, Kony, fight” became a motivational catchphrase following the film’s release. Soumitra Chatterjee also played an elderly schoolteacher who witnesses a political murder committed by an ex-student, in Tapan Sinha’s Atanka (1986). Although the film does not deal with student-teacher bonds per se, it throws light on the failure of education and the political system that forces an upright and conscientious teacher to deal with a student he had groomed but who has gone astray.

Women as teachers

Indranil Roychowdhury’s Bengali film Phoring (2013) provides a welcome change to the general trend of male teachers in cinema, with Sohini Sarkar playing Doel, a teacher who offers a lifeline to the adolescent Phoring (played by Akash Adhikari), opening new vistas for the boy. Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee’s 2018 blockbuster Haami, too, has two women teachers in the lead, though the film does not strictly belong to this genre.

Strange as it may seem, even on the international front, very few films with women teachers have been able to make a mark, Julia Roberts’s Mona Lisa Smile (2013) being an exception. In Hindi, Simi Garewal in Mera Naam Joker (1970) made an indelible impression as a teacher who becomes a conduit for her ward’s (Rishi Kapoor in a delightful debut performance) sexual awakening and self-discovery.

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film and music buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer

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