Raatchasi ignites self-reflection among teachers

Early last month a teacher told me that a Tamil film titled “Raatchasi” (demoness) was the hottest topic among the fraternity. She said her Facebook friends, most of whom are Malay teachers, were earnestly discussing the movie and the lessons it contains.

Last week, I read that Education Minister Maszlee Malik had praised the movie and its message, even urging all teachers to watch it. That piqued my interest.

Among other things, Maszlee said: “There are so many policies and changes that we are striving to achieve that have been described in this movie. For example, the free breakfast programme. This movie translates my aspirations that it is more than just about food: I would like to see the teachers sit and eat together with our children.” This is what headmaster Geetha Rani does in the movie.”

Noting that Geetha Rani involves everyone – students, teachers, parents and other government departments – in improving her school and the life of her students, Maszlee added: “Making education a collective vision of all parties is one of my greatest wishes as I believe that education should be seen as a local community’s goal, a plan to improve their lives. All educators, parents, students and anyone, I recommend watching this movie.”

A few days ago, I read that the team which made the movie had sent a letter thanking Maszlee for his support. It was signed by actress Jyothika – who plays the role of headmaster Geetha Rani, the “Raatchasi” of the story.

“As 90% of the crew members themselves have studied in government schools, this was more of a real life experience put on celluloid, rather than making a money-spinning feature film.

“All we wanted as a team is that the future generations should stand firmly on the solid ground of a quality education-based system, and get equal opportunities to prove their mettle,” Jyothika said.

Jyothika, by the way, is a very versatile actress and one of the top stars in India. In a male stars-dominated Indian movie world, she is one of two south Indian women whose movies can hold their own – the other being Nayantara. She is also the wife of heartthrob hero Suriya Sivakumar, a superstar in India.

Maszlee was surprised to receive the letter, which he shared on his Facebook page on Sept 6.

That piqued my interest even more.

The majority of Malaysian teachers are Malay and I find that they are genuinely discussing this movie and reflecting on the various messages it has for their profession on Facebook and on teacher-focused websites. Kudos are in order. One educationist called Muhammad Yusof even enumerates the various lessons that teachers can learn.

Fortunately, Astro is still screening “Raatchasi” on its Tamil channel and I decided to watch it.

I can understand why the movie resonates with teachers, even teachers whose native language is not Tamil.

I hope Maszlee and his officials will strike the iron while it is hot by reigniting in teachers the passion to help shape the character of their students and to set students on a never-ending quest for knowledge, creativity and plain human goodness.

I noted several scenes and dialogue that are pertinent to teachers but which can also benefit all of us.

There is a scene where Geetha Rani’s father, newspaper in hand, says too many students and youths are being arrested for involvement in crime.

Geetha Rani says: “If teachers work a little harder, the police can work a little less.”

Just before this exchange, we see her father chatting with a visitor who says the school is all “heated up”. The father nonchalantly asks if it is because of the scorching sun and the visitor says: “No, it is because of the hard work your daughter is doing.”

The father, tongue-in-cheek and seemingly incredulous, gives a classic reply: “You mean to say she collects a government salary and then actually does some work? Don’t worry, I’ll caution her against it.”

During a staff meeting, Geetha Rani says many youngsters are getting involved in crime or landing lowly paid jobs after dropping out. She notes: “Schools have been established not to produce criminals and coolies.”

When a teacher says the student dropout problem can’t be blamed on them as they have no option but to fail students who don’t do well, Geetha Rani asks: “Shall we have a test for all teachers? If any teacher fails, shall we ask them to leave?”

Another teacher says some students are incorrigible, adding: “They can’t change.” Geetha Rani shoots back: “Don’t say they can’t change; say you have failed to change them.”

The “raatchasi” adds: “A healthy person does not need a doctor. If you can only teach those who can understand, then you’re no teacher.”

What a powerful message.

In another scene, many teachers, upset that they now have to actually work or work harder, join a protest against the headmaster. One of them tells her: “You are always against the teachers.”

She replies: “I am always for the students. I’m very clear that getting a salary without working should be listed as corruption.”

Geetha Rani then asks: “You often fight for higher salaries and better facilities and such for yourselves. Have you ever fought for an improvement in the quality of education or for better facilities for your students or protested that the education system is flawed?”

The protesters, led by a caste-based political party, demand her sacking. Geetha Rani asks the leader of the party: “You have branches all over. If you but use these branches to genuinely help the local people of your caste improve their lives, people would be proud of you. But you merely use the support of your caste to gain power and enrich your family. You also help your cronies become rich. But what have you done for the ordinary people? Have you helped them get bank loans to do business? Have you helped them study in tertiary institutions? Have you helped them develop skills so they can stand on their own feet?”

Does that sound familiar? Although we don’t have caste-based parties here, we do have race-based parties. But the experience is similar. Leaders of race- and religion-based parties should answer the question raised by Geetha Rani.

We know that in Malaysia, too, the families of top political leaders are rich by the time the person leaves office – the only exceptions being the founding fathers of the nation who spent their own money for the betterment of the people. We see that sons, daughters, sons-in-law, brothers and other relatives of top politicians seem to prosper when their family member holds a powerful post. We also see their cronies flying high.

One of the characters I like in the movie is an auto driver who transports Geetha Rani to and from work. Sy Gowtham Raj, the director of “Raatchasi”, has given him an appropriate name: Socrates.

Initially, Socrates does not know his passenger is the headmaster of this rural school and he loudly shares his views about education. He pointedly says the country is in a bad state because teachers have not been doing their job.

There is too much corruption and unethical behaviour and crime, he says, adding: “If you were to announce that you’ll cut the salary of teachers by half, you’ll have to close half the teacher training institutes.”

After he finds out she is the headmaster, he changes his tune a little to say that the system is also to blame. He observes that if a student gets high marks, it does not mean he is more intelligent than the one with low marks, only that he is better at memorising.

He asks: “What do you say of an education system where an engineering graduate has to work as a food deliverer?”

It reminded me of the recent story in our media about a young aircraft engineering graduate who, unable to find a suitable job, began working as a food delivery man and who decided to call himself “food distribution engineer”.

In a scene where she is talking to parents, Geetha Rani asks them their views about the village school and whether it has changed since the time many of them studied there. When they say “no”, she asks them for the reason. One blames “the system”, another the school administration, and another the government. Geetha Rani asks: “What about your role? What did you do to improve this school?”

I hope Maszlee does not just expect teachers to learn from the raatchasi. There are many lessons for the education minister and ministry officials too.

One reason many schools merely exist is because of poor leadership. Perhaps Maszlee should shake up the leadership of schools and appoint people not based on seniority or political-related criteria but on passion and ability to improve the lives of students.

The take home message, I think, is this: You need strong leadership for any school, or for that matter, nation, to progress. And you need teachers with commitment and passion who put the welfare of students ahead of their own.

I hope to see more raatchasis in our schools.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.