21st March 2020. Many of us reading that date will be reminded of the moment, two years ago, when lockdowns started happening everywhere around the world, and this is the setting for Sameer Sharma’s charming short film, Master Ji. Tyagi sir, a biology teacher close to retirement, arrives home, his nose and mouth covered by a handkerchief. He quickly washes his hands, and tells his wife that it’s no longer safe to be outside. Over dinner, as his family talks about an outing, he insists that no one will go anywhere. The next day is the beginning of a lockdown. As in many places, education moves online, and Master Ji will have to learn how to cope with the very different challenges online learning places on both students and teacher.
Director Sameer Sharma manages to perfectly capture something I saw playing out online with the teachers in my circle – the struggle to shift from classroom teaching to online teaching, which require different skills and approaches to learning, while at the same time ensuring that students’ learning will not suffer. It’s a delicate balancing act that Tyagi sir struggles with, enlisting the help of his daughter until he can no longer interrupt her own online classes.
It is such a pleasure to see a film from director Sameer Sharma – it’s been such a long time since his debut feature film, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, in 2012. Apparently, it had long been Sharma’s wish to work with Hindi film veteran Raghubir Yadav, and Yadav’s portrayal of an older teacher struggling with technology as he tries to teach online is incredibly moving. Yadav captures the bewilderment of someone who isn’t a digital native trying to come to grasp with the unfamiliar, his excitement at the possility that the lockdown will end, and his utter discouragment to learn that online teaching will continue for what seems like an almost interminable six months. We understand the frustration that even has him considering taking early retirement – I cannot count the number of teachers I saw online grappling with the same issues that Master Ji does, and some of them also came to the decision to retire. But there is a twist in Sharma’s film that sees Master ji coming to a very different decision.
Sharma’s short film is so tightly written and lovingly filmed, and Raghubir’s performance is so moving and nuanced, that it’s just a delight to watch this warm and uplifting tale that reminds us of what it was like for teachers and students at the beginning of the pandemic. Master Ji may have been produced as a Teacher’s Day ad for the Byju’s learning app, but it is a charming short film that is well worth watching.
Masterji was part of Short Films Programme Strand in the Satyajit Ray Short Film Competition 2022 and is available to watch at LoveLIFFAtHome through July 3rd. Find out more about the London Indian Film Festival here.