On a warm summer evening, up in the Kumaon mountains in Pithoragarh, we watched Abbas Kiarostami’s film Where is the Friend’s Home? It was an audience of about 35 people, most of them government schoolteachers. The cryptic, flashing English subtitles of the movie were not very helpful to the audience, most of whom had only a passing familiarity with the language. And the language of the movie, Persian, was alien to everyone.
It did not matter, as we sat riveted for 90 minutes. No language barrier can stop that movie from speaking to you, and that is the craft of Kiarostami. Shot on location in a village in Iran, with local, non-professional actors, its production is as deceptively simple as its story. Ahmed, a seven-year-old boy, living in Koker, brings home his friend’s notebook from school, by mistake. The teacher has threatened to expel his friend from the school if he doesn’t complete his homework in the notebook one more time. Ahmed doesn’t know where his friend lives, other than that he lives in the neighbouring village. The movie is Ahmed’s search for his friend’s home to return his notebook that evening so that he can complete his homework. Ahmed’s natural actions by the end become an almost epic quest, fuelled by his compassion and desire to do the right thing, confronted continually by an adult world which is almost always uncomprehending of the child and often unintentionally hostile to him.
No one left when the movie finished. For 90 minutes in the afterglow, the teachers discussed the movie. They talked of whether it was empathy or duty that drove Ahmed, and whether these two motivations are related or totally distinct. His school seemed so familiar that they laughed. There were deeply felt comments on the inability of adults to listen to children, and on the distance between a child’s world and that of the adult despite occupying the same space-time.
Ahmed’s grandfather became the centrepiece of a heated debate on why adults commit wanton violence against children. They talked about the relationship of Ahmed and his parents, empathizing with the boy for the lack of support at home, without condemning the parents who are immersed in the daily struggle of life. They found the social context of distant Iran fascinating, with older crafts and livelihoods being marginalized, with rigid gender roles and with a sense of life drifting along to nowhere. The discussion found a natural end, when someone said, “Well, all this could have happened in Pithoragarh yesterday.”
Hearing of government schoolteachers spending their evening watching a serious Persian film in a small town in India would surprise many. The depth of the discussion following the movie and its broad range would be heartening to anyone. They were not critiquing the film as art, but as a human document directly relevant to their lives and to education. It’s unlikely that there will be any deeper insights from the film in the seats of intellectual power anywhere.
It’s not as though there was an announcement made about the film show that evening and the teachers just showed up. It’s a group that meets and works regularly on matters of education. They meet on some evenings during weekdays, on some weekends and for longer durations during the vacations. The focus of their sessions ranges from matters directly in the curriculum to other practical matters facing them in schools and to things (like this film) that have a broader relevance to education. For example, in the past three months, many of them have participated in a five-day residential workshop on math, in weekend sessions on gender issues and on the Constitution of India, and their evening sessions have ranged from colonialism to gravity.
This is a vibrant peer-learning network focused on the professional development of its members—the teachers. Like any such effective network, it has its own norms and commitments, but is informal and not closed. The members participate and join of their own volition, not because someone has told them to or any kind of external incentive. They want to become better teachers.
This group has not come together on its own. A few people have worked hard to develop it and stay committed to keeping it vibrant. They also make sure that there is a steady flow of dialogue with people outside the group so that it doesn’t become insular or stop growing intellectually. You will encounter teacher groups of this kind and such individual teachers across the country.
The need for such professional development is naturally felt by most teachers, driven by the complexity of their role which demands deep expertise, street-smarts, moral commitment, a humane approach and a Buddha-like disposition. And all this requires a lifetime of work. Providing active support and an enabling culture for such professional development of our eight million teachers is perhaps the most urgent intervention required to improve the quality of education in India.