Sunday, October 29, 2023

Heart, soul, and a terrific Vikrant Massey performance: on 12th Fail

(About a new film I hadn’t expected to like much – thought it would be another tedious exercise in well-intentionedness – but was completely engrossed by. Wrote this review for Money Control)

My first all-encompassing thought about Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail, once the closing credits began, was that here is a film which is all heart. Now, ordinarily, that wouldn’t be grounds enough for approval (for me at least) – if anything, the statement could imply a snarky addendum. (To paraphrase a scene from a movie that’s very different in tone and subject, the recent thriller Chup about a serial killer targeting critics: “This film has its heart in the right place; unfortunately the other organs are scattered all over”.)

With 12th Fail, though, the other organs are not disorganised or scattered. They are packed neatly together, each fulfilling its given function, in the service of an engrossing, forthright story based on Anurag Pathak’s book about a “12th fail” village lad who gives the IPS exams – repeatedly, and against the odds.

At the surface level, this is a straightforward, message-oriented story: Manoj (Vikrant Massey), a young man from a Chambal village, is studying for the UPSC but is also part of a schooling system where the teachers facilitate cheating so the school can maintain its pass percentage – until one day an honest policeman comes in and shakes things up (at risk to himself, given that the local vidhayak is overseeing the school, and the children of Chambal dacoits supposedly study in it!). Manoj – briefly taken into custody for running a “jugaad” shuttle service with his brother – gets gooey-eyed after an encounter with this DSP, and is inspired by the strange possibility of truthfulness. Soon he travels to Gwalior (where his fortunes are almost scuppered by someone else’s dishonesty) and then, with the help of a new friend Pandey (Anantvijay Joshi), to Delhi where he sets his sights on the IPS exam – despite being warned that the percentages are against him (only 25 or so selected out of a lakh or more aspirants).

In telling this story, 12th Fail covers some familiar tropes: the kinship of underprivileged strugglers who stand by each other through heartaches, a loving grandmother with pension saved up in a trunk beneath her bed, the hard-working protagonist who does menial labour during the day and studies at night. While Manoj begins a sweet, tentative romance with a more well-off Mussoorie girl named Shradha (Medha Shankar), his own family struggle back in the village but keep their spirits high.

So, yes, this film IS all heart; a nit-picker might say that given the very real problems faced by Manoj, there is a little too much cheeriness, a few too many helpful and well-intentioned characters (starting with a restaurant owner in Gwalior who gives Manoj a free meal despite the latter insisting that he must earn it). And yet, 12th Fail – through the integrity of the writing and acting – avoids being schmaltzy in a bad way. Much of its power comes from Massey’s anchoring performance (and one realises, looking at his sincere, sometimes awkward smile, how effective he might have been in the Hrithik Roshan part in Super 30 if that film had chosen to operate in a less starry meter).

The narrative of 12th Fail stresses the goodness of people – or their potential for goodness – even in very tough situations; the power of solidarity, even the idealistic sort that goes “Yeh hum sab ki ladaai hai”. As one important character, a benevolent tutor who never gets to clear the main exam himself, puts it, there may be crores of “bhed-bakriyan”, sheep and goats, from all over India coming for these exams, but if even one of them makes it, that is a victory for all the underdogs. This can sound like feel-good mush, but the film also, briefly at least, depicts the bitterness and angst of the sheep who don’t make it, and how close friendships and important relationships can be damaged at the walls where result sheets are pinned up. It is aware that the fates of the “good people”, such as the incorruptible DSP Dushyant whose example sets Manoj on the right path, are precarious.

The story is also a testament to the plurality of this country: starting with a panoramic view of that verdant Chambal (Pandey’s voiceover grimly reminding us that this is still in the popular imagination daku terrain), then homing down to a young man studying on the roof of a little house – before moving to large, daunting, overpopulated Delhi where hordes of people buzz about like flies in front of the dazzled Manoj’s eyes. It is about the unequal opportunities for education, and the very different experience of the education system, for people from different backgrounds: about those of us who can take opportunities for granted versus those for whom even completing basic schooling is a challenge (even when they are from supportive, caring families). And how cut off the IPS interviewers – sitting primly in their sterile rooms – can be from grass-roots realities.

“I’m 71 years old, but I still press the ‘restart’ button every day of my life,” Vidhu Vinod Chopra said after a recent Delhi screening, alluding to a word that plays a pivotal role in motivating Manoj. 12th Fail seems a like a modest, low-key work coming from the man who gave us Parinda, Khamosh and Mission Kashmir, but it has its own layers of complexity – its structure is such that one is always aware of the countless other stories that don’t have happy endings. The film may posit that Manoj’s journey represents a validation for lakhs of other “bakray” (and one hopes that in real life people like him do retain enough integrity and the common touch to provide voice to the voiceless), but the tone remains grounded and self-aware. Here is a feel-good film which, even as it builds towards a deeply emotional climax, somehow doesn’t play like a facile feel-good film.

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