Film, Hindi, India, Review

All India Rank

Writer and Lyricist Varun Grover’s maiden directorial outing, All India Rank, captures the growing optimism of 1990s India in its truest, most basic essence. Grover delves deep into his own vault of memories and aims to create a nostalgia piece without ever making it its be all and end all.

All India Rank follows the journey of a Lucknow middle-class boy Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma), who is coerced by his parents (Shashi Bhushan and Geeta Aggarwal) into preparing for the world’s toughest entrance exam – the IIT JEE. He unwillingly goes to Kota to study (where the ‘coaching industry’ is still in its nascent stages), but ends up doing less of that and experiencing life’s key milestones, comes of age.

It is evident that Grover has taken titbits from his own experience as a student preparing for the IIT-JEE exams. There is a sense of honesty, affection and accuracy to the film, which only comes across because Grover sets the film at the time of his own adolescence, rather than adapt the story in a contemporary context. The most noteworthy element of the film, however, is how ‘not seriously’ it takes itself – unlike many of the ‘entrance exam genre’ films that have come out in recent times. An interesting position taken by an IIT alumnus, indeed.

Having said that, my biggest bone of contention with the film is its dialogue and especially, the voice-overs. The prose-like eloquence with which each character expresses themselves almost feels as though there is a hidden poet within each of them. The rhythm and pace of the overall film is also somewhat uncertain. What starts out as a gripping, slick and engaging blast-from-the-past slowly loses its foothold, resulting in a feeling of stagnation in the viewer’s mind. Here, it is not really Grover’s writing that is at fault. Rather, it is his directorial choices of inserting awkward silences and changing the pace of the film midway thereby creating choppiness in the narrative flow. In fact, if each scene is seen and examined by itself, it still works. But not when it becomes a part of the larger picture. A case in point being the bit where Vivek and Sarika (Samta Sudiksha) cycle across town and converse with each other.

The film aims to empower and educate teenagers who are conditioned right from childhood into believing that graduating from an IIT will be a golden ticket to success. They are told that life will be a cakewalk – but it takes no scholar to attest to this fallacy. Unfortunately, they internalise the false notion that if they don’t get through, their life is ruined. It is often those hailing from middle-class backgrounds who undertake the burden and responsibility to elevate their family’s status quo under the pretext of ‘doing right by their parents’. What they themselves want is immaterial – most are not even given the privilege to know and understand what they want, thereby manifesting itself  as resentment later on. In addition, if you’re a topper – may God save you. Vivek is one such person, who exists only to satisfy his parent’s wishes, until he realizes that he doesn’t. Grover deftly uses him as a medium to convey that this realization occurs only when one is thrown into the deep end of the pool.

All India Rank‘s observation is loud and clear: the pressure that parents put on their children is, more often than not, a reflection not of the child’s aptitude but rather of their own failed aspirations and anxieties that is blanketed as ‘being concerned’ for them. Vivek’s father is a middle-management government employee. It is clear that he attributes his personal failures to the fact that he hasn’t studied from a premiere institution and does not want his son to turn out like him. What is genuine concern often comes across as negative reinforcement and being dismissive. It is his complexity and contradictory personality which is so naturally and masterfully revealed by Grover that it is in fact, his character arc that is the most effective in the film. Vivek’s mother, a doting and compassionate homemaker, acts as the mediator to this father-son dynamic. At the time, it was typical for women to be submissive and unexpressive, remaining largely unheard. Vivek’s mother is a prime example of this kind of a woman – one who sets a high benchmark for her child, but never expresses what she truly feels: that she just wants him to be happy.

It is safe to say that we have come across many people who are similar to, if not exactly like Vivek’s friends. Chandan is a third time attempter, who encourages everyone against the IIT hysteria, but secretly studying the most. Rinku’s passion lies in music – the guitar to be precise. He, too, is here only at the behest of his family but later succumbs to the pressure (a trope we have seen way too often). Sarika is your stereotypical ‘front bencher’, who excels at Physics but has a secret talent for sketching. A positive influence on Vivek, it is their endearing yet apprehensive-to-be-intimate dynamic of first love (more like infatuation) that brings an element of charming innocence to the entire tale. However, if one were to be the devil’s advocate – the only element in the performances, albeit the rare over-the-topness that made me feel at unease was when the students were speaking in English. Their accents felt far too metropolitan and modern as against their Hindi, which  had a ring of tier-2 perfection.

What makes up for this oversight is Grover’s strong attention to detail when it comes to recreating 1997-98 India – his intriguing blend of ‘90s hits and original music with well thought out lyrics, intricate sound design and scrupulous production design complements the overall narrative and theme. Such as chartbusters from Saajan (1991) and Rangeela (1995) playing on people’s radios, the screaming and unnecessary chaos that students create at night when the power supply is cut, the serenity of small towns where hearing constant honking is a rarity and chirping of birds is common, the Doordarshan and Cable TV advertisements with catchy taglines, and the Camel geometry boxes, board games and magic rulers.  The animations that periodically break into the film provide an additional layer of engagement.

It is indeed heartwarming to see films such as All India Rank release in theatres, cementing my belief that honest and sincere storytelling will always be appreciated by the Indian movie-going audience.


Hindi, Drama, Color

Previous ArticleNext Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *