All India Rank Review: At Once Charming And Thought-Provoking Film

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All India Rank Review: At Once Charming And Thought-Provoking Film

A still from All India Rank. (courtesy: YouTube)

In his felicitous directorial debut,All India Rank, screenwriter and lyricist Varun Grover travels back to the years that followed India’s economic liberalisation to tell a vivid a languid slice-of-life, coming-of-age tale of a disinclined IIT aspirant.

At once charming and thought-provoking, All India Rank sets itself apart from the web shows Kota Factory and Aspirants as also a film like 12th Fail with its muted, steadfastly anti-formulaic and fragmented methods. Punctuated with imaginative animation interludes, it steers clear of conventional devices and averts a facile climax.

All India Rank opts instead to leave the fate of the protagonist open-ended even as it follows, with empathy and sans judgement, the teenage boy’s yearlong journey as he preps (against his own counsel) for the IIT-JEE test.

Written by Grover himself, the film is a gentle, near-observational and revelatory examination of the mind of a middle-class boy pushed beyond his limits by a father who sees his only offspring as the family’s likely ticket to the social prestige and bragging rights that it has never had.

As much as it is about a youngster grappling with the befuddling equations of life and education aggravated by his adamant father – the boy’s mother is not only not as demanding, she is more than willing to let the boy pick his course in life – All India Rank is a nostalgia-soaked portrait of an eventful decade that saw India change faster than it had ever done since Independence.

A 17-year-old from Lucknow, Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma in his first lead role), is packed off to Kota – “coaching ka Haridwar” (in the words of the boy’s father). Dad R.K. Singh (Shashi Bhushan) is a department of telecommunications engineer obsessed with seeing his son break into IIT.

Mr Singh, like so many parents before and after him, believes he can vicariously fulfil his own unrealised dreams through his son. He does not so much as ask the youngster what he wants out of life. He personally escorts the boy to Kota.

The new millennium is still a few years away. Vivek isn’t a lad given to asserting himself. His raging hormones divert his attention from the task at hand and a pair of cynical coaching centre mates expose him to temptations he was hitherto shielded from. But his father’s stern voice never leaves him alone.

Kota, a town that was in danger of all but falling off the map until its IIT-JEE coaching ecosystem rescued it from oblivion and catapulted it to nationwide fame (0r notoriety, depending on how you view it), is where Vivek must look for salvation.

His move is only physical – and undisguisedly grudging. Mentally and emotionally, he is never all there even after he finds a room in a boys’ hostel and enrols in a coaching centre run by Kalpana Bundela (Sheeba Chaddha), one of the best in the business and an old hand at the game of motivating the aspirants in her charge.

While the strenuous coaching process takes its toll on him, Vivek makes new friends. He also experiences the first flush of teenage love. The object of his affection, Sarika (Samta Sudiksha, who debuted with the Janhvi Kapoor starrer Good Luck Jerry), is an IIT aspirant with far clearer focus than him.

Back home, Vivek’s father faces a crisis at his workplace and his mother Manju (Geeta Agrawal Sharma), who manages a PCO booth, has an encounter with a boy who poses a piquant problem.

All India Rank does not to apply the template of rites of passage films to Vivek’s voyage of discovery. It sets itself free from the standard genre register. Instead of catering to what the audience might expect, it delivers an experiential exploration of the impact that the “success” industry can have on young minds.

Production designer Prachi Deshpande uses an array of props and tangible physical components that bring the 1990s alive. You spot Gabriela Sabatini pin-ups in a hostel room, bottles of Maaza, video game parlours, PCO booths and the then Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s name on a wall and are instantly transported back to the period.

Vinit D’Souza’s sound design, coupled with Mayukh-Mainak’s songs and background score and Varun Grover’s lyrics, unobtrusively plays on the defining markers of India’s pre-consumerist pop culture and celebrates a relatively laidback age that was about to change dramatically for the boy at the centre of the film as well as the nation at large as it marked the 50th year of Independence.

A casually hummed title song of the detective serial Tehkikaat, stray references to Doordarshan’s superhero Shaktimaan, Vividh Bharati’s skits show Hawa Mahal and news of Princess Diana’s death, among other things, command instant recall.

The soundscape also incorporates a song (Bas ek ann ka yeh daana sukh dega mujhko manmana) from a short film woven around an episode from the Mahabharata and produced by Films Division of the J.S. Bhownagary era with the creative inputs of animation pioneer Ram Mohan and composer Vijay Raghav Rao. The number made it back to the airwaves in the 1990s exhorting the public to avoid food wastage.

All India Rank catches a nation in the throes of a major transition. A land where people generally preferred to study in local schools and colleges and seek jobs in their hometown or in places in its vicinity was beginning to give way to a globalising country.

India was opening up and allowing the youth, at least those that were attuned to the conversion underway, to break out of their shells and seek greener pastures. Vivek, in a way, embodies the pangs of that transformation at the level of an individual.

Another significant strand of the film hinges on the three women around Vivek, including the teacher who uses the most persuasive ways to get her wards to think on their feet.

The psychology of Vivek’s mother differs markedly from that of his father. She is a soothing influence on Vivek, as is Sarika. But the variables of mathematics and the imponderables of the education system far outweigh the moments of personal fulfilment that the boy experiences.

All India Rank abounds in wonderfully striking touches that elevate it above the sum of its parts and turn it into a perceptive, holistic testament to a time of flux. Watch it because it takes you where Hindi films rarely do – a zone where ideas, feelings and barely stated dilemmas take precedence over the exigencies of plot and exposition.

Cast:

Bodhisattva Sharma, Shashi Bhushan, Sheeba Chaddha, Kailash Gowthaman, RC Modi, Ayush Pandey, Geeta Agrawal Sharma, Samta Sudiksha, Vidit Singh, Saadat Khan

Director:

Varun Grover

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