The Hindu (Mumbai)

This directoria­l debut is delicate but familiar

Varun Grover’s comingofag­e drama about the IITian dream is humorous and observant, yet it hardly stands out in a sea of similarmin­ded content

- Shilajit Mitra

Varun Grover’s debut feature as director, All India Rank, unfolds in the 1990s, a time of giddy liberalisa­tion and pop trivia. Witty references abound; for instance, what links H.C. Verma — a writer of lucid and luggable Physics textbooks — with Mansoor Khan, the director of the 80s’ romance Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak? Answer: both men went to an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology). This tidbit is made funnier by the dubious lesson extrapolat­ed from it: those who enter IITs stand to excel in any field, be it bookwritin­g or Bollywood.

In a class of hopefuls, Vivek (Bodhisattv­a Sharma) hears this spiel. Yet we know not for certain if he buys into it. At the start of the film, he’s bundled off from Lucknow to Kota to prepare for his IIT entrance exams. He’s a shy, gawky 17yearold, with his walkman and thermos. “I have no dream,” he says, an innocuous teenager’s confession, unthinkabl­e — then as now — in aspiration­al middle India. We check in with his parents, pinching every penny so their son can study in peace. His father, a lowranking government employee, enumerates the merits of a toptier engineerin­g degree; job, respect, ease of life. And there’s a fourth benefit he does not immediatel­y verbalise: social standing.

From the beginning, Vivek strikes us as sincere but adrift, as kids of his age ought to be. He warms to two of his hostel mates, mouthy repeaters played by Ayush Pandey and Neeraj Singh, and takes a shine to smart, focused Sarika (Samta Sudiksha). In a scene, the quartet cycles down to a riverfront to shoot the breeze. Grover builds the scene around natural sounds and the existentia­l queries of this group. It is a beautiful moment in the film, a geeky and unglamorou­s mirroring of the Chapora Fort sequence in Dil Chahta Hai.

Personal material

Grover, an IIT (BHU) graduate, wrote this script around a decade ago. He’s building from personal material in All India Rank, though the film also betrays his yen for historical research (there is an amusing reference to how the first IIT campus was an erstwhile British jail).

Fatigue by familiarit­y

Coaching institutes and academic pressure have been wellplumbe­d in the Hindi cinema of the past decade, especially in shows like Kota Factory and Laakhon Mein Ek. So All India Rank suffers from some fatigue by familiarit­y. Several ideas and insights seem to echo on from past offerings. Even little things — such as the winsome casting decision of having

12th Fail’s Geeta Aggarwal Sharma play Vivek’s mother — go against the film.

All India Rank is currently playing in theatres.

 ?? SPECIAL ARRANGEMEN­T ?? Pressure to perform: Bodhisattv­a Sharma plays a teen who is sent to Kota to prepare for the IIT entrance exams.
SPECIAL ARRANGEMEN­T Pressure to perform: Bodhisattv­a Sharma plays a teen who is sent to Kota to prepare for the IIT entrance exams.

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