Class discrimination exists in India, and this is a fact. This isn’t an opinion. Unemployment is rampant, and that’s also a fact. And when these aspects of India collide, it leads to so much casual discrimination in the name of “fair opportunities” that it feels wild that, after all these years, the onus is still on the underprivileged to bring about change. The privileged class can just feign ignorance about the advantages they have in life while reaping the benefits of simply being born into an “upper class” household. But those who are handicapped in every imaginable way, especially economically, apparently have to prove their worth for no logical reason. Sometimes, there’s an issue with the way they dress; other times, it’s about the way they talk, and if all else fails, there’s the vague and exclusionary excuse of “this is how things work.” With 12th Fail, Vidhu Vinod Chopra has attempted to shed some light on these issues without glorifying the rat race (unlike some web series), and he has done exceedingly well.
Based on Anurag Pathak’s novel, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail tells the story of Manoj Kumar Sharma. He lives with his father, mother, grandmother, brother, and younger sister. Manoj’s father is the sole earning member of the family, but his honesty and anti-corruption stance get him ousted from his job. Manoj hopes to pass his 12th exam, get a job, and start earning for his family. The local school has the tradition of cheating during the exam, but the arrival of DSP Dushyant prevents the students from doing so. Hence, all the kids fail, thereby pushing back Manoj’s plan to start earning for his family by a whole year. Manoj’s father heads over to the city to get a job and send whatever he earns to the family so that they can make it through these tough times. Manoj and his brother try to start a crude transportation business, but that goes nowhere, and both of them get arrested for challenging the local politician’s unwritten rules. When Dushyant helps out Manoj, he begins dreaming about becoming just like him. The quest to get into the civil services brings Manoj to the narrator of the film, Pandey, who takes him to Delhi so that both of them can crack the UPSC exams and become an IAS or IPS officer.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s decision to tell the story from the perspective of an upper-class brat who wants to waste his father’s money and just pretend to be interested in entering the civil services is intriguing. It allows the audience to see the difference between the version of Pandey, who knows the entirety of Manoj’s story, and the version of Pandey, who is witnessing it first-hand. The latter reacts to Manoj’s grit and passion with a certain level of disdain, while the former sees him as a source of inspiration. The former understands the reasoning behind Manoj’s decisions, while the latter judges him unfairly. The former realizes that the privileged should be humble even when they are struggling because their definition of struggle is quite different from the one that the underprivileged face, while the latter constantly thinks he is a victim of the system and Manoj is cruising through life. In doing so, Chopra forces the upper-class section of the viewers to change their perspective. He is telling us that life is tough for those who don’t have a savings account. So, if we can’t make their lives easier, the least we can do is shut up and make way for the disadvantaged classes to rise through the ranks and attain what they desire and deserve.
What is the underlying message of Manoj’s arduous arc? Well, Manoj’s mentor underscores the themes of 12th Fail with a highlighter pen, as he says that if anyone who isn’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth manages to make it to some of the topmost positions in the country, then it’s a win for all those who are people who are still struggling to do the same. That’s because when a privileged individual, especially if they come from an upper-caste background, achieves anything, they are treated like royalty. But when an underprivileged individual, especially if they come from a lower caste background, achieves anything, people try to find some kind of excuse to demean them. So, according to Gauri, one by one, if aspirants from underprivileged sections of society continue to defy the boundaries that have been set around them by upper-class and upper-caste folks, then they’ll be able to bring about real change. However, Chopra isn’t an optimist; he is pragmatic. That’s why he shows the unfair odds that are placed in front of the youth in order to get a job. He says that there’s no semblance of a value system in place, and people are willing to become corrupt to make a profit. Politicians are adding to this soup by bringing in religion and discrimination. The elite are making things worse with their snobbery. Then there are the coaching classes, which are misguiding their students instead of teaching them properly. Therefore, while someone like Manoj is somehow overcoming these obstacles, millions of job seekers are losing themselves in this race. And this is unacceptable, which is why the education system and employment sector need an overhaul.
As mentioned in the title, 12th Fail is an exquisitely crafted film. I think that Bollywood, and almost every other entertainment industry, is suffering from a problem called “massy blockbuster syndrome,” as they overstuff their films in order to create the illusion that audiences are getting their money’s worth. This is leading to ballooning budgets, bad style, no substance, and just noise. So, it’s unimaginably refreshing to see Vidhu Vinod Chopra and his team go back to the basics, employ long takes, use sound design to translate the emotions on-screen, and cut between scenes in, let’s say, a poetic fashion. The entire opening sequence is nothing short of masterful. You can release it as a short film and watch it get all the awards in the world. If you pause anywhere in the movie, you’ll see how layered the image is. The framing of what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background conveys so much without anyone uttering even a single line of dialogue. And then there’s the pre-interview sequence as well as the final interview, which can be treated as masterclasses in editing. The sights and sounds of the film actually reminded me of Aparajito and Pratidwandi, and if any film can evoke the sensation of watching a Satyajit Ray movie, then it’s automatically a win for me.
Coming to the cast, 12th Fail almost entirely rests on Vikrant Massey’s shoulders, and, given how capable he is, he delivers a career-defining performance. His pain, anxiety, desperation, optimism, grit, and resilience are also so palpable. Manoj’s only flaw is that he is too good for this world, and that’s something that can easily veer into an act that attracts pity. But Massey ensures that those around him, as well as the audience, know that being good is the norm. Those who are acting like villains are the ones who are in the wrong, and nobody should change their nature to appease them. I have docked some points for the dark skin make-up on Massey, though. That’s inexcusable. Medha Shankr is brilliant. She is more than a “romantic interest.” Her character is a source of inspiration for Manoj. Massey and Shankr’s chemistry is adorable. It’s one of the most positive portrayals of love that I’ve seen in recent times. Anant Joshi knocks it out of the park. He almost plays a double role as the narrator and as the person we are seeing on screen because they are so different in terms of maturity. Anshumaan Pushkar is excellent. His relationship with Massey is too sweet. Although Geeta Agrawal Sharma, Sarita Joshi, and Harish Khanna do not get a lot of screen time, they manage to make an impact, especially Joshi. The same can be said about Priyanshu Chatterjee, who appears in a total of 3–4 scenes, but his presence is felt throughout the film. The movie has a huge supporting cast, which is filled with non-actors, too. So, it’s impossible to name them all, but trust me when I say that they’ve all done a great job!
12th Fail is one of the best and one of the most important movies of the year. I am grateful that Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the man behind some of the greatest films in Hindi cinema, has decided to swim against the tide (made of big-budget blockbusters) and created something intimate, personal, and timely. Yes, what he is saying about the state of education and employment needs to be heard, and people need to ask their leaders and policymakers to create a system that benefits the underprivileged. But we (especially filmmakers) also need to pay attention to what VVC is trying to say about the ongoing state of filmmaking and how it’s not sustainable. Bollywood needs to go back to making mid-to-low-budget films. They need to hone their craft. They need to generate entertainment by choosing a genre instead of trying to fit into every genre in existence. They need to tell stories instead of wasting their resources on expensive light-and-sound shows.