Monday, February 26, 2024

All India Rank: “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you” (Review 798)

Release date:

February 23, 2024


Varun Grover


Bodhisattva Sharma, Samta Sudiksha, Geeta Agarwal, Shashi Bhushan, Sheeba Chaddha, Neeraj, Ayush Pandey, Saadat Khan




Tum ladkon ke akal mein phaphoond laga hota hai kya?” (Have you boys got fungus on your brains?) Sarika Kumari asks her classmate Vivek Singh in the new Hindi film All India Rank. It’s the sort of throwaway line that indicates the user’s comfort with the tongue. 


The ease with which Sarika slips phaphoond into the right context makes it my word of the week, though nasudda hogs the limelight in All India Rank since Vivek is asked the meaning at one point. (I won’t tell you his answer.) 


It is no surprise that All India Rank has the feel of a film written by someone who takes pleasure in language. It is after all the directorial debut of Varun Grover who rose to fame and acclaim with his lyrics for Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), then sealed his reputation by writing Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015). Grover has also written this film, which was premiered last February at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam and is now in Indian theatres. 


Sarika (Samta Sudiksha) in All India Rank is one of the foremost supporting players in the story of Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma), a teenager from Lucknow who arrives in Kota in 1997 to prepare for the IIT entrance test. Kota is the Mecca of coaching classes for IIT aspirants or, as Vivek’s father R.K. Singh (Shashi Bhushan) puts it, it is “coaching ka Haridwar”. 


Vivek has been dragged by Singh Senior into a race he does not care for, while Sarika runs with passion and for herself. A parent forcing his dreams on a child and the pressure to gain admission to one of India’s most sought after educational institutions are only the backdrop against which All India Rank unfolds as an observational, almost meditative portrait of what can best be summarised as “a year in the life of Vivek from 1990s India”. 


The desperation and despondency of some of the leads in other Hindi films dealing with career choices, India’s education system and so on are not to be found here. All India Rank is not 3 IdiotsTamasha or 12th Fail. The pressure-cooker existence of the impoverished Manoj from All India Rank is a far cry from Vivek’s situation – the latter has relative privilege as the only child of lower-middle-income parents. Vivek is unhappy at being pushed into a profession he does not want, but he does not get depressed, unlike Ranbir Kapoor’s character from Tamasha. Viveks exist too. 


All India Rank is semi-autobiographical. Grover himself is an IITian, but the film is left open-ended, perhaps to make a point that it can hardly be viewed as a climax if a disinterested kid gets into a coveted college. All India Rank is not about a triumph, it is about a journey. 


Grover’s film, edited by Sanyukta Kaza, has a calm vibe and an air of innocence. Its low-key sense of humour is written into both the conversations and the pleasant music (lyrics by Grover, original songs and background score by Mayukh-Mainak). The unhurried demeanour and unmelodramatic presentation of even its most dramatic moments convey an impression that little happens here. In truth, it is packed with thoughtful character development and discreet socio-political commentary. 


In a sense, Vivek is an unlikely protagonist. He is unexcited by IITs but he doesn’t fight his Dad too much, he dabbles in rebellion but soon gets back on track, he’s nice but slightly bland. He grows in his own way though. In any case, even a seemingly bland individual is the hero of their own story, and even such a person has his moments, as we see with Vivek. 


Besides, the boy is surrounded by interesting people – the feisty Sarika, their friend who pretends he’s not studying when in fact he does, parents who evolve, an easygoing mother (Geeta Agarwal) and a man who sees his son’s entry into IIT as a passport to elevating his own social stature. 


The newcomers and veterans in the cast are uniformly endearing and real. Geeta Agarwal and Shashi Bhushan infuse warmth into Vivek’s parents’ close bond. Sheeba Chaddha is capable of being harsh as spikes on screen, but in All India Rank she brings an unexpected softness to Kalpana Bundela, the queen of IIT coaching in Kota, who keeps the mood light in class.  


Among the film’s winning qualities is the authenticity in the recreation of the era in which it is set, through dialogues, Prachi Deshpande’s meticulous production design and revisitations of old songs. In 1997, telephones with whirring dials were the norm and the Nirma detergent powder advertisement was a reigning pop culture reference. The detailing of the time is charming. 


This was the decade in which economic liberalisation, Mandal and the Babri Masjid demolition permanently altered India’s DNA. The script does not spell out any of this, but slivers of the politics of that era and of the present are an unobtrusive presence in the writing. 


Azaadi” in the 1990s was not yet a word that could land you in jail, but as we see in the film, queasiness over Urdu was very much the norm and Indian was already a country that valued its national symbols more than its people. 


I’ll leave you to spot the messaging that dots the film, including the manner in which the writer-director tests the liberal viewers’ obliviousness to anti-minority stereotyping in Hindi cinema by seeming to present a stereotype, then turning it on its head. No spoilers here – you will hopefully recognise that episode when you see it. Compare it to the mischief played by the writer-director of last year’s OMG 2, who placed three minority community members in his all-Hindu universe in a north Indian temple town, wrote all three of them as jerks, and picked one of them to torment a schoolmate over his penis size, thus setting off a chain of events that almost destroyed the boy. 


In the past 10 years, much of Hindi filmdom has bowed and scraped before the right-wing through works that demonise religious minorities, marginalise the influence of minority cultures on India, and erase every achievement of non-BJP governments and prime ministers. All India Rank stands out from this obeisant crowd with almost indiscernible defiance. Don’t go looking for a sermon or lengthy exposition. What we get instead is a word here, a brief chat there, a quote on a wall, a passing image on TV – Grover worships at the altar of the God of small things in All India Rank


The film is not about any of this though, just as it is not about IIT. Grover leaves us free to note his politics if we wish, or to enjoy All India Rank as a sweet little film about “a time of innocence, a time of confidences”, to borrow from the American songwriter Paul Simon’s Bookends (1968). 


Unlike most coming-of-age sagas, All India Rank does not feature any grand awakening or drastic change in the central character’s plans by the close. Yet, it tugs at the heart. The film is like photographs we take of regular days, pictures that don’t commemorate a birth, death, graduation or anniversary but instead freeze frame the spaces in between when most of life occurs. Those are the days that get us to our milestones, and our stories are incomplete without them. 


In choosing to make All India Rank – and make it in precisely the way he does – Grover subscribes to the Paul Simon school of thought. “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” (Bookends again)


Rating (out of 5 stars): 3   


Running time:

101 minutes 


Visual courtesy: IMDB 

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