All India Rank Review: An Uneven, Nostalgic Take on the IIT-Aspirant Story

Lyricist and stand-up comedian Varun Grover makes his directorial debut with a coming-of-age story set in the Nineties
All India Rank Review: An Uneven, Nostalgic Take on the IIT-Aspirant Story
All India Rank Review: An Uneven, Nostalgic Take on the IIT-Aspirant Story

Director: Varun Grover
Writer: Varun Grover
Cast: Bodhisattva Sharma, Samta Sudiksha, Shashi Bhushan, Geeta Agrawal Sharma, Sheeba Chaddha

Duration: 101 minutes

Available in: Theatres

The framework of writer-lyricist Varun Grover’s directorial debut, All India Rank, is fascinating. The film combines timeworn TVF (The Viral Fever) equations – the Nineties, and embattled IIT aspirants – and views them through the lens of arithmetic balance. There is a lost teenager yearning for home, but there is also a boy finding himself through his Kota struggle. There is a cautionary tale, but there is also a wistful reckoning. There is an indictment of the rat race, but there is also an appreciation of it. There is middle-class angst, but there is also middle-Indian wisdom. There is parental pressure, but there is also adolescent agency. There is a colourful coaching-class teacher, but there is also a distance about her. The boy’s voice-over speaks of Euler’s identity (e^iπ + 1= 0) – known as the most beautiful formula in mathematics – as proof that the world isn’t random; that every identity is profound; and the fundamental nature of life can be controlled. It’s a poetic device, ambitious even, but Grover’s handling of the film is more theoretical than practical. 

The ideas are there, but the translation to screen lacks a cohesive language. It ends less dramatically, as an ode to a generation waking up to the post-liberalization parameters of success. But the broader snapshot of the country and its relationship with academics don’t seamlessly intertwine with the intimate portrait of a family. There are a lot of vignettes and montages and self-aware dialogue, which suggests that hindsight – and adulthood – defines the tone of the story. You can tell that it unfolds like a varnished memory in the future. As a result, despite being conceived as a semi-autobiographical journey, All India Rank breaks into tracks all too familiar, like a movie that is inadvertently influenced by the cinema of nostalgia and striving. It’s all there: Unlikely friendships, the retro details (Citra, walkmans, WWF, Hero Ranger cycles, Azharuddin and SRK and Nirma and Princess Diana puns), first-time infatuations, the quasi-hostel pleasures of Maggi, risqué magazines, cheap cigarettes and guitar-strumming. The narrative fatigue weighs down a story that, in its quest to look like a Nineties’ film, flaunts a moment instead of living in it; it amplifies those tropes while trying to personalise them. I get that it’s all supposed to be a vibe – or to quote the lovelorn don from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994): “Note mat karo, feel karo (don’t note, just feel)” – but this also defies its own message of identity and control. 

Varun Grover's All India Rank now in theatres
Varun Grover's All India Rank now in theatres

Coming-of-Age in Kota

The film revolves around a 17-year-old student from Lucknow, Vivek (a promising Bodhisattva Sharma) and his move to Kota in 1997. Vivek’s curse is that he was a school topper, so the expectations from him are meteoric. The geeky kid strives for ordinariness, and begs not to be ‘sent’ to Kota. But his father, RK Singh (Shashi Bhushan), is a small-time divisional engineer who makes it clear that the family’s future rests on Vivek’s narrow shoulders. He invests in Vivek’s (dis)comfort – a single room, a famous coaching institute, a cycle, some money – so that the boy feels the pressure. When the son makes his weekly call to the PCO booth run by the mother (Geeta Agrawal Sharma; an iteration of her 12th Fail performance), the father grabs the phone and curtly reminds him of his duty. In the process, Vivek starts to rediscover his lost childhood, finding companions and conflict a little belatedly, while the parents slowly confront their own complicity in the creation of this education factory.  

Again, the approach is novel. There’s much to like in how All India Rank dispels the randomness of human nature. For instance, Vivek’s mother blames her husband for accelerating the boy’s adulthood and using him to mitigate his own failures. But it's always in the capacity of a wife who has little to no say in the matter. Their marriage is a compatible one, where he cheers her up and she calms him down; some of the nicer moments humanise a couple that are otherwise relegated to the one-note sidelines of such journeys. The full force of the woman's allegations are only felt when he fails her as a partner. Her crisis features a teen pervert making lewd phone calls from her booth. It's the husband’s reluctance to address the situation that gives her the emotional ammunition to tell him off. Until then, his makeshift masculinity was taken for granted. 

Varun Grover's All India Rank now in theatres
Varun Grover's All India Rank now in theatres

A Gentle Rebel

I like that the metaphors for control in the family – the man smoking, the woman’s debilitating weakness for sweets – extends to Vivek’s larger epiphany about dreams and destinies. Most young-adult dramas might have presented him as a budding artist (hybrid animated portions and quirky songs even hint at this template) or as a boy with alternative ambitions, but all Vivek knows here is that he misses home and doesn't feel unique anymore. IIT is not the villain; he just doesn’t feel like the hero. He continues to nurture an engineer’s soul, except it's not yet on his own terms. The coming-of-age arc, then, pertains to his agency to live, not a freedom to rebel. 

There's an early nod to this equanimity when the institute founder (Sheeba Chaddha) claims credit for the success story of IIT Bombay alumni Mansoor Khan, the director of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), whose superhit song ‘Papa Kehte Hain Bada Naam Karega’ (“my father says I will be famous someday”) unironically reaches the ears of Vivek on the first day of class. I also like that the nostalgia of the 1990s isn't strictly dewy-eyed – the kid making lewd calls is inspired by Attitude-era wrestler and ‘Heartbreak Kid’ Shawn Michaels, laying bare the link between pop culture and its casual glorification of sex and violence. At another point, a friend of Vivek reveals that he's been a secret first-bencher all along (or that guy who always pretends to be unprepared for the exam), because he likes the Shah Rukh of Darr more than the one from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. The slow-motion scene of Vivek entering a girl’s (Samta Sudiksha) hostel room for the first time after always fantasising about it is perceptive, too. 

Varun Grover's All India Rank now in theatres
Varun Grover's All India Rank now in theatres

Awkward Gaps

But there's a curious void between what the film says and its rhythms of being. Even if the idea is to tease the stereotypes of Kota – like the way Sheeba Chaddha’s cool-professor character appears (she makes a decent “Joule Thief” joke) and disappears without any lasting impact – the execution is awkward. A suicide happens, too, almost as if to balance the frills of Vivek's low-stakes life, but the intercutting between a fable being narrated and the events leading up to the incident is disorienting. The editing is off in a wider technical sense – not just the pacing and placement of the montages – because it's never clear what stage the film is at, or even that it's approaching a climax of sorts. 

A lot of the subtext is spelt out in either conversations or visuals, because the film itself seems to be ambivalent about its setting. It’s hard to dislike the concept of a film that refuses to judge its characters – looking back through the lens of being ahead – but it runs the risk of losing itself in its own gentle diplomacy. There is a been-there-told-that inevitability about the transformation of the father, the yaaro-dosti rides, the mock tests, or Vivek’s newfound poise. There are shades of Udaan (2010) in his anxieties and the film's sense of place, particularly during Vivek’s early Kota days and his habit of watching trains leave for Lucknow. The longing for home gradually morphs into a building of character. But in these derivative lapses of craft, the film becomes slight in its telling. At times, it resembles the veteran tutor presiding over her pupils with a watchful eye. Mostly, though, All India Rank is a race to nowhere. It is just another breezy exam disguised as a cultural marksheet.

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