Some of us had to check our privilege when the new education reforms were announced recently. I welcomed the change – anything to reduce peer pressure and update a dry system that encourages mindless toiling over innovative thinking. A friend wisely pointed out that this system is easy to criticize as a city-slicker with exposure to Western methods, but the ruthlessness of its structure can actually reward the work ethic of small-town and rural India. It’s a democratic window of hope to 70 percent of the country, or as an impoverished character from Pareeksha – The Final Test puts it: an “escape from hell”.
I like that, even nine years after Aarakshan, filmmaker Prakash Jha continues to shine a light on the social discrimination of Indian academics. In this world, the fight is for better circumstances rather than a better system. Characters must overcome what they cannot change. The dream can’t afford to preach, so it practices: A cycle rickshaw driver (Adil Hussain) in Ranchi wants to admit his government-school-topping son Bulbul (a sincere Shubham Jha) into a private school called Sapphire International. Naturally, a Dhoni poster adorns the faded walls of their modest hutment. The man believes that studying with the English Medium elite (CBSE) is the fast track to success – it’s the only way Bulbul’s intelligence will get noticed. So the father begs, borrows and, literally, steals to make this happen. He crosses over to the dark side to pay the fees and ensure an equal playing ground for his son. This is not a new narrative, but it’s a real one – and one that profits from Adil Hussain’s heartfelt central performance. His accent is far from perfect, but at times, the voice of a character amounts to more than just the words he speaks.
But not for the first time, a relevant Prakash Jha story is let down by its dated storytelling. The scenes belong to a bygone era: The poor man standing with his son in the pouring rain (the rain machine is a little wayward) to intercept the car of the fancy-school principal, the English professor teasing the “son of a rickshaw driver,” upper-class parents refusing to let their kids sit in the same rickshaw, a corrupt politician (of course) hijacking the narrative, a rural community that gossips and whispers so that the viewer understands the subtext, all the English-speaking people sounding like Shakespearean jerks, and so on. The simplistic treatment mars a grassroots narrative that had the potential to transcend its exotic-slumdog status. At one point, a Ranchi SP (nice guy Sanjay Suri) gets involved and randomly begins to run late-night coaching classes for the students before their board exams. The rich parents confront him: Why not our kids too? The premise almost forgets about Bulbul here. It feels like a separate Super 30 film unravelling at once, jostling for space, only for the cop to disappear so that Bulbul can reclaim the climax of Pareeksha.
One senses that there are many little sub-threads and odes that writer-director Prakash Jha wants to explore within this universe. But instead of devoting a tone and time to each of them, the film merely glides over them superficially in service of an ancient father-son fairytale. The result is a well-meaning but forgettable and naive film that refuses to dream as big as the family at its core. True to the education system it occupies, the moral – and morality – of the story is either black or white. Grey is an “Out of Syllabus” question.