Director: Vikas Bahl
Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Aditya Shrivastava, Pankaj Tripathi, Mrunal Thakur, Amit Sadh
If Super 30 were a student, it’d be that restless kid who is yet to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in a sweet Amole Gupte movie. Because Super 30 is all over the place, and not in the “misunderstood genius who needs a mentor” sort of way. It often sways from Aarakshan to Hichki to Chillar Party to Home Alone and back in a matter of minutes. This is not the first time a mainstream Hindi filmmaker has been overzealous with a readymade based-on-true-events fairytale, and it won’t be the last. You’d think the life of Anand Kumar already contains the required elements – an everyman superhero, education, caste, corruption, politicians, coaching-class mafia, teenagers, middle India, mathematics. The Patna-based visionary founded the famous Super 30 program, an annual free-of-cost course that coaches underprivileged students for IIT-JEE with a scarcely believable success rate. But director Vikas Bahl (Queen, Shaandaar) displays a curious distrust in the inherent dramatic potential of Kumar’s story.
I say ‘curious’ because of the chosen treatment. Super 30 doesn’t just reflect the distracted focus of a child, it is also made in the narrative language of a “children’s film”. The signs are everywhere. Early on, we see an education minister (an animated Pankaj Tripathi) presenting Anand (Roshan) with the Ramanujan medal – the sheepish man speaks in the kind of broken English that suggests he is a villainish caricature, a “comic” character meant to appease younger viewers. Anand runs back to his neighbourhood in slow-motion; he shyly sneaks a peek of an ethereal girl (Mrunal Thakur from the brutal Love Sonia is wasted) in dance practice, while the score suddenly soars to suggest a poor boy-rich girl romance. Her upper-class father looks at him the way Indian filmmakers look at film critics these days. On learning about his Cambridge acceptance letter, the man remarks that “people from your section don’t progress like this”.
There’s more evidence. Like a protagonist straight out of a musical, Anand’s eyes light up – you can almost see the light bulb over his head – when he hears thoughtful phrases (his postman dad joyously declares that “A King’s son isn’t a King anymore”) and simple ideas (a peon sincerely tells Anand to get his work published if he wants to read the library’s foreign journals). Numbers and trigonometric terms sparkle and swim across the blackboard in e-lesson style when he solves a tough equation. When Anand suffers a tragedy, it’s in pouring rain and thunder, the most retro weather conditions imaginable. When Anand faces off with rival educationalist Lallan Singh (Aditya Shrivastava) before the interval, the dialogues flow between them (“I created you, I can destroy you”) like a ‘70s potboiler, and the sky turns overcast and stormy (“toofan aane wala hai”). During Anand’s rousing “yeh ameer log” monologue to his glum students, the music resembles the crescendo in Super Mario after the 8-bit hero leaps onto the flagpole at the end of a stage. He inspires them with lines like, “Don’t use a pen; just smile…and wonder”. One of Ajay-Atul’s tracks is even about a question mark.
In a Ta-Ra-Rum-Pum-ish riff, Anand’s starving students pass a posh canteen in which the camera explicitly fixates on burgers and fries. In the film’s most cacophonic sequence, the kids stage an English version of Sholay to exorcise their inferiority complex (?), which somehow morphs into an interminable Holi song called “Basanti no dance”. Not to mention a scene in which they use their unorthodox Physics knowledge to defeat dangerous gun-toting dacoits as if they were Chacha Chaudhary or Kevin McCallister in an abandoned bungalow.
All of which is to say that – Hrithik Roshan’s bhojpuri accent and tanned complexion aside (out of context, you might imagine that Arjun is back from his Spanish sojourn in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) – there’s a clear problem with the tonality of Super 30. A children’s film can be innovative. But some directors tend to embrace this patronizing tone – usually passed off as ‘a homage to 70s Bollywood’ – to compensate for a lack of research and investment into their characters. For the most part, Super 30 seems like that kind of misfire. The melodrama and operatic noise are a front to hide how little it cares about a fascinating subject. It isn’t even convinced of its own form, thereby assuming the look of different genres every other scene. There’s no tangible reason to tell an adult story through a kiddie lens; you suspect that the mere presence of children’s institutions in a film often confuses the makers.
Roshan’s performance, too, is symptomatic of this condition. He oscillates between magician (Guzaarish) and magic (Koi…Mil Gaya) – traits that make the teacher more of a PG-13 cartoon hero than an iconic personality. He tries hard to do a silent Will-Smith-in-Pursuit-of-Happyness celebration after achieving two separate miracles, but there’s a sense that his brief simply reads as “brown Mary Poppins without the umbrella”. Which is a pity, because if there was any one actor who could really dance to entertain, it’s Anand Kumar.