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‘All India Rank’ review: The language of change

‘All India Rank’ is another film that explores the human cost of the coaching ecosystem, but its beating heart is its examination of an older generation's values

Bodhisattva Sharma in 'All India Rank'

By Uday Bhatia

LAST PUBLISHED 23.02.2024  |  01:04 PM IST

Sabatini poster, take me home.

Of all the ‘90s ephemera in All India Rank, it’s a pinup of the Argentine tennis player that whisked me back most effortlessly to my teenage years. Like Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma), the dreamy protagonist of Varun Grover’s film, I grew up in Lucknow. I mooned over Sabatini. I had the same Sachin poster on my wall. I wore out my cassette with the Rangeela soundtrack. The comparisons end there. I ran from mathematics and the sciences, while Vivek is an accomplished enough student that his father hopes he might get into IIT one day.

Vivek’s hopes… well, they’re a work in progress. He seems more diligent than brilliant, which, given the crazy competition at Kota—where he’s been enrolled by his father in one of the town’s coaching institutes—might not be enough. A number of his classmates are presumably spurred on by a burning desire to be accepted in one of the IITs. But Vivek doesn’t seem to share this dream. He’s in Kota because he doesn’t have the courage or the vocabulary to say no to his father, or to offer a coherent alternate life plan (and at that age, why would he?). He pines for home and only starts to open up when he becomes friends with fellow students Chandan (Neeraj), Rinku (Ayush Pandey) and Sarika (Samta Sudiksha).  

The film divides its time between Kota and Vivek's parents back home. His mother runs a PCO and worries about her only son; she’s played by Geeta Agarwal, who appeared in last year’s 12th Fail as a mother whose son has joined a coaching institute in another city. Vivek’s father, RK Singh (Shashi Bhushan), a timid government employee, has transferred all his dreams onto his son’s reluctant shoulders. His inability to stick up for himself sees him suspended from office after the Independence Day cake he orders turns up with an upside-down Tricolour (“Are you a man or a marble?" his wife asks him, a taunt so funny he can’t help but laugh). 

This is Grover’s first film as director; he’s also written the script and the lyrics to Mayukh-Mainak’s playful songs. The charming lo-fi animated opening titles reminded me of Katha (1983)—and you can feel the spirit of Sai Paranjpye in the film’s shifting friendships and comedy of everyday struggles. Though there’s too much at stake for Chandan, Rinku and Vivek to become like the slacker trio of Chashme Buddoor, a few more years of (relative) failure might get them there. All India Rank is a third-generation descendent of the slice-of-life films made by Paranjpye, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee. But Grover innovates by introducing moments of surreal whimsy—like when it starts raining pencils and erasers, or the eccentric montage with a parable about Buddhist monks narrated by Sheeba Chadha’s cool professor and scored with a modified ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. 

All India Rank’s nostalgia is distinguished by its specificity. Chandan replies enigmatically to a question about his duplicitous behaviour by saying he likes the Shah Rukh of Darr, not of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. Vivek and his buddies hanging out in their hostel room is soundtracked with Indian Ocean: not ‘Kandisa’ (too obvious) but ‘Village Damsel’. A young pervert uses the fake name ‘Shawn Michaels’—one of the great heels of that wrestling era. When RK Singh smokes one of his three illicit cigarettes of the year (he only gives in on national holidays), he takes them out of a Fargo Gas Mantles tin that probably dates back to the ‘60s. 

I found myself more taken by the Lucknow passages than the Kota ones. It helps that Agarwal and Bhushan are beautifully paired, conveying a real sense of two people who’ve spent decades together. Their chemistry isn’t matched by the relationships formed in Kota. The friendship of Vivek, Chandan and Rinku isn’t memorable enough for a third-act rift to have much emotional impact; Vivek and Sarika’s attraction, likewise, is too halting. Bodhisattva Sharma may be wide-eyed by design but is not yet the kind of presence that can hold a film together. Neither is there much new in the film’s depiction of the grueling entrance exam ecosystem. This might be down to timing. Higher education has been the focus of several films and shows in recent years, and a lot of these storylines feel like they’re played out. 

RK’s slow realization that he’s pushed his son too hard leads to a wonderful scene. Fumblingly, he offers a safety net, telling Vivek that life is vast and many-splendoured and bigger than IIT. It’s practically a summation of ‘Yeh Jeewan Hai’ from Piya Ka Ghar, which he sings in an earlier scene where he’s consoling his wife. “Calculus is the language of change," the young quartet are told. Yet, it's the old guard feeling their way towards change that's at the heart of All India Rank.   

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