12th Fail is the Hindi film that’s surprised me the most this year. After years of successful producing, I didn't think Vidhu Vinod Chopra had the drive to make a film that spoke urgently and eloquently to these times. And I definitely didn’t think he would erase so much of the aesthetic that’s worked for him in the past to tell this story.
In a school in rural Chambal, Manoj (Vikrant Massey) is making chits to cheat on his exams. A brush with a conscientious cop (Priyanshu Chatterjee) sparks in him a desire to be a police officer—his own father, a teacher, equally moral, is too downtrodden to be an inspiration. He clears his 12th exams the following year—barely, but honestly. He sets out for Delhi to give the police service exams. Even before he reaches, his luggage and money are stolen. It’s at this point he meets the first of his angels.
One of Chopra’s best decisions is to give the voiceover not to Manoj but to Pritam (Anant Vijay Joshi). Manoj’s commentary would add little to a film that already features him in almost every scene. Pritam, on the other hand, is a wonderful narrator—especially after we meet the man. He’s as chatty as Manoj is reticent, well-off, taking the IPS exams to please his father. He takes Manoj under his wing, getting him a place to stay and introducing him to Mukherjee Nagar, where all the coaching centres are.
There he meets another unlikely angel, Gauri bhaiyya (Anshumaan Pushkar). Long haired and soft-toned, he’s a messiah to small-town students who can’t afford coaching and can barely speak English. It scarcely matters that he’s made five unsuccessful attempts at the IPS exam; he’s one of them and that’s a comfort in a cut-throat world where the competition has received education in English all their lives and attend expensive coaching classes. Manoj joins his cohort and also gets a job dusting and cleaning toilets at a library so he can make money to send home. He works during the day and studies at night. His initial run at the IPS falters at the first stage.
12th Fail could easily have been a lachrymose detailing of Manoj’s tribulations; his circumstances become even more dire over the course of the film, and there's a fair bit of speechifying. But a couple of things cut through the sentiment. One is the sharpness with which Chopra and co-writers Jaskunwar Kohli and Aayush Saxena draw up the characters. Gauri and Shradha (Medha Shankar), a student Manoj falls for, are fairly unequivocal in their goodness but Pritam is prone to jealousy and resentment while remaining a support (and Joshi is a delight to watch). There are wonderful small sketches too: the wily proprietor of a popular coaching class; the IAS topper who tells Manoj “I owe you one”, then destroys him years later.
Then there's the visual syntax Chopra adopts. The sweeping images of Parinda and Mission Kashmir and 1942: A Love Story, the perfectly judged slow motion shots, the elegant song picturization—all gone. In their place is unadorned, efficient camerawork by Rangarajan Ramabadran. The only flourish is in the way several shots are allowed to continue unimpeded by cuts. The editing in the montages is wonderful, at once rhythmic and merciless. It doesn’t feel like any of Chopra’s earlier work—even his Oscar-nominated documentary short, An Encounter With Faces, has a poise that’s deliberately eschewed here. Shantanu Moitra’s score is the only old-fashioned element; there are a few too many sad speeches with a sitar crying in the background (though the scene with Manoj, home after several years, his goal still unachieved, getting a head massage from his mother, who's lying about how well they're doing so he doesn't worry, could draw emotion from stone hearts).
Caste is an implicit presence in the film—Manoj mentions Ambedkar and “educate, agitate, organize” in an interview—but the main divide is between those with an English education and everyone else. In that sense, Manoj’s journey is impossibly difficult but utterly commonplace, just another fragile dream jostling for space with millions of competing ones. Abdul Kalam is a particular inspiration of his, someone who studied under a street lamp and became President of India. The portraits on the walls tell their own story—Kalam, Manmohan Singh, Tagore, Premchand, scholars and scientists and statesmen. Massey is steadfast, the determined, calm centre of a turbulent story. There’s a lovely moment when Manoj is about to get the first expensive haircut of his life. “IAS or IPS cut?” the barber asks. It’s been a while since a Hindi film has moved me like this.