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'All India Rank': Varun Grover Makes a Gentle Directorial Debut With a Film That is Not Quite Fulfilling

The dreams of IIT aspirants in coaching classes are sometimes sharp and often nostalgic.
A still from 'All India Rank'.

I found myself leaning into Varun Grover’s All India Rank in an early scene. Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma) has just reached the first day of his coaching class in Kota. “Woh ladkiyon ki seat hai (That seat is reserved for girls),” a classmate tells him as he’s about to put his things down. He leaves two seats and sits adjacent to the stranger who prompted him. There are nerves, there is eagerness, there is promise. 

“Excited?” the classmate asks Vivek. He nods in acknowledgment. A nation is on the brink. The assembly line of Silicon Valley CEOs has just about begun. Global domination is knocking on the door, and all one has to do is flash their IIT certificates at their gate and pass into the good life. It is what has been drilled into the kids of that generation. It’s a scene that becomes a time capsule of sorts – distilling the feeling, rather than logistically recreating the era. It’s this visceral feeling that All India Rank’s first half could’ve used more of.

Lyricist, writer, jester and now director Varun Grover reflects on the IIT rat race in his feature debut. A student of IIT-BHU (Banaras Hindu University) himself, Grover looks back on his journey with fondness and clarity, but also somewhere blurs the lines between objective truth and subjective experience. So, we get a film that feels forensic in its setting, but also feels nostalgic given the way it’s written with so much wisdom and kindness. It’s most apparent in the way Grover characterises Vivek’s parents, played by Shashi Bhushan and Geeta Agrawal. He remembers the casual cruelty inflicted on him, but he also tries to rationalise it by investigating where they were coming from.

Mr Singh loves the smell of cigarettes but as a member of a painfully-inert middle class, he allows himself the indulgence to smoke only on public holidays (thrice every year). Mrs Singh on the other hand, battles with her love for sweets (laddoos specifically). The father is a typical domineering figure, but Grover crafts multiple scenes to break this image. He’s shown to care for his wife, unexpectedly breaking into a laugh when she says something caustic about the humiliation he’s facing at the workplace. A mousy character in his office environs – someone who is unable to assert his identity fully – Mr Singh believes the news of his son making it to IIT will plug that hole in his heart: respect from his peers. But he soon rises above that delusion.

A still from ‘All India Rank’.

There’s little doubt that Grover is one of the most gentle writers out there, but his directorial voice still seems to be a work-in-progress. Especially in the Kota portions, where the scenes seem to feel like a string of anecdotes without a connective tissue. The way the animation is used to communicate the inner-rumblings of the clueless teenager, reminded me of Udaan’s still posters (minus the deftness). 

Bodhisattva Sharma as Vivek is earnest through most of his scenes, but I couldn’t quite invest in him and his friends. They were versions of what we’ve seen earlier – the sneaky friend (Neeraj) secretly preparing for exams while pretending to be a slacker, the female friend (Samta Sudhiksha) with that clarity to speak her mind, the ‘loser’ of the group who has already checked out of the year. In the track unfolding in Kota, the film coasts along with studying/slacking montages, never quite giving us a sense of time as it might be passing through a sand clock.

However, Grover showcases his observant side in more than one scene. Like when the teacher at the coaching class, played by Sheeba Chadha, plays ‘Papa Kehte Hai’ on the first day of coaching. In a room full of students carrying the burden of their families’ expectations, the song gets a whole new perverse meaning. A creepy teenager, who likes making lewd phone calls to women in the area through a PCO, identifies himself as ‘Shawn Michaels’ – a wrestling star. Late in the film, Vivek confesses everything his father says to him over the phone feels like a reminder of his ‘duty’ of getting into IIT. All he hears over the phone is “IIT… IIT… IIT.”

A still from ‘All India Rank’.

Grover’s film is strongest, when it plays between Bhushan and Agrawal. Being suspended from his workplace for a botched errand – the cake for the 50th Independence Day celebration has an inverted flag – Mr Singh has an awakening about how he’s funnelling his frustration onto his son. It results in a remarkably moving scene when he, using his awkward vocabulary, apologises to his son and cajoles him into not giving undue importance to the IIT entrance. Bhushan is terrific in the scene. And so is Agrawal– who finds a voice for the under confident Indian mothers, probably not articulate enough to verbalise their empty nest syndrome, so they battle the loneliness by themselves.

The only ones they can convey their hurt to are their partners, which is probably why we see them ‘fighting’ all the time. 

All India Rank retraces most of the beats that we saw in last year’s 12th Fail – another film about striving and coming of age. But where Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s film went after catharsis, Grover’s film seems to be grappling with larger questions. What Chopra’s film had going for it in terms of focus and precision (the way it assaults the tear ducts), Grover’s film seems to have in its restraint and gentle introspection.

It’s apparent that Grover is a better writer than a director now, but the film’s last scene gave me hope he will become better at it. To invoke a ‘90s reference, Grover’s loss here will probably prove to be a huge win for Hindi cinema in the coming years.  

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