The Malayalam movie 12th Fail is directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and stars Vikrant Massey, Pallak Lalwani, Medha Shankar, Sanjay Bishnoi, Priyanshu Chatterjee, Harish Khanna, Vikas Divyakirti, Vijay Kumar Dogra.
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The Indian education system, with its plethora of exams and remorseless competition for seats and marks, is an excellent muse for filmmakers. And since it is a perennial problem in households, it immediately creates an easy resonance among the viewers. In the last two decades or so, we have had quite a few movies and web series on the subject across languages. Of course, the most famous of them has been 3 Idiots (2009). When the producer of the same, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, helms a film on the same subject, there is more than a passing interest.
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12th Fail, as the title leaves you in no doubt, is about the travails of a man who flunks the all-important ‘boards’. The 12 standard final exam is, in the Indian context, the be-all-and-end-all in the educational ecosystem. A person doing well in this exam will have many doors of education open up. And those who flunk it usually find themselves at the bottom of the barrel, as it were, as dregs and other detritus of life. In 12th Fail, Manoj (Vikrant Massey), a young and earnest man from Chambal, doesn’t clear the pivotal exam. But the young man has a lot of dreams. Including clearing the much coveted Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exam and becoming an IPS officer. Mind you, he is from the Hindi hinterland, and his medium of education is Hindi. The telling statistic, from the mouth of one of the characters in the film, is that out of the 2 lakh aspirants for IAS, only 25 to 30 of Hindi medium-educated persons actually make it.
So Manoj can come back from his initial failure. Can he surmount the seemingly impossible? Of course, you know what will happen in the film, which is based on Anurag Pathak’s book of the same name and tells the real-life story of Manoj Kumar Sharma, a man who became an IAS officer beating every possible odd.
But the biggest strength of 12th Fail is that it does not unspool as a typical triumph-of-the-underdog story. The events, even if tad predictable, carry more than realism. Vinod Chopra gives you a feel that it is all happening in front of you. He gives you a front seat into the happenings of a small village in Chambal in Madhya Pradesh. The scenes don’t lose the believability when they shift to Gwalior and then to Delhi. The nuances and details of what happens at the IAS training institutes and what is the situation in the area near them are brilliantly true to reality. It is this verisimilitude that uplifts the movie to a slice of life sincerity. The events at the Delhi IAS training hub are similarity to the Kota Factory, the splendid web series on the IIT-JEE entrance exam institutes at the eponymous Kota.
The cast of Medha Shankar, Harish Khanna, Anshumaan Pushkar, Anant Joshi are all sincere and provide the movie its veneer of fidelity. But Vikrant Massey carries the film manfully on his strong shoulder. He as Manoj is an idealist in the movie, and this feeling comes out beautifully in his performance, which is easily the best in his career so far.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra doesn’t try to be cute. The filmmaking is simple and true. And that is what gets all the pass marks for 12th Fail.
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An engineer-turned-journalist, K Balakumar’s career began in print publications as a sports writer. That also opened doors for other journalistic avenues like films, music, finance, technology and politics, which nobody can escape in India. After 30 yrs in mainstream journalism, now a freelancer for various digital publications.