An atta chakki (gristmill) stands out in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail. It serves as a potent, if tangential, metaphor for the gruelling grind that the hard-to-crack Indian Civil Services examinations entails. But there is much, much more to the biographical drama enlivened by inspired directorial touches.
A realistic and restrained adaptation of a book of the same name, the film centres on a young man, a struggling Hindi medium student, who makes the journey from a lawless Chambal village to the top echelons of the police force, inevitably hitting many a daunting roadblock on the way.
The decrepit structure that houses the grain-grinding mill is dark, dispiriting and filled with flour-dust. It is here that the protagonist finds employment as he doubles down to the task of bracing himself for a make-or-break exam.
The disadvantaged youth knows all too well that hard work is the only option available to aspirants like him. He is from a rustic background. Hindi is the only language he can understand and speak. And he is precariously low on monetary resources.
Having to reckon with multiple social handicaps and a language barrier, a reality that thousands of boys and girls like him have to confront, he knows he has no room for complacency, having vowed to his grandmother not to return home until he has earned the right to don a police officer’s uniform.
12th Fail is an entertaining, thought-provoking version of the true story of an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer. The screenplay yields a completely relatable narrative. It squeezes every ounce of drama from the rough and tumble of the man’s voyage without resorting to any sort of excess.
The film views the specific facts of one individual’s experiences in the context of the general realities of an examination system while often going into granular detailing of the three-stage testing system. In the process, the account of the trials and tribulations of Manoj Kumar Sharma (Vikrant Massey in a demanding role that sees him effortlessly traverse a wide gamut of emotions) assumes the form of a classic, universal and absorbing underdog saga.
Intersecting closely and merging with Manoj’s navigation of the intimidating nitty-gritties of the UPSC examinations is the far less arduous arc of Mussoorie girl Shraddha (Medha Shankar). The latter helps the doubt-ridden man steel himself against the second thoughts that begin to assail him as adversities multiply.
From a relatively privileged background, Shraddha has abandoned her medical studies and resolved to become a bureaucrat because that, she believes, would grant her the power to make a real difference to common people deprived of their rights.
12th Fail is a story of love and friendship tested by the challenges that life throws at Manoj, who fails to pass his 12th board exams. In response to the briefest – and timeliest – of pep talks from a deputy superintendent of police (Priyanshu Chatterjee) posted in Morena, he decides not to cheat although everybody else in his class does. He chooses honesty over expediency.
Pitched as a tribute to the handful of bureaucrats who steadfastly shun corruption in the face of the temptation to go with the flow of an administrative structure that breeds cynicism and compromise, 12th Fail begins at the lower end of the pecking order.
The early focus of the film is briefly on Manoj’s father, Ramveer (Harish Khanna). He loses his lowly government job when he takes a stand against a corrupt official and a smarmy local legislator who abuses his power with impunity.
While the father goes away to Gwalior to seek legal redress for his dismissal, the son makes his way to Delhi armed with the savings of his grandmother (Sarita Joshi). His suitcase is stolen when he dozes off in a bus. Left penniless and starving, Manoj runs into a reluctant but cheerful civil services aspirant Pritam Pandey (Anant Vijay Joshi).
Delhi is a vast, bewildering cauldron that the young man is unable to make head or tail of until Gauri Bhaiyya (Anshuman Pushkar), a man who has tried his luck in the UPSC examinations a number of times without success, takes him under his wings and becomes a guide and friend.
Manoj lands a menial job in a library. It gives him a small sum of money, a roof above his head and access to a whole lot of books. Subsequently, he works in an atta chakki, slogging away 14 hours a day, which leaves him with six hours for his exam preparations and only four hours for sleep. He carries on regardless.
He needs the money to not only provide for himself in Delhi but also because his mother (Geeta Agrawal) and siblings depend upon him. On one hand is unending chaos and uncertainty, on the other unwavering perseverance and pluck.
That may seem like an overly simple and cliched plot construct, but out of what transpires at the two extremities and in between them, the seasoned director carves out a two-and-a-half-hour drama that makes its point forcefully. 12th Fail feels far more succinct and compact than its length might suggest because it the film never loses momentum. The many unsettling upheavals and flashpoints that Manoj must negotiate imparts pace to the narrative.
12th Fail, at times tender and heart-breaking, at others hard-nosed and clear-eyed, is a simple film with a direct message: just as much as anything else that keeps the nation ticking, India needs upright bureaucrats and policemen.
In the worldview that the screenplay talks up, it isn’t larger-than-life crusading officers of the kind that Indian commercial cinema is particularly fond of who hold sway. 12th Fail celebrates rooted, public-minded men and women who swear by the Constitution and are brave enough to go the distance in protecting the principles that it enshrines.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra extracts fine performances from his cast, with Vikrant Massey and Medha Shankar occupying the centrestage with aplomb. All the major and minor supporting actors, taking the cue from the film itself, are always on the ball.
At a time when it is routine for Bollywood to make a completely hash of films inspired by true stories and real-life achievers, 12th Fail is a gentle little film that stays true to its purpose and strikes out hard in all the right directions
Vikrant Massey, Priyanshu Chatterjee, Medha Shankar
Vidhu Vinod Chopra