Vidhu Vinod Chopra's outstanding biographical film '12th Fail', essaying a modest Indian student's epic relentless struggle to pass the country's elite civil service exams, scales several Mt. Everests at once. It is a vital document, novelistic in scope, about how the nation's students, particularly those of modest means, endeavor heroically against herculean odds to pass tough competitive exams that are often the heavenly gateway to good jobs. The story is an unadorned, ungarlanded portrait of life in India's lower rungs, who feel the double bite of corruption and underdevelopment more than others, occasionally salvaged by godly samaritans who buck the Satanic trend. And lastly, it is a superbly crafted mainstream Indian flick, minus songs, rivetingly written from scene to scene - Bollywood meets brutal exams. The Rs.20 crore budget went on to gross 69 crore, indicating it has hit both heart and pocket.
Based on the book '12th Fail' by Anurag Pathak, this is actually the real life story of Manoj Kumar Sharma who overcame a modest background to rise to the elite ranks of the Indian Police Service. Sharma must now feel triply proud, of his own arduous accomplishment and the fact that his life has inspired both a well-known book and a movie of the finest caliber. 
Many students, Indian or otherwise, may actually find this a painful re-tread of their own never-ending struggle. As a movie reviewer, I was exhilarated by the movie's quality, and as an entrance exam ex-journeyman who's done the rounds of the block, this one cut closer to the barely healed bone.
Manoj Kumar Sharma is a teenager appearing for his twelfth standard exams (pre-university level). He hails from Chambal, a region with a yesteryear reputation for dacoits. He's cut from good cloth, as his father is an honest, uncompromising man, but the fabric is frayed by thin finances. The wholesale school-encouraged cheating in the exams is cut short by a honest deputy superintendent of police Dushyant Singh (a strapping strong turn by Priyanshu Chatterjee) who also rescues Manoj from a dangerous encounter with corrupt police underlings. 
Inspired by DSP Singh, Manoj gets the idea of a lifetime - if he can become a honest police chief like this rare example, he can resurrect two birds with one stone - get a good job And try to course-correct the wayward system. Starting a journey beset with every kind of misfortune and suffering, Manoj lucks upon a friend Pritam (Anant V Joshi) who kindly brings him to Delhi where the stakes of this high-wire game become clear. Another good samaritan and coach Gauri Bhaiyya (Anshumaan Pushkar) - a perfect example of India's tireless Gurus who have supremely coached their wards for highly competitive exams - lays out the unforgiving odds. Of students like Manoj who studied in 'Hindi medium', two lakh (two hundred thousand) students play the snake-and-ladders challenge climbing 1. The Preliminary Test. 2 The Main Exam 3. The Interview out of which the successful candidates who qualify for the nation's top regional posts number just twenty-five to thirty - a success rate of 0.015 %. Can Manoj crack this math ?
For sweet relief, our young man meets a person who's everything he's not - a beautiful, fair-skinned girl from a well-to-do family. It's the classic Hindi pikchar and real life challenge - can the underdog boy get the heavenly girl (Shraddha Joshi played by Medha Shankr) ?  If this was a early Selvaraghavan film, almost certainly boy and the girl he likes, would have met a painful end. But characters in Vidhu Vinod Chopra's films have a slightly better prognosis.
A good film, for prosaic purposes, benefits from numerous good sequences. '12th FAIL' has this in spades, but it also features a constellation of memorable characters who propel those scenes. That whip-cracking honest cop at the start sets the tone. Manoj's outcome would have been worse had not a kind friend interceded early in his destiny. His Guru then pitches in, no matter what the odds, to prop up his pupil as few other teachers would - there's a terrific speech he delivers to blow everybody out of the water when privileged English-medium blokes poke fun at their Hindi-medium brethren. Professor Vikas Divyakirti (playing himself - check out his impressive resume) is gentleness and gentlemanliness personified where a teacher could easily have been mean and cutting. See how calmly and diplomatically he soothes a highly embarrassing situation where the past lies uttered by one student  breaks the trust of the other in full view of the class. 
But if you thought the film is suffused with roseate types, the grays are never far away . A hero turns into a villain in the blink of an eye, an ironically ruthless turn of destiny being the instigator. The chief of the selection panel on top of the mountain is a hopelessly Anglophile bigot, probably worse than his British idols (one wonders how he will react when he goes to highly developed Japan and France refusing to speak to him in English). 
   Spearheading the roster of excellent performances, Vikrant Massey is pitch-perfect as Manoj Kumar Sharma. Supremely sincere, with titanic determination and essential goodness of heart, the character of Manoj is limned with indefatigable earnestness from start to finish. If this was a Tamil film, especially back in the day, all eyes would have been on Dhanush !  'The Importance of being Earnest' is a well-known play title of a totally different subject - it could well apply to Manoj. Massey, slim as he is, has shrunk a bit for this role to embody a small frowsy strip of a boy, but that boy has a dynamo of sincerity perpetually burning inside him. He only has some bad habits, like barging into people's houses at night and expecting them to open court to strangers, but otherwise, look how calmly he takes the news when his lengthy pilgrimmage to the hill top is declined at the very end by the deity. Massey plays him like Forrest Gump With A Normal IQ, a smile never far away from his face, driven ever forward with die-hard optimism.    
Randarajan Ramabadran's cinematography often adopts a free-spirited artisanal style rarely encountered in the subcontinent. The camera sometimes floats from face to face and angle to angle, without need for cuts, swimming into rooms, gliding into corridors and smoothly into another chamber following the characters. This is coupled with nice POV shots, like from the back of the classroom with the professor far away, a proper back-bencher view. When Manoj returns home, his younger brother jumps over the shelf counter to run and meet him, while the camera actually pulls back into the dark shop to watch them over jars. Another shot scales up rickety stairs and opens doors into a small ramshackle chamber looking at white-dusted Manoj behind a mill who smiles and jumps forward - the whole visual maximizing the sorry state of this young scholar trapped in an infernal hole. 
Shantanu Moitra's background score has the immense virtue of allowing silence in key scenes, instead of overboiled underlines. He sometimes plays a simple Sitar reminiscent of 'Pather Panchali', with a simple gesture bringing back that film's grand legend of timeless simplicity, ancient poignancy and a similar theme of the struggle for better life.  
  I sometimes wondered why India has not produced more good films about the famous, or rather notorious, phenomenon of its students' continuous great struggle in competitive exams. Vidhu Vinod Chopra produced '3 Idiots' - a film about students which was too clever for its own good, making a ton of money but lacking bruising honesty. When he dropped the money bag and got behind the camera himself, the focus is infinitely better. 
UPNWORLD welcomes your comments.