Thursday, October 31, 2019

Super 30: Review

Trust Indian directors not to trust their material. You could hand them Casablanca and they’d go, this is fine but it’s missing a fight scene and why are people crying in the big musical number? Super 30 is on track as long as it steadily plugs away at the real life story of a teacher in Bihar who coaches underprivileged children for the IIT-JEE examination. But when the film starts to doubt whether this is enough, it comes undone.

We first meet Anand Kumar (Hrithik Roshan) as a prodigious academic talent in Patna. He's less adept on a human level, looking for the golden ratio in his girlfriend’s face and finds her wanting, a scene which recalls the brusque bookishness of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (another trick borrowed from Ron Howard’s film is scribbles on a blackboard crystallizing and hanging in the air to present an answer). When he’s accepted at Cambridge, his postman father tries desperately to gather the money to send him there. But this brings on a fatal heart attack, and Anand is forced to sell papad door to door, his Cambridge acceptance letter becoming wrapping paper in one mawkish scene.

When coaching institute director Lallan (Aditya Shrivastava) comes across Anand, he recognizes the prize-winning student he’d once met and hires him to teach students preparing for the IIT-JEE exam. Soon, Anand is a star professor, earning more than he can spend. Will he stray from the light? Turns out it’s nothing that a poor student working out math problems in between work shifts and a revelatory rickshaw ride can’t fix. It’s a little strange to have the moral climate of a 1950s Raj Kapoor film in 2019, with rickshaw-operators handing out life lessons and the corrupt Lallan doing everything but revealing a forked tail from his first scene.

Anand opens his own coaching centre, aimed at helping students whose families can’t afford school or coaching prepare for IIT-JEE. He accepts 30 students, houses, feeds and teaches them. It’s here that the film starts to reach, to hype up its material. There’s a competition with Lallan’s coaching centre with a contrived twist at the end. There’s a song sequence in the classroom that needs Anurag Basu’s direction (Ajay-Atul’s soundtrack and score are tuneful, but turned up much too loud and used indiscriminately). There are back-to-back scenes with an almost comical intensity – the first with the wind rattling the tin walls of the classroom as Lallan tries to intimidate the students, the second with Anand turning up in the middle of the night to yell at his charges that they have nothing and therefore have nothing to lose.

Things really start to unravel after the intermission. There’s a protracted sequence where the students apply their science skills to foil an armed attack; it’ll bring back memories of Home Alone even as you wonder why screenwriter Sanjeev Dutta and director Vikas Bahl are obscuring their cracker story with kids’ film juvenilia. Almost as farfetched – and indicative of the film’s simplistic outlook – is Anand’s plan to get his students to overcome their nervousness about speaking English. They’re told to perform a skit of their own devising in public without uttering a word in Hindi – anyone who refuses won’t be allowed back. It ends up working, with the class banding together and winning over an initially mocking crowd. There’s something terribly false about this moment – a celebration of Anand’s unorthodoxy at the expense of the dignity of the kids.

In last year’s Hichki, schoolteacher Rani Mukherjee is placed in charge of a classroom of children from low-income families. The film was as unsubtle as Super 30, but it did make the effort of giving the students distinct personalities and quirks and talents. In Bahl’s film, the IIT aspirants only exist be saved by Anand, not to show any individual sparks of their own. We’re told the names of some, their tragic circumstances and aspirations, but there’s little effort expended in making them memorable.

Super 30, then, is less about the 30, more about the one. That one has a heavy Bihari accent, which I won’t speak to the authenticity of, except to say it sounds like an actor trying with every fiber of his being to sound Bihari. The second hurdle, if you’re trying to appreciate Roshan’s performance, is his darker-than-usual complexion – Bollywood shorthand for “person from low-income household"; unforgivable yet shamefully common. There are half a dozen actors who’d have fit the part better, but Roshan, at least in the early stages, isn’t as distractingly emotive as he can sometimes be, and there’s a reserve to his Anand that pulls back some of the sentimentality.

This is Bahl’s fourth film as director, and his first release after allegations of sexual assault were made against him by a former employee (he was cleared by an Internal Complaints Committee). If Super 30 had told its story straight, it might have had something revealing to say about coaching class culture, Kumar’s eccentric methods, and the psychology of these students. Instead, Bahl makes a grab for Akshay Kumar territory, all good intentions and no subtext. The smarts of Queen seem very far away now.

This review appeared in Mint.

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