Audiences are being taken back to the 1990s in Varun Grover’s directorial debut, “All India Rank,” a time when India was experiencing the excitement of economic liberalization and pop culture trivia. Grover, an acclaimed lyricist, standup comedian, and writer, utilizes witty references to engage his viewers, such as a question linking HC Verma, the author of comprehensive Physics textbooks, with director Mansoor Khan of the celebrated film ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.’ Both luminaries shared a common educational breeding ground – the esteemed Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). This amusing link presents a humorous yet questionable insight: attending an IIT could be a gateway to success in any field, ranging from academia to the film industry.

The story unfolds around the character of Vivek, portrayed by Bodhisattva Sharma, a 17-year-old boy from Lucknow who is sent to Kota to prepare for the grueling IIT entrance exams. With his walkman and thermos in tow, Vivek is the epitome of an average teenager, claiming, with a certain innocence only afforded to youth, to have no dreams – a rare confession in the highly aspirational milieu of middle-class India. The narrative delves into the sacrifices Vivek’s parents make, scrimping and saving to afford their son a peaceful study environment. Vivek’s father, working in a low-ranking government position, extols the virtues of an IIT degree – a well-paid job, respect, and a comfortable life. But there’s an unspoken advantage he doesn’t articulate: the enhancement of social status.

To the viewer, Vivek appears as any other teenager: genuine but lacking a sense of direction. He soon befriends two of his hostel mates, zestfully interpreted by Ayush Pandey and Neeraj Singh, and is enchanted by the focused and intelligent Sarika, played by Samta Sudiksha. A quintessential moment is captured as the group rides to the riverside to chat, where Grover elegantly crafts the sequence with natural sounds and their mellow existential musings. It stands out as a serene and modest counterpart to the iconic Chapora Fort scene from “Dil Chahta Hai.”

The film gains substance from Grover’s personal experiences as an IIT (BHU) graduate and is peppered with his fondness for historical nuggets, such as one mentioning the first IIT campus’s origins as a British penal establishment. Yet, “All India Rank” grapples with a sense of déjà vu, particularly within a cinematic landscape that has recently covered academic pressures and coaching institute culture extensively in films and series like “Kota Factory” and “Laakhon Mein Ek.” This leads to a recurring feel, with certain concepts and insights seemingly reverberating from previous works, and even a familiar face – Geeta Aggarwal Sharma from “12th Fail” – playing Vivek’s mother, which doesn’t work in the film’s favor.

Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” offers a rich, nostalgic portrayal of 70s America, and Grover, alongside production designer Prachi Deshpande, aspires to do the same with 90s India. The details allude to 1997, the 50th year of independence, from adored Ajay Jadeja posters to wrestling monikers inspired by WWE. Throughout the film, except for a modernized ‘hard-work’ montage, there’s a leisurely pace that seems to suggest a more relaxed Kota, exemplified in Sheeba Chaddha’s portrayal of coaching institute founder Bundela Madam.

As Grover sets his sights on developing his visual style, parts of the movie – including the intermingled live-action and animated features – don’t feel particularly innovative. Despite occasional poetic writing, the film’s overall subtlety might have benefited from some restraint. Furthermore, the toning down of the phrase ‘fuck IIT’ to ‘chuck IIT’ in the theatrical release, presumably for the censors, seems to reduce the film’s potential impact.

Although Grover’s debut carries with it the promise of more mature works in the future, “All India Rank” paints a picture of the aspirational pressures that teenagers in India face, even as they navigate the muddy waters of self-discovery and societal expectations. It’s a film that captures a zeitgeist and will resonate with many viewers who understand the cultural nuances it plays upon. It is undeniable that “All India Rank” has added to the conversation on academic pressure that is all too prevalent in modern-day Indian society.

“All India Rank” is currently showing in theaters – providing moviegoers an opportunity to reflect on one of India’s perennial themes through the lens of cinema. Whether it’s a trip down memory lane or a reminder of the pressures that persist to this day, this film is a reminder of the journeys many have trodden on the path to educational success.

By IPL Agent

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