12th Fail Runtime: 146 minutes
Have you ever given up on someone only to have him suddenly stun you with a winner? After weak movies like Kareeb (1998), Broken Horses (2015) and Shikara (2020), Vidhu Vinod Chopra was the filmmaker I’d given up on and his 12th Fail is the stunner he’s hit me with out of the blue.
The one-line plot of 12th Fail will conjure visions of boredom. Here it is: the real-life story of the impossible odds faced by IPS officer Manoj Kumar Sharma in achieving his dreams.
12th Fail is an exemplar of what sparkling writing can do to a story. The triumph of the underdog is told with such a light touch that it moves and motivates, also makes you mirthful and moist-eyed in turns. What could sound like the routine triumph of the underdog is so delightfully wholesome that you want to bring out the laddoos at Manoj’s achievement.
“To become like me you’ll have to give up cheating.”
One sentence from upright DSP Dushyant Singh (Priyanshu Chatterjee) provides enough fuel for impressionable Manoj Kumar Sharma (Vikrant Massey), from a humble village in the Chambal District of Madhya Pradesh, to aspire to become an IPS officer.
The sense of fun sets in right at the beginning when Manoj is preparing for his 12th— he’s readied tiny notes to cheat from. The suspension order of his father (Harish Khanna) who slippers his superior is another unexpectedly witty start, topped with a feisty grandmother (Sarita Joshi). A ready gun, so familiar in dacoit-infested Chambal, and her holding on to her pension, add to the light-heartedness.
The entire sequence of how the school conducts the 12th Standard exams is written with such humour that while you’re horrified at the quality of education, you’re also entertained: ‘Borad Exams’ as the teacher writes on the black boardwith the school ironically named ‘Gyansagar’.
Everybody failed the 12th that year in 1997 when DSP Dushyant Singh strode in and put a stop to the open cheating going on.
But it was the beginning of Manoj’s success as his encounter with integrity, boosted by silent encouragement from similarly inclined family members, sets him on his journey to crack the impossible.
From not cheating in his next attempt at the 12th Std board exams to having the spine to stay upright even during the crucial last interview to become an IPS officer, Manoj stays on Dushyant Singh’s path.
It is a tough path that demands sweeping, cleaning toilets and much compromise with sleep and comfort. But on the path are also unexpected buddies, especially Preetam Pandey (Anant Joshi) and ‘Restart’ master (Anshuman Pushkar), for whom Manoj’s win is a win for all of them. In the tricky Snakes & Ladders journey to cracking the UPSC exam where one slip and you slide to the bottom, ‘Restart’ master’s philosophy of roll the dice and start climbing again motivates Manoj to keep going. With attention from attractive Shraddha (Medha Shankar) as the icing on the top.
One of the many slips where Manoj writes an essay on terrorism instead of tourism is such a common mistake that it is an easy, heart-wrenching connect.
There are many little nuggets in the writing. If you can’t be the sun, be the lamppost – the lamppost a recurring prop as an ode to late President Abdul Kalam who studied under one. Manoj’s analogy of a glass of water and the medium of language, is another lovely moment. Earlier, there was also an easy reference to the privileges of caste reservation.
But alongside the messages, the humour continues. A saloon offers a choice of IAS and IPS haircuts.
Based on 12th Fail, Anurag Pathak’s best-selling novel which chronicles the unbelievable journey of IPS officer Manoj Kumar Sharma and IRS officer Shraddha Joshi, Vidhu and his team of writers (Jaskunwar Kohli, Anurag Pathak, Aayush Saxena) turn out a rich cinematic experience, lavish in emotion and generous in humour. Even when Manoj calls his parents in his moment of triumph, his father’s unexpected reaction evokes a big chuckle.
There’s authenticity in the sea of UPSC aspirants, the many coaching classes, the camaraderie in failure, and in the unobtrusive music. In the few false notes that do crop up, I’d count the cardboard panel at the final interview as avoidably filmi.
But Vikrant Massey makes Manoj the man you want to cheer – his is such a flawless performance. Medha, Anant Joshi and Anshuman are as warm as a fresh loaf of paav. The Sharma family too, so credible.
The triumph of a filmmaker and an actor is when they make you laugh and cry, wince and celebrate with the main character. Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Vikrant Massey pull off just that triumph.
12th Fail – Watch Or Not?: What’s there not to watch in it? This is award-winning cinema.