2 November 2023
Aged filmmakers are frequently focused with their own mortality or appropriating what they believe today’s youth are like. In the process, they—including some of the best in the country—create abhorrent rehashes of their previous work. But not Vidhu Vinod Chopra. At 71, he is young in a manner that few are, young enough to break away from the constraints of his signature filmmaking technique, which he has successfully perfected over decades to create a timeless film. Because conflict cannot be contained inside a time frame.
Though based on the extraordinary true story of IPS officer Manoj Kumar Sharma, 12th Fail is the narrative of anyone who has ever tried to dream above their means.
Chopra wrote, directed, and produced the film, which begins in an inconspicuous, dusty village in Chambal. Manoj (Vikrant Massey) is preparing chits to cheat in his Class-12 Mathematics exam in 1997. He doesn’t have to; his teachers are famous for writing answers on the boards for everyone to copy, allowing each kid to pass without learning a thing. But Manoj is still at it, just to be sure.
When a righteous inspector (a scene-stealing Priyanshu Chatterjee) enters his school mid-exam and arrests the corrupt principal, his preparations are interrupted. Manoj can no longer cheat, he fails, and his life is permanently changed. Though his father’s moral compass is similarly strong—a suspended school teacher—he is too disillusioned to have an impact on the young Manoj.
For the first time in his life, his accidental encounter with the dedicated cop teaches him the power of honesty when combined with power.
As a result, he decides to become a cop. He meets an unusual comrade in the Gwalior railway station, as fate would have it. Manoj had been away from home for days, hungry, with his limited money and supplies taken along the road. Pritam Pandey (Anant Vijay Joshi) not only pays for Manoj’s food, but he also broadens his dream—it is through him that Manoj learns about the UPSC exam and resolves to become an IPS officer.
To make it through, the two travel to Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar, a buzzing nest of UPSC aspirants exploding with students, coaching centres, and a single dream. Manoj and Pritam encounter Gauri Bhaiya (Anshumaan Pushkar), a fellow dreamer awaiting the outcome of his final effort, here. He mentors disadvantaged students who have arrived at the centre with empty pockets and barebacks but a strong will and unwavering perseverance.
In Manoj’s voyage, Pritam is MC Sher from Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019), while Gauri Bhaiya is Moeen. Both are as important as Priyanshu Chatterjee’s DSP. If one person shows him the sky, the other person gives him wings to fly. Manoj works as a cleaner at a neighbourhood library, assists Gauri Bhaiya with his tea store and even grinds wheat 15 hours a day while living in an unpleasant dirty shack in his effort to attain the impossible. His conviction in himself and his impossible aim is questioned multiple times throughout the crises, but he never loses his fire.
The strength of Chopra’s storytelling is that he never lets any aspect of Manoj’s battle drag or become sluggish. Even at 147 minutes, 12th Fail remains as relentless and interesting as the man whose story it portrays. I particularly like how Anurag Pathak’s narrative (on which the film is based) intricately weaves in various strands to create a fragile bridge between the drastically dissimilar worlds of those who have everything and those who have nothing.
There’s the fight about English vs. Hindi medium, a silent remark on class intersectionality, and the pervasive presence of elitism in all realms, no matter how “democratic.” I particularly admire how the film makes the case for inter-class romance and how education may serve as a unifying bridge, even if such cases are pitifully uncommon. One cannot help but be moved by the film’s depiction of the age-old saying that “behind every person’s success is an infallible support system of people who make big and small sacrifices and inspire in ways perceptible and otherwise.” No man or woman is an island, and they should not be. We don’t talk about it enough, yet the stress of doing everything can be fatal.
Then there’s Vikrant Massey, the man at the centre of it all. His sincerity, perseverance, pain, and genuine talent throbs throughout the video, making you feel that if he can, so can you. That we are only as large as our ambitions and how we achieve them.