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'All India Rank' Review: Varun Grover's Directorial Debut Is an Easy Watch

'All India Rank' feels like '12th Fail' at the first glance but they're starkly different.

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What do you do when the biggest criticism about a film is that there isn’t enough in it? Does that make it a bad film? Absolutely not. Does it make it a good film? This question becomes difficult to answer. 

'All India Rank' feels like '12th Fail' at the first glance but they're starkly different.

Bodhisattva Sharma in a still from All India Rank.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

In Varun Grover’s All India Rank, we meet a young man Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma) in 1997. Vivek is on his way to a coaching institute to become an IIT-ian – we soon realise that this is his father’s dream more than his own. Often, when Vivek is asked what his dream is, he either deflects or fails to come up with an answer – he has spent so long carrying his parents’ expectations and dreams with him that he has forgotten to come up with his own. 

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While it might be easy to draw comparisons between All India Rank and 12th Fail, they’re actually films that are starkly different. 
'All India Rank' feels like '12th Fail' at the first glance but they're starkly different.

A still from All India Rank.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

The way Sharma plays the character is interesting – he is a passive protagonist. To lead a film while playing a passive character is tough. You need to make the audience care about you without doing much. Grover and Sharma achieve this by perfecting the art of being relatable. When Vivek grumbles under his breath that his laddus have been stolen or his pent up frustration finally gets a release when his pen stops working, you can’t help but empathise.

While inanimate objects are at the receiving end of Vivek’s misplaced frustration, he himself is at the receiving end of his father’s. Vivek’s father RK Singh (Shashi Bhushan) looks like he has been picked up from an episode of Office Office. Despite being overworked and overlooked at work, he doesn’t stand up for himself (interestingly though, small moments of rebellion emerge). He prefers to keep his head down and stay in his lane but, like the film captures, that doesn’t stop people from exploiting him. 

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Grover, in this semi-autobiographical endeavor, attempts to capture the life of a middle-class family and does it well for the most part. While RK Singh is a government employee, Vivek’s mother Manju (Geeta Agrawal) runs their family’s PCO. The work put into scripting these characters is evident. 

'All India Rank' feels like '12th Fail' at the first glance but they're starkly different.

Bodhisattva Sharma and Geeta Agrawal in a still from All India Rank.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

All India Rank also contains an arc where we see how a man starts to terrorise Vivek’s parents because they rightfully rat him out. This arc lends itself to some interesting commentary – even though it’s RK Singh who attacks the man, the retaliation is almost solely aimed at his wife. His acts of violence are inherently driven by the gender binary. 

But like most things, the film doesn’t flesh out the commentary here. All India Rank suffers because most of its arcs feel rushed through. That is especially a problem for one reason – the film doesn’t offer anything new. We’ve seen Kota Factory, we’ve watched 12th Fail, and we’ve read the news. Most of All India Rank, as a result, becomes predictable. As soon as you meet a character on screen, it becomes easy to sketch out how their arc will go. 

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Even if we focus on Vivek's arc alone, his trajectory leaves little to be surprised with. All the elements of a coming-of-age story are present in All India Rank - college life, finding a group of friends to stick by you for the first time, young love, betrayal that stings more than it might a decade down the line. But without the novelty, the charm can easily transform into nostalgic dull. 

'All India Rank' feels like '12th Fail' at the first glance but they're starkly different.

Bodhisattva Sharma and Samta Sudiksha in a still from All India Rank.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Speaking of nostalgia, one thing All India Rank gets right is the details of its setting – both in time and geography. From the intricacies of being set in small-town Lucknow to India in the late 1970s, the attention to detail is impressive. We hear Vivek lament about liberalisation and watch two government officials argue over the use of ‘swatantrata’ over ‘azadi’ (‘Azadi is an Urdu word no?,’ one of them argues only for the other to bring up Subhash Chandra Bose). 

It’s these moments where All India Rank attempts to rise above its own premise that keep you hooked to the film. 

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The film’s highlights are the performances. Shashi Bhushan and Geeta Agrawal have such an easy going chemistry together that even the mundane workings of their daily life leave you feeling emotional. Agrawal plays the dutiful partner to a stoic man well – she too gets moments of rebellion. 

The way all three people from the family rebel is interesting to watch – even their ways of standing up for themselves are tainted by patriarchy.
'All India Rank' feels like '12th Fail' at the first glance but they're starkly different.

Shashi Bhushan in a still from All India Rank.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

RK Singh believes he can’t call out his boss for exploiting him because he doesn’t have the same social capital as his colleague who is an IIT-ian’s father. Manju calls her husband out for never standing up for himself while also implying that he doesn’t listen to her. 

And yet, RK Singh and Manju have moments of tenderness between them that help you not view either of them as common archetypes. They're both normal people trying to break out of the moulds society has cast them in and it's heartwarming to watch.

Even as Vivek tries to stand up to his father, he gets stuck at figuring out whether to say ‘dear’ or ‘respected’ papa. The one scene between the two before Vivek’s IIT exam stands out for how well the director has understood his own characters. 

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Sheeba Chaddha has proved time and again that she can sell any character and this time around she proves that she can even sell physics. As the teacher who mixes India’s love for Bollywood with grueling physics lessons, she’s like a breath of fresh air every time she’s on screen. It’s nice to see a bit of background to her as well but that’s one of those sequences where you realise that All India Rank is one of those rare instances where the film could’ve been more fleshed out to become a mini-series. 

'All India Rank' feels like '12th Fail' at the first glance but they're starkly different.

Sheeba Chaddha in a still from All India Rank.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Samta Sudiksha as the diligent Sarika Kumari doesn’t get enough of a story to truly flesh out her character. Sarika absolutely loves physics and sees it as a connection to the physical world – that aspect of her character makes her instantly charming in a story like All India Rank. But beyond that, there isn’t much the story explores about her. Her character too is as formulaic as the film itself.

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Cinematographer Archana Ghangrekar’s frames transform you to Kota and Lucknow in the 1970s. While I tend to say the frames look like paintings often, these frames look like they’ve been picked up off of stamps; like R. K. Laxman's world come to life. I also found myself foot-tapping along to the tunes in All India Rank – Mayukh–Mainak have been credited for the original music & background score and Varun Grover maintains his image as a brilliant writer with the lyrics. 

'All India Rank' feels like '12th Fail' at the first glance but they're starkly different.

Bodhisattva Sharma and Samta Sudiksha in a still from All India Rank.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Euler's identity comes up a few times in the film. Something about the identity comes to mind as I write about this film. British mathematician Keith Devlin had once said of the equation that it “reaches down into the very depths of existence”. Chaddha’s character might say that’s what great films often do. All India Rank attempts to do the same but in trying to do too much with too little time, it remains woefully at the surface.

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Topics:  Varun Grover   The Kota Factory 

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