Super 30

In a face-off marking the film’s intermission, the local IIT coaching business head Lallan (Aditya Shrivastava) comes to warn a renegade star professor Anand Kumar (Hrithik Roshan) of dire consequences if he continues running his free coaching centre for the poor. Pockets of sunlight trickling through the makeshift roof creates dramatic zones of shadow and light on the character’s faces. As Lallan cranks up his challenge using colourful metaphors of a horse derby, music swells and a wind from nowhere sweeps across the room, making the asbestos walls rumble. Lest we miss the cues, Anand asks Lallan to brace for a storm.

Multiplying signifiers is part of all melodramatic expression, but Vikas Bahl, the director of Super 30, uses it exclusively as a crutch to prop up an uninspired material bordering on formula. The strings are pulled even before the first shot, violins and choruses preparing us for a soundscape that will be set to 11 through the remainder of the film. The film opens in London in 2017 at a gathering to felicitate a successful student of Anand’s. After a brief rollcall of Indian-headed corporations, he pays tribute to his professor, who, even before the flashback, is presented as a genius educator to be lionized. The second scene is a gathering too, this time in Patna twenty years ago, and sets up a lazy opposition between education and politics that characterizes the film: a slimy education minister (Pankaj Tripathi) makes false promises to Anand, who has just won a top medal.

He goes to show the medal to his romantic interest Ritu (Mrunal Thakur). In the first scene of a gratuitous romantic track, shoehorned as in all biopics of men to show that these men have Feelings, Ritu sits wearing the medal looking sideways at Anand, who crouches on the floor, talking about PhD while playing pittu. The scene, like all others in the film, plays out exactly as you imagine; a romantic interlude between a math geek and a plain Jane: she expects him to declare his love while he, in a parody of 60s Hindi cinema bholas, holds forth on phi, the golden ratio. A first meeting with the girl’s father, Anand’s appointment with the minister seeking financial help, all the exchanges with Lallan, the minister’s rude dismissals of Lallan, a scene at the police station seeking protection, Anand’s pep talk as he shuttles between students standing around him in the room, they all proceed with the predictability of the Fibonacci series. The villains recognize themselves as villains, the amir log address themselves as amir log. A story’s dramatic value is already diminished when its antagonists themselves are convinced of the hero’s moral superiority.

This bloodless quality of the script might have been made up for with a dynamic style, but Super 30 is so formally inert and conservative that the sole visceral impact that Anand’s victories provide comes from its booming soundtrack. Outside of a few ominous close-ups of a cycle chain (whose delicious ambiguity is soon dispelled by the turn of events) and three meal scenes, none of which the film seems to be really invested in, there’s hardly an organizational principle at sight. The visual culture of IIT coaching institutes, with its fatigue-inducing self-promotional ads and banners, is dispensed in a single second-unit montage. The better part of the film is given a burnished DI look to evoke some vague sense of the rustic while once florescent-lit scene at a hospital, with stroboscopic effects on cue, sticks out like Hrithik’s grey eyes in the hinterlands of Bihar.

What does hold the attention and ground the film is, however, the figure of Hrithik Roshan himself. Successively outfitted in old sneakers, half-sweaters (= innocent man, per Bollywood), pilled T-shirts, checked shirts, oversized kurtas, his top button always open making his neck crane out even further in the frame, a pen in the shirt pocket, a large-dial wristwatch on the right hand and sometimes a red towel on the shoulder to signify his modest means, Hrithik is always interesting to watch here, despite the raw deal the script offers him. Like Gary Cooper, he effaces himself in the early part of the film, blending into the crowd and sticking to the edge of the frame. He squats twice in the film to indicate overwhelming joy – one when he gets an admit at Cambridge and again when his students clear IIT – he pulls up his belt that wraps around a too-tucked-in shirt when he meets the girl’s father (borrowing from his man-child repertoire from Koi Mil Gaya), he uses his middle finger to point at objects and stands in the classroom against the table leaning on his right elbow or with his right foot on a chair, looking like a pretty hieroglyphic. And, of course, he swallows his saliva to show that he is overcome with emotion. His Adam’s apple is a compositional element of its own.

Does Super 30 take on feudal forces as it repeatedly claims in its punchline? I believe not. The film inscribes itself into a Hollywood tradition of individual triumph in which the nominal social problem (the exclusion of the poor from the social ladder) becomes a wallpaper to the protagonist’s journey of self-realization (the success of Anand’s academy). Think Dances with Wolves, Schindler’s List, Amistad. Like the heroes of these films, Hrithik’s Anand is a paternal figure who not only must do his professional duty as a teacher, but also prepare his children to face life’s challenges. In an extended set piece – perhaps the film’s most inspired moment, pulling off with a straight face what is otherwise unintentionally funny – he orders his students to put up a play entirely in English in order to help them find self-respect and overcome their complexes of not being able to speak in English. The play, set at the town square on Holi day with coaching institute posters all around, starts out as a funny skit around Sholay, but soon becomes a resistance song against the hegemony of English. While Anand’s prowess as a life coach are amply demonstrated, the cognitive challenges in teaching and learning advanced mathematical concepts, themselves, are side stepped. Turning abstract physical problems into real world questions or pretty animations doesn’t, despite what the film thinks, make them any more pertinent, leave alone solvable.

The event the entire film prepares us for – the IIT entrance exam – is placed right after a shootout worthy of Anu Club, in which the students employ various scientific concepts to ward off gun-toting henchmen sent by the minister. The exam itself is not depicted and the day of the exam results becomes an excuse for the camera to linger long on Hrithik’s expression of relief and vindication. The film’s end credits present a list of international laurels for Anand’s programme, not what it did to its participants or what IIT means to its aspirants today. It reads no differently than the promotional banners of other coaching institutes.

Part of the problem stems from the film’s wholesale purchase of the bourgeois myth of Education as a ticket out of poverty. Not only will education help you get a job, but you can build slide projectors with rubber bands and fend off a criminal outfit with solenoids and lenses. Pervading the film is the idea that were the children allowed a shot at the IIT, all the systemic problems facing them for generations would vanish. No matter the lack of institutional support once you get into top-tier colleges as an underprivileged student or the continuation of inequalities in performance through accrued academic capital. The notion of education as panacea and an ultimate goal to be pursued reverberates throughout Super 30, with its thundering Sanskrit chorus about education, its unironic reverence of the IITs and its belief that education lies somewhere beyond the corrupting realms of business and politics. These are talking points that you will invariably find echoed in middle-class living rooms and corporate offices.

“A king’s son will no longer become the king. Only he who deserves it will become the king,” a line that’s uttered a handful of times in the film. This seeming rebuttal to zamindari era is actually a cover for the belief in pure meritocracy the film embodies. Super 30’s dodging of the question of reservation is not simply a curiosity, but essential to its functioning. It has to pit rich kids who have all the means at their disposal to prepare for the exam and poor but gifted kids who have to fight for everything. In a sequence depicting competition between the two camps, the former group turns out to be winners by a couple of marks, and the film plays it out as a defeat for Anand. It would not sit well within the moral fabric of the film for an underprivileged student with lower marks passing the exam over a rich student with higher marks. In an early scene at a university library, Anand Kumar is thrown out for not giving out his full name. What first appears to be a rebellious gesture to withhold caste name is extended to every character in the film, who are all to be read only as tropes such as evil politician, corrupt businessman, doting father, helpful reporter etc. I hope this objection to the film for trying to remap caste-class inequalities solely along class lines doesn’t seem like an unfair or irrelevant criticism. What I intend to point out is that, in doing so, the film falls in line with the same outlook it rebukes. Super 30, however, is not special offender. This narrative of the triumph of merit over mediocrity, talent over entitlement is part of the enduring myth that culture industries such as Hollywood and Bollywood – without a hint of irony – tell us, if not themselves.

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) (You Don’t Get Life A Second Time)
Zoya Akhtar


Zindagi Na Milegi DobaraThe deal with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is not bad; for the price of one ticket you get a 150-minute Tourist’s Guide to Spain, a parade of supernaturally-beautiful bodies and a good amount of dime-store philosophy. It’s a bit like window-shopping in malls – you know you can’t afford these things, you know they are not good for you, but you just can’t take your eyes off them. Zoya Akhtar’s second feature film revolves around three well-off bachelors each of whom is battling some sort of repression and who would liberate themselves over a three-week European road trip. It would be crude to attack this film – or any other – on the basis that it talks about the problems of the rich, isolated from the existence of the overwhelming majority. Sorrow, after all, knows no class. As long as such a work doesn’t become blind to values beyond its immediate context, I think there is little reason to object to its existence. Akhtar makes it amply clear at the outset that this is a film of, by and, most importantly, for the privileged and that all the wisdom it offers applies to those who have the luxury to indulge in them. So, at least, this is not an entirely dishonest or misguided project. Yes, it’s woven around the stereotype that men have trouble articulating their emotions and that it takes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl no less attractive than Katrina Kaif to snap them out of their hang-ups. And a trip to Spain. Nonetheless, the director takes pains to point out that the adventure sports that the three men play to overcome their inhibition is not an expression of masculine reassertion, accompanied nearly always as they are by at least one woman, but a contact with their vulnerable side. Like her brother’s debut film, Akhtar’s is a “guys’ movie”, but it regularly teases out values that are generally absent in this kind of cinema. Awkward moments that are typically dissolved by man-child humour are allowed to play out freely. On the other hand, despite the impressive sport sequences and the instantly beautifying quality of continental light, ZNMD has an impoverished visual vocabulary consisting of an endless series of close-ups, two-shots and three-shots that is ultimately rather exhausting. Oh, and what Thom Andersen said about personal filmmaking.


For film lovers who consider Bollywood cinema to be a blind spot in their cinephilia and wish to change that, there’s a curious entry from Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions that rolled out last week: a purported remake of their own 1990 production Agneepath. The curiosity, I think, arises from the tug-of-war between Dharma’s current reputation as makers of an “international” brand of Bollywood cinema targeted specifically at expatriates and nascent Indophiles and the highly indigenous, culturally and historically rooted nature of the movie they have chosen to remake. The result is exciting, to say almost nothing, and should serve as a good takeoff point for the adventurous.

A crucial detail about the original Agneepath, starring Amitabh Bachchan and directed by Mukul Anand: It’s insane. Made during the limbo between Amitabh Bachchan’s infamous career in politics and his equally unsuccessful foray into film production, the film is located at the fag end of that vague set of films that academicians have milked to death—the so-called Angry Young Man pictures, all featuring a generally tormented Bachchan trudging through the narrative. The film works on archetypal material redolent of classic Westerns, and fleshes it out into three hours with scenes both startling and superfluous (for a measure, imagine the Ranown cycle developed as a TV series): The righteous schoolmaster of Mandwa, an island village to the west of Mumbai, Dinanath Chauhan is cudgeled to death in front of his son Vijay by his villagers after having been misled by the scheming Kancha, who plans to appropriate the village for growing opium. Forced to bury his father by himself and move to Mumbai for a living, Vijay plans to reclaim his village and avenge his father. Anand cares little about redaction, tonal consistency or pacing and primarily works around self-styled iconic images which in turn have no scruples about their literariness and in-your-face symbolism. (The continuity between father Chauhan and son is illustrated by what the film takes to be as its central image: blood dripping from battered father’s face onto his son’s. I kid you not.)


Considering multiplex-bred audiences today have a little less patience for three hours of such excesses, it is not surprising that Karan Malhotra’s Agneepath (2012) is less a remake of Mukul Anand’s film and more a respin of it for a new generation of film goers from a new nation, half of whose populace is younger than Anand’s film. Nowhere is this more apparent than the scene in which we are introduced to the adult Vijay, 15 years after his father was lynched by the mindless mob of Mandwa. We see Hrithik Roshan, with his perfectly-chiseled body and Greek God features, sprinting forward like a stallion, climbing on to the top of the Dahi Handi pyramid, and seizing the jackpot at the top. Vijay is now 27, about a decade younger than his predecessor (who is, exactly, 36 years, 9 months, 8 days and 16 hours old when we see him for the first time) and as just as old as most of his audience. Anand’s 1990 film is an Amitabh Bachchan vehicle in more ways than one. It is the Bachchan persona struggling against an emaciating physique, the Angry Young Man trapped in a body that couldn’t be called so—an empty container in which his voice ricochets endlessly. Roshan’s unkempt yet obviously resplendent countenance is the direct opposite of Bachchan’s drooping, mascara-wearing face. “He looks normal, but he’s the one most disturbed,”Inspector Gaitonde (Om Puri) correctly characterizes. The glacial surface of Roshan’s face reveals nothing, not even the simmering wrath that is supposedly driving him, and isn’t helped by his barely visible blue pupils that vanish when he cries.


Malhotra’s film, perhaps as homage of which there is no shortage within and outside of the film, including its publicity, retains much of the original’s shamelessly literal approach to images and impressive use of long lenses, shallow fields and racking focus for dramatic impact. (In an adeptly realized and shot encounter early on between Vijay’s father and Kancha, Vijay and mother are frighteningly visible and out of focus, as seen from Kancha’s POV.) Equally discerning is the fine-tuned attention to landscapes that sets up a visceral contrast between the metallic-blue, horizontal wastelands of Mandwa and the radiant saffron-tinged, vertical settlements of Mumbai. Malhotra’s film finds itself constantly in dialogue with the older Agneepath, resolving a few of the latter’s contradictions (and adding a few), deftly pruning out its circuitous narrative threads and making prominent some of the latent themes and equivalences. If Anand’s film unabashedly works towards a near-surreal, graceful finale recalling The Searchers (“Let’s go home, mother”), the reboot keeps underscoring the parallel between Vijay and Kancha, much like what Ford’s film does with Ethan and Scar. For one, both Sanjay Dutt, who plays Kancha, and Hrithik Roshan have imposing statures and that stand in contrast with other portly figures in the film. Vijay uses the same means as Kancha to reclaim his hometown, including an ignoble murder of a man in front of his son. The seemingly ageless, Kurtz-like Kancha might be something of an essence that Vijay is reducing himself to: an asexual, amoral nihilist with no other function than to induct people like Vijay. This sustained emphasis, illustrated through blocking and editing, is why the deliciously classical scene of confrontation between the two is also the best one in the film.


But labeling Malhotra’s film as an ironic, movie-bratish throwback to the past, conscious of its own workings, is perhaps too lenient. The older film was made when the country was on the brink of opening up its markets and this was the time when satellite television and discos were becoming commonplace. While left-leaning filmmakers like Girish Kasaravalli were probing into the flipside of this proclaimed boon, Agneepath was making an argument for the right-wingers in the mainstream. Mukul Anand’s Vijay Dinanath Chauhan is a raving reactionary railing against all foreign intrusion and taking it upon himself to protect the sanctity of institutions like family, religion and community. Bachchan’s racist patriarch, who can not see women as anything other than his mother or bearers of children, is a far bolder, far more politically-incorrect and far more rounded character than Roshan’s generally unmarked, comparatively genteel, secular hero. What enrages the new Vijay is not alcohol and prostitution, which are but indulgences according to current moral standards of Bollywood, but more scandalizing taboos of today such as human trafficking and child molestation. The villain, too, is not some suave, tuxedo-wearing, sunglass-sporting non-resident, but a Hindu madman who, like Pulp Fiction‘s Jules Winnfield, misquotes the Gita to suit his own needs. Even the welcome elimination of the stereotyped South Indian character, portrayed by Mithun Chakraborty in the original, seems first a necessity of the times and only then an indicator of refined taste. The thematic stress in the new film is solely on revenge, instead of the salvage of Mandwa and its residents. Vijay’s agenda, as it were, is reduced to the purely familial, unlike his predecessor, for whom the familial becomes inextricably political. Between the two Agneepath films, we witness an India that has taken an abrupt about turn. Bachchan’s Vijay Chauhan is now an outcast in his own country.


[First published at the Mubi Notebook]