In a pivotal scene in Vikas Bahl’s “Super 30”, the protagonist, a teacher, tells his wards that they’re losing focus after they fail to solve a problem he sets out for them. “You got distracted,” he tells them. The solution was staring them in the face, he says, but they chose to look elsewhere. That is the story of “Super 30” as well.
The film is based on the true story of Anand Kumar, a tutor who started free coaching for poor students in Bihar in the mid-90s. Like the students themselves, this is material with exponential potential.
In an impoverished state like Bihar, education is often the one way to a better life for millions of people. That specifically means an education in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), one of India’s great centers of learning and achievement.
An IIT degree for many is practically a guarantee that you will never return to poverty.
Getting into IIT is not easy. For those at the bottom, access to expensive coaching classes that help students clear the notorious entrance exam is out of the question. Kumar, a mathematics scholar who saw the chasm between the classes, helped those on the wrong side. He’s a real-life super hero that way.
In Bahl’s film, Kumar is transformed into a Bollywood film hero with a gift for numbers. It presents us with every cliché in the textbook, including a naughty villain, a coy heroine and a gunfight at the end.
Hrithik Roshan (sporting a strange tan and emoting like Al Pacino), known for playing flamboyant characters on screen, seems ill at ease in the role of Kumar, a wronged, long-suffering tutor who has to fight all odds, even if he has a grasp of basic statistics.
We first see him as a young man, whose dreams of pursuing a mathematics course at a prestigious university are scuttled because his postman father can’t afford the fees. Overnight, Anand goes from promising student to hawking wares on a cycle.
Lucky for him, a coaching-class owner named Lallan (Aditya Srivastava) discovers him. Lallan, as if reacting to finding buried treasure, recruits him to his coaching classes, and charges students a premium fee to study with the master. He knows that his coaching school will rake in big money if they have a coach like this on the squad. Of course, Bahl and co-writer Sanjeev Dutta don’t explain how Lallan saw what everyone else failed to see in the protagonist, whose only practical use in society at this point in the film is selling papad on the road.
The stint at the coaching center doesn’t last long. Anand watches a kid trying to study maths by the street light one evening and lo, a Good Samaritan was born. Overnight, he sets up IIT coaching classes for the under-privileged, admitting up to 30 students in one year.
He struggles for funds. He also struggles with coaching students who haven’t studied properly before. The kids are from the poorest corners of Bihar, sons and daughters of rickshaw-pullers and daily wage labourers, determined to ace the exam that stands between them and a better future.
“Super 30” is engaging at first. But in the second half, Bahl switches to ‘80s-style Bollywood melodrama, where the villain sets out to divide and conquer by attempting to murder his virtuous prodigy, apparently for the crime of violating the basic capitalist commandment of “thou shalt make a profit.”
Lallan transforms into a scowling villain, in cahoots with the corrupt education minister of the state (Pankaj Tripathi), upset by Anand’s decision to give away his skills rather than letting Lallan continue to make big money off them. The screenplay focuses on their confrontation with the protagonist, rather than the real story – which is Anand’s attempts to get these 30 students past the line.
At this point, the characters multiply. Amit Sadh plays a reporter who helps Anand. Mrunal Thakur portrays Anand’s former lover who pines for him. Add to this some outlandish plot points, including high-level government officers officiating “contests” between Lallan’s students and Anand’s. This hodgepodge of subplots and confrontations subtract from the strength of the first part of the movie.
There is a great film to be made on the Indian middle-class and lower middle-class obsession with an IIT education, the extent to which people will seek it, and the machinery it takes for those chosen few who do get through. “Super 30” isn’t equal to the task.
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Editing by Robert MacMillan
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