Varun Grover’s ‘All India Rank’ Is A Tender, Lyrical Take On The IIT-Aspirant Story

By Aditya Mani Jha 26 February 2024 3 mins read

Varun Grover's directorial debut 'All India Rank' expertly depicts the world of IIT-JEE aspirants and the hardships they endure.

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Almost every single day, one comes across a statistic or news report that makes you pause and consider the scale and brutality of India’s competition for resources. This is especially true when it comes to schools, colleges and, inevitably, jobs. Earlier this week it was reported that over 5 million candidates in Uttar Pradesh applied for just over 60,000 constable posts—a travesty, whichever way you slice it. It’s no wonder then that middle-class parents exert a lot of pressure on their kids to clear competitive examinations, usually for medical or engineering colleges (with the UPSC examination being a close third).

In this world of hyper-competitive children and perennially anxious parents, statements of draconian intent are dropped as casually as weather updates. “Jitni maanviya kshamtaa hai, utnaa padhnaa hai,” says the teenaged protagonist Vivek’s father in All India Rank, the writer and stand-up comedian Varun Grover’s directorial debut; which means, “you have to study as much as humanly possible”. It’s 1997 and young Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma) is reluctantly marching to Kota, the Rajasthan cram-town best known for being a hub of IIT-JEE coaching centres. Later in the film, during a low moment for both father and son, we see the father, Mr Singh (Shashi Bhushan), smoking a desolate cigarette with his back to a wall that says “maanviya kshamtaa” (human capacity); a neat reminder of the limits of endurance.

Although we have seen this ecosystem in streaming shows like Kota Factory and Laakhon Mein Ek, All India Rank is the first Bollywood film to depict the world of IIT-JEE aspirants. And for the most part, it does a beautiful job. Grover’s characters are vividly written and well-rounded, the young actors deliver superb, naturalistic performances and the screenplay packs in a lot of ideas within the 100-minute runtime. Grover’s ear for dialect, his grasp on the texture of lived reality in small-town India and his crackling, idiom-laced dialogue—these are familiar strengths if you have followed his standup career and they are abundantly on display in All India Rank.

Two things I immediately liked about All India Rank’s storytelling technique—one, the plot isn’t subservient to the traditional three-act structure, with cause-and-effect leading to dramatic resolutions. Grover is equally interested in mood and setting and the larger context of a newly-liberalised Indian economy in the late 90s (during the first act, a boy whistling the theme song of the Doordarshan detective show Tehkikaat had me giggling out loud). Two, the film isn’t afraid to embrace the deeply nerdy language of its subjects—at various points in the film, the scattering of light rays and ‘Euler’s identity’ (a mathematical equation involving ‘e’, the base of natural logarithms) are both used to make philosophical points about the plot. A kindly IIT-JEE teacher, played by the ever-reliable Sheeba Chaddha, makes a Physics joke about Dev Anand (“Which Dev Anand film sees him stealing people’s energy? The Joule Thief!”)  

The way the teenage aspirants have been written and shot is also praiseworthy. Vivek is the wide-eyed Everyman, the kind of affable-but-clueless protagonist at the centre of many a coming-of-age story. Sarika (Samta Sudiksha) is an eloquent and savvy young girl who genuinely loves Physics and learning more about the universe—not the ideal ingredients for a competitive exam, but that’s rather the point Grover’s trying to make. Their dynamic is developed slowly and steadily, as Sarika brings the tongue-tied Vivek out of his shell. Their will-they, won’t-they puppy-love story arc has a very satisfactory payoff that’s both realistic and downright adorable. There are moments here—the duo cycling with their friends on a sun-kissed Kota afternoon, for example— that bring to mind the naturalism and the clean-lines filmmaking of Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. 

Grover’s ear for dialect, his grasp on the texture of lived reality in small-town India and his crackling, idiom-laced dialogue—these are familiar strengths that are abundantly on display in All India Rank.

Personally, I would have liked a few more scenes about life in 90s Lucknow, where Vivek’s parents live. There’s a story arc here about a PCO booth run by Vivek’s mother, one that assumes greater significance in the second half. It’s really well-executed and tells us something truthful and pertinent to the story. I think that in the film’s laser-focus on the Kota assembly-line, it perhaps misses the chance to string together further slices-of-life like that one. But if we’re being perfectly honest this is a small grouse aimed at a resolutely big-hearted movie, one that’s sure to end up on practically every year-end movies list.

In a previous life, I was one of the IIT-JEE aspirants Grover writes so beautifully here (himself an engineering graduate, Grover attended IIT-BHU). So much so that I found it difficult to get through a couple of scenes involving the despair of children who are physically exhausted; worker bees being worn down with every passing day. I can’t overstate the importance of a film like All India Rank in this context—a story that tells both parents and kids that success or failure in a single exam isn’t the end of the world, not by a long stretch.


Aditya Mani Jha

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist. He’s currently working on his first book of non-fiction, a collection of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.


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