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Vikrant Massey plays a UPSC aspirant in his new film '12th Fail', directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, out in UAE cinemas now Image Credit: Supplied

With director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s deeply stirring film '12th Fail,' it’s safe to say that its lead actor, Vikrant Massey, has graduated with flying colours. In this moving and melancholic tale, written and directed by Chopra, we see a young Indian Police Service hopeful, Manoj Kumar Sharma — played brilliantly by an on-point Massey — attempting to crack the country’s highly competitive Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) entrance exams.

The odds are stacked heavily against Manoj. The diffident but gritty young man has studied all his life in a Hindi medium school in a village in Chambal, notorious for bandits, and is so poor that he can’t afford crutches like the expensive coaching classes in Delhi. He works in a flour mill by day and studies by night at the small, dingy mill. He thinks and speaks in Hindi and has no edge over millions of English-schooled aspirants. He also belongs to a backward caste, which underscores the lack of opportunities in his life.

'12th Fail,' out in UAE cinemas now, is a searing portrait of the relentless endurance of millions who face those exams and a scathing indictment of a flawed education system that rewards cramming. The bias toward candidates from English medium schools as opposed to those from small towns and how these intense entrance tests chew up and spit out millions of young men and women is explored in great detail.

The trailer opens with the sobering and grim statistic that out of 2 lakh Hindi medium-schooled aspirants, only 25 to 30 make it as IAS or IPS officers in India. The Hindi-speaking candidates constantly live under the shadow of their English-speaking peers.

“It’s far more depressing. I was with a few IAS and IPS officers who say that in a calendar year out of seven lakh students appearing for the UPSC exams, maybe 150 or 200 students with a Hindi medium background make the cut-off? … UPSC exams are brutal, and with this film, you will come face to face with a lot of daunting things that exist in real life,” said Massey in an interview with Gulf News.

The movie, which features a great majority of real-life students appearing for the UPSC exams as its supporting cast, is also a crash course on how to ace life and its challenges.

“The beauty of this film is that it’s not just for students. It’s not a student-centric film; it’s a life-centric movie … It’s not just meant for UPSC aspirants. It’s for people like you and me who are doing nine-to-five jobs as well. The #Restart, on our posters, is synonymous with all our lives. Remember it’s not about how you start; what matters is how you re-start,” said Massey. He truly believes that this film will remind everyone that it’s not your success that defines you, but the failures that mold and shape you.

Massey's toughest gig

Massey, who has worked his way up in Bollywood, claims that playing Manoj was his career’s toughest gig. He put aside nearly three years for this film '12th Fail,' while director, writer, and producer Chopra took four years to conceive and deliver this sweet and inspiring film.

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Vikrant Massey plays the quintessential underdog character in '12th Fail'. Will his character Manoj crack the highly-competitive UPSC exam, is the big question.

“I haven’t been as squeezed or juiced as much as I have been by Vinod Sir. Nobody has done that. But what has probably aided me to sail through these challenging moments is that the character I play has a lot of me in it as well,” said Massey.

Massey, whose credits include films like Konkona Sen Sharma’s 'Death In The Gunj' and Netflix thriller 'Haseen Dilruba,' has made his mark in Hindi cinema through merit alone. Just like his on-screen avatar Manoj, this actor has never had a godfather or mentor shepherding him in this highly clannish Bollywood industry known for its nepotistic ways. His slow but sure-footed ascent in Bollywood is similar to Manoj’s triumph at one of the world’s toughest exams.

“I was definitely not shepherded, guided, or supported. But I think I wouldn’t have it any other way because I am absolutely sure of one thing: I wouldn’t have been the person that I am if I had not faced those rejections and those pre-conceived notions about me as this TV actor or that hero ka dost (hero’s friend). I cherish those moments of struggle,” said Massey.

And it’s precisely this vulnerability and steely will that appealed to '12th Fail' director Chopra. In a separate interview, Chopra said he didn’t want any known or established stars for this film. But he changed his mind once he saw the 36-year-old Massey’s skill-set.

Complete transformation

“I wanted all new people because this film could not have film stars … I was looking for first-timers when Raju Hirani told me about this guy [Massey] from 'Death In The Gunj' … He came to meet me in my house, I wasn’t sure about him but he stayed for three days … He completely transformed right there in my study as this 19-year-old. In this film, he has no makeup on his face. He actually went to Chambal, burned his skin for 15 days,” said Chopra. The movie opens with how Manoj, armed with dreams and his grandmother’s life savings, heads to the city to become an IPS officer.

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Director Vidhu Vinod Chopra was keen on making a film filled with hope and realism.

It’s a movie that will fill you with hope, believes Chopra and Massey.

“My daughter studies at Stanford for Creative Writing, and she quotes me everywhere: ‘if you become a cobbler, make sure you’re the best cobbler in your street’ … There’s an important line from the film where Manoj says he cannot be the sun that shines on the entire earth, but he can be that street lamp that lights up his street or lane. This movie is that lamp in my street. It’s full of hope,” said Chopra.

Power of a good film

He also tells us that a senior cabinet minister who saw '12th Fail' during a special screening in Delhi made a few calls to make sure that coaching centers don’t falsely advertise their success rate. In the film, a scene in which the hero calls out a nefarious coaching institute for falsely advertising its winning candidates is a powerful one. The coaching center was slyly running this racket of buying endorsements from students who cleared the exams without attending their coaching center.

“The minister had told his guys to start looking for all those coaching centers that were falsely advertising and take action against them … And that’s the power of a good film," said Chopra. We couldn't agree more.