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All India Rank Review: Tender Must Watch

By SUKANYA VERMA
February 23, 2024 16:35 IST
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All India Rank achieves a fine balance of authenticity and sensitivity in the fine portrayals of its young actors and old, points out Sukanya Verma.

I first saw Varun Grover's All India Rank at the Mumbai Film Festival last year.

What struck me most is the gentle rhythm of his film-making. A worldview, where wry and wistful blissfully coexist, colours the nostalgia of the writer-turned-director's feature debut while he revisits some of his own experiences as an engineering student in 1990s India.

It's 1997, back when phone calls and gas connections were still a luxury, Gabriela Sabatini and Jadeja (Ajay not Ravinder) adorned walls of young adults and Bollywood's hot new face sizzling in Urmila Matondkar's scorching transformation in Rangeela and Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee's bold lip lock in a still nascent Zee TV fuelled sexual awakening in a room scattered in stacks of coursework.

All India Rank may not play out in flashback mode, but the self-aware voiceover provided by its central protagonist makes no bones about its nostalgia soaked in affection as well as amusement.

The nation is celebrating its fiftieth year of Independence but the feeling of freedom is far from 17-year-old Vivek's (Bodhisattva Sharma) mind caged inside his middle-class father's IIT aspirations.

Deemed as the holy grail of the Indian engineering world, securing an admission in the Indian Institute of Technology is a stepping stone towards sure shot success. Among its many attributes, what impresses Vivek's father R K Singh (Shashi Bhushan), a humble government employee and classic pushover, most is how an IITian 'Bermuda chappal mein bhi sabhya lagta hai.'

Though his wife Manju (Geeta Agarwal), running a public telephone booth with a voracious sweet tooth, is gloomy about her son's departure, she's prudent about call time in the era of time-bound and rocketing STD phone bills.

 

Children bearing the brunt of their overambitious parent's dreams is a recurring reality in cinema. But All India Rank doesn't mull so much on the expectations as it recognises the value of experiences once Vivek steps out of his comfort zone to embrace a whole new world in all its bittersweet glory.

Arriving in Kota, pre-TVF documented degree of rat race and rivalry, to prepare for IIT entrance exams at Bundela M'am's (Sheeba Chaddha) sought-after coaching classes leaves Vivek a mix of emotions.

Between missing his home in Lucknow and feeling awestruck by the dazzling intelligence of his star teacher, the socially awkward teenager relates better to mathematical equations than humans. Except he's not the only smart kid in a room full of geniuses.

What matters then is to figure one's individual sense of control over things, a coming-of-age lesson that dictates Vivek and All India Rank's inevitable purpose.

He's not the only one doing the learning though. Grover is equally concerned about the life the empty nesters face across everyday crisis in their only son's absence. Where R K Singh's office troubles are slyly prescient of the swatantra versus azaadi politics of the future, Manju's run-in with a sleazy phone stalker introducing himself as Shawn Michaels is one of the many pop culture references tossed in this serene slice-of-nineties life.

Back in Kota, Vivek's passive existence gets a boost when he, finally, makes friends and finds a fond connection in Sarika (the lovely Samta Sudiksha) whose romantic understanding of physics has a life affirming influence on all those she comes in contact with.

'Compared to Sarika, Chandan (Neeraj) and Rinku (Ayush Pandey) are feebly fleshed out and the arcs culminating in one's disillusionment and another's go-getter attitude preferring to emulate Shah Rukh Khan of Darr over Shah Rukh Khan of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa never truly convince.

What is seamless though is Grover's love for language. His curious choice of words and phrases within the vast North Indian dialect are telling of his gorgeous knowledge of Hindi, which lends the soundtrack and conversations a melody of their own.

All India Rank achieves a fine balance of authenticity and sensitivity in the fine portrayals of its young actors and old. Bodhisattva Sharma has the air of a Shyam Benegal find, his self-conscious physicality brings to mind Riju Bajaj in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda. Only Sharma is far more expressive in his disarming lack of inhibitions.

As his parents, Shashi Bhushan and Geeta Agarwal cut a genuine picture of middle-class marriage yet often go beyond the written word to emerge as individuals too. It's not a lengthy part, but Sheeba Chaddha shines as a mix of authority and wit, finding Bollywood references in science to hold her weary classroom's attention in a fond, familiar manner.

As a fellow 1990s kid, I lapped up his affectionate use of the decade in all its subtle and striking ways. Be it moments referencing cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin's upright collar or Mansoor Khan's Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak or humorously slipped Santoor and Nirma jingles becoming one with casual dialogues.

It's not all retro touches and embellishments. Under All India Rank's seemingly calm exterior is a profoundly felt existentialism that aches and soothes in equal measure. When a husband washes a ladoo in water and offers it to his diabetic wife or a boy watches the train zoom away to his home town from a distance, there's love and longing in Grover's tender depiction of ordinary lives.

And, of course, learning too.

It's like Vivek's father says, 'adbhut nahi par theek hoga.' Sometimes we all need to make peace with that realisation.

All India Rank Review Rediff Rating:

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SUKANYA VERMA / Rediff.com
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