Director: Vikas Bahl
Well-intentioned? Yes. Sincere? To some degree. Super? Don’t push it.
The word super might be a stretch to describe Hrithik Roshan’s new film Super 30, even if it does chronicle the inspiring true story of Anand Kumar, the mathematician and educationist from Bihar who has helped hundreds of poor students crack the rigorous IIT entrance exams. It’s a remarkable achievement – Anand Kumar’s commitment to ensure that education does not remain the exclusive privilege of those with deep pockets – and it’s one that deserves to be celebrated. But director Vikas Bahl and writer Sanjeev Dutta don’t seem convinced about the inherent dramatic potential of their protagonist’s story, choosing therefore to exaggerate details, omit crucial facts, and dial up the melodrama in order to raise the stakes.
Hrithik, who looks nothing like the real Anand Kumar, is slathered with brown face and body paint, thus reinforcing the embarrassing Bollywood stereotype of the dark-skinned ‘poor Indian’. The actor nevertheless imbues the character, especially in the film’s early bits, with charming innocence. We first meet him as a young math genius, the son of a humble postman in Patna, who lands then loses a scholarship to Cambridge because his family can’t afford to send him to England. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, Anand desperately appeals to an unscrupulous minister to make good on his promise for financial support.
There are plenty bleeding-heart moments including one in which his Cambridge acceptance letter becomes wrapping paper for the papad that he must sell door to door after tragedy befalls the family. Things look up temporarily when he is recruited as a teacher by Lallan Singh (Aditya Srivastava) to train students at his fancy-schmancy coaching institute.
The bulk of the film, however, details Anand’s struggle to set up his own centre to provide free of cost coaching to 30 promising but underprivileged students who can’t afford expensive tuition. We watch as Anand faces up to jealous rivals and bullies, and the students fight starvation. It’s classic underdog narrative, but the filmmakers leave out the bit where Anand founded a parallel ‘for-profit’ coaching centre that helped him keep the Super 30 program funded.
It’s a small detail, and doesn’t take away from Anand’s commendable efforts towards the upliftment of the less fortunate. But it’s reflective of a larger malaise that the film suffers from…a tendency to blur fact and fiction, to completely fabricate incidents even, in order to stress the enormity of the protagonist’s struggle and achievement. Which is a shame because his story is extraordinary even without the bizarre skit he makes his students put up to overcome their inferiority complex, and the ludicrous climax in which the students put their learning to use to foil an attack by assassins.
There is no question that Super 30 is a dramatized, ‘Bollywoodized’ version of a true story, complete with too many songs, caricaturish villains, a deafening background score that cues every emotion, and the kind of rousing dialogue intended to elicit cheers. The film is also a khichdi of sorts, borrowing ideas and treatment from A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, Aarakshan, and Hichki. To be fair, there are things to admire too. Anand Kumar’s tendency to pose mathematical and scientific questions to his students derived from routine scenarios gives the film some of its best moments. The supporting cast is terrific, particularly Aditya Srivastava as Lallan Singh, the sneering dean of Anand’s rival coaching class, Virendra Saxena as Anand’s father, and the always reliable Pankaj Tripathi who makes the most out of a small role as a corrupt minister. Mrunal Thakur, so good in last year’s Love Sonia, shows up as Anand’s love interest, but it’s a tiny role that nevertheless gives her one winning moment that she completely owns.
The film, not surprisingly, rests on the shoulders of its leading man, and Hrithik Roshan brings the earnestness he’s known for. The Bihari accent is wobbly, the skin tone is distracting, and the film frequently gives Anand Kumar a misguided superhero-like treatment. Hrithik does the best he can with the part. It’s the scenes in which he’s meant to tug at your heartstrings that he pulls off most memorably.
What is especially disappointing is that so little attention is paid to the students at the heart of this drama. The film never allows us to spend enough time getting to know them.
Super 30 comes with an important message but the overwrought treatment weighs it down ultimately. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.