“Super 30.”… A smashingly effective story of a determined educator and his underprivileged wards

Posted on July 18, 2019

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Spoilers ahead…

After a long time, or maybe for the first time ever, Hrithik Roshan comes across like a non-Greek non-God – a normal human, in other words. He’s thinner, darker, unmuscled. His unironed shirts and tees don’t cling to him. In Super 30, he plays Anand Kumar, the son of a postal worker and the “calculator of Patna, Bihar, India”, who offered free coaching  to underprivileged kids and empowered their dreams of entering the IITs – and Hrithik does play him like a calculator. When Anand gets an admission letter from Cambridge, his father (a wonderfully empathetic Virendra Saxena) is ecstatic, practically jumping with joy. But Anand, at first, is pensive, as though computing, processing, and yes, calculating what it all means. Then we get a slow smile. Then he squats and we see the joy. Thought comes first, then the emotion.

Nothing in Vikas Bahl’s career prepares you for Super 30. Based on his best-known work – Queen and Shaandaar, interesting films both – he comes across as someone who makes Hindi films for those who don’t care for Hindi Cinema. There’s a certain distance in his work, a sense of taking what makes our cinema ours and yet making it safe and unembarrassing for the multiplex moviegoer. But here, he dives right into myth and masala. Take the pre-interval scene, where Lallan Singh (Aditya Shrivastava) threatens Anand Kumar. For a while, the two men were together. After Anand’s dashed Cambridge dreams, Lallan had lured him into the world of expensive coaching classes, but now, Anand has returned to his world, having decided to coach kids who cannot afford those classes. This “classroom” has corrugated tin sheets for walls, and as the war of words between Anand and Lallan intensifies, they rattle in the winds that have begun to blow. The camera glides out of the small room and hovers outside like a satellite, framing Anand and his kids through the door – this confinement gives us a sense of their smallness, what they are up against. But first, Anand tells Lallan, “Lagta hai toofan aane wala hai.” A storm is coming.

By itself, this moment is masala-flavoured (thunder and lightning need no “reason” to exist in this universe; they can be brought in simply to amp up the dramatic tension in a scene) – but what makes it really work is the superbly resonant, genuinely emotional screenplay by Sanjeev Dutta. Earlier, we have heard the story of Ekalavya, who was refused “coaching” by Dronacharya because the guru preferred Arjuna. (Those days, was it called Indian Institute of Teer-chalana?) And now, we see these modern-day Ekalavyas: the manual scavengers and dish-washers who dream of becoming nuclear scientists and biotech engineers. And Anand becomes the modern-day Dronacharya, who rejects the Arjunas and sides with these Ekalavyas. He is rewriting long-established myth. Those aren’t just winds. Those are winds of change.

The Anand Kumar story can take these stylistic flourishes because it goes beyond the usual underdog story. You may feel the Lallan Singh character is too much of a “villain,” but at the end, a note tells us that the real-life Anand Kumar is still receiving death threats. Also, the emotional temperature is higher because Anand is no outsider (like, say, the protagonist of Swades). He knows what these kids are like, how deep their dreams are, because he was one of them. He was thrown out of the BHU library where he wanted to read foreign mathematics journals. He couldn’t go to Cambridge because he couldn’t afford it, and later, he took to selling papad on the streets to make money. He meets Lallan when his bicycle is knocked off the road by the latter’s car, but instead of confronting Lallan, he begins to pick up the notes and coins that have spilled on the roadside. That comes first. The scene (and Hrithik’s unwavering concentration on the money) makes us feel Anand’s abject poverty that no lines of dialogue could.

The screenplay doesn’t make him a saint. After this incident, Anand is seduced by the fat bundles of cash Lallan waves at his face. Most people would simply say he’s being practical – but this is myth, so we see that he loses his soul. Anand becomes someone else. He becomes… Hrithik Roshan. He wears shades, a shiny, form-fitting shirt, and rides his new Yamaha – and for the first and only time in the film, we see the star. (A low-angle shot makes his stardom loom even larger.) And this very bike helps him become Anand again. Before his father died, we have seen the man struggle with his bicycle, whose chain was loose. Now, Anand’s two-wheeler won’t start. It’s like a message from beyond. Anand sees a young, maths-obsessed boy like himself, and his past – especially his father’s words – comes flashing back. The father, thus, gets an arc that goes beyond his time on screen. It’s like he’s keeping a watch from wherever he is. We sense him whenever we see Anand using his bicycle. And we sense his inherent goodness when something he did saves Anand from an assassination attempt. If it’s a deux ex machina (the father’s name is, after all, Ishwar), I’ve rarely seen it employed with such emotional integrity.

I bought everyone around Anand. His doting parents. His long-suffering brother (Nandish Singh looks quite a bit like Hrithik). The restaurant manager who’s used for a nice bit of broad comedy. Even the rich kids aren’t demonised. (It’s only in Anand’s brood’s imagination that they are cruel.) One of these rich kids even asks Anand why he has left them in the lurch. How is it their fault that they have money? But Anand has made his choice. There’s a refreshing cussedness in the man that further dials down the sainthood. He’s saying “I won’t let what happened to me happen to these kids,” but he doesn’t see what this decision does to others – especially Ritu (Mrunal Thakur), who defies her snooty, cartoon-figure father to be with him. They get sweet courtship scenes and a sweet waltz (Ajay-Atul’s Jugrafiya, which rhymes bharose with samose) – so it’s a shocker when she confronts him about his decision to leave the cushy coaching job and he doesn’t even meet her eyes. He looks away, as though he cannot be explaining all of this. (Hrithik’s is really the best commercial-film performance since Ranveer Singh’s in Simmba.) They split up – but like Anand’s father, Ritu returns in an unexpected way. And as with the father, her inherent goodness saves him. In a lesser film, their reunion might have been used as an excuse for sentimentality, but here, Ritu’s arc ends with a small joke.

Almost everything works. The lovely graphics in the opening titles, featuring bar graphs and prisms and pendulums. The small mera Bharat mahaan speech given by Anand’s former student, played by Vijay Varma (it shows how a good actor and good, self-deprecatory writing can tide you over a bunch of clichés). The crooked but very practical minister played by a delightful Pankaj Tripathi, as a man in love with the sound of his own voice (the scene where he slaps Lallan with a newspaper will surely go into the actor’s tribute reel). What doesn’t work? The reporter played by Amit Sadh, who preens around without doing much. And the too-heavy score. The music itself isn’t bad. It’s filled with strong hooks. But the volume threatens to blow the theatre apart. How much better to see a scene scored with nothing but the oncoming whoosh of a train. That’s the Ekalavya scene, and it shows how powerful sound is so much better than overpowering music.

Finally, the kids. They aren’t differentiated enough (they remain a collective) – and yet, they come across as more than pawns in the battle between good and evil, Anand and Lallan. Anand reminds them that they have nothing to lose, but they all have their own complexes – so their achievements (like building a projector) are hugely satisfying. (The people in my theatre clapped.) And they get to be part of two of the grandest scenes in masala-movie history. The first is a song, staged during Holi, a festival that’s been part of countless masala movies. The kids set out to perform Sholay in English. (There’s a reason.) The audience, naturally, laughs at first, and boos the kids. But the kids turn the negation, the “no… no… no…” chant, into a rhythmic syllable – they build a song of defiance out of it. It’s thrilling to watch, and I wanted to shove this scene at everyone who says masala movies are brain-dead movies.

The second is an action stretch that occurs after Anand is shot. The kids use what he’s taught them – angle of incidence, angle of reflection, fundas explained using trains and cricket – and stave off a bunch of armed thugs. The emotional logic is rock-solid. Anand “saved” them. Now, it’s their turn to save him. (This reciprocity makes Anand less of a god, more human.) Plus, it’s a sensationally effective way to show how different Anand’s method of teaching is. It isn’t just about rote learning. He taught them how to apply these principles in real life – and the exaggerated action scene drives home this point beautifully. At the end, it’s time for the IIT results. We know what lies in wait (otherwise there’d be no movie). But I loved how the writing further conflates Anand and the kids. He reacts the way he did when he got that letter from Cambridge. At first, he is pensive, thinking it through. Then we get a slow smile. Then he squats and we see the joy. Thought comes first, then the emotion. Now that is consistency of character. He may have changed the world for these children, but he remains what he was, the calculator of Patna, Bihar, India.

Copyright ©2019 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi