12th Fail (2023): India accounts for 40% of the slight upward revision of the global poverty ratefrom 23.6% to 24.1%. Mostly a poverty-stricken country, India’s poverty line lies at 1,286 rupees per month for urban areas and 1,059.42 rupees per month for rural areas. Despite this ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, besides festivals, cinema has been the knot that ties the people of the country together. It is a major source of entertainment that sometimes acts as a refuge and, at times, acts as an inspiration for the country’s residents. With the rising popularity of pan-Indian cinema, the 70s and 80s genre of masala films has been revived.

Even though masala films, which are a complete package of action, comedy, romance, and drama, can transcend the audience to a parallel world where they rejoice in the traits or characteristics of the hero they see onscreen, these are momentary escapes from the hard reality. Larger-than-life cinema is good for one-time viewing and, at times, can linger in our minds for a long time. However, films that adequately deal with the issues of the middle class and lower middle class are the ones with which we resonate on a different level. Such films often remain less seen despite getting a theatrical release and critical acclaim.

With the emergence of OTT platforms, these issues seem to be solved, and good social dramas have a fair chance of reaching the audience. Yet, everyone in our nation still isn’t financially solvent enough to afford smartphones and access these OTT platforms. In that case, theatres are always an easy and one of the best options for reaching out to the audience on a larger scale. 2023 will always be a remarkable year for Bollywood because this year rejuvenated the lost spark of Bollywood films’ domain over the box office with blockbusters such as “Pathaan,” “Gadar 2,” and “Jawan.” All these films can come under the masala genre, where middle-class issues are remotely brought to the surface. Moreover, these films offer unreal solutions to the troubles it raise within its movie universe.

Amidst such blockbusters, based on Anurag Pathak’s book, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s “12th Fail” was released on October 27, 2023. It is a biopic that, after ages, is based on the story of a lower-middle-class boy hailing from rural India steeped in poverty and corruption where the education system is rigged, which is still the scenario in most rural parts of our country. “12th Fail” revolves around Manoj Kumar Sharma, who was born in the dacoit-infested Chambal Valley.

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The film initially details the perils his family has to undergo because of their honesty. At the heart of the film is a UPSC aspirant who wants to be an ideal civil servant to eradicate the malpractices plaguing the country’s education and legal system. Manoj, who himself is a victim of such an amoral practice during his class 12 final exam, gets inspired by DSP Dushyant Singh, who teaches him that success in life doesn’t come with an easy gateway; it requires honesty, hard work, and dedication. When Manoj first aspires to become an IPS, he doesn’t even know its full form, but then there’s no shame in not knowing anything. Rather, what matters is the willingness to learn. UPSC is one of the most challenging exams to crack, and “12th Fail” doesn’t leave a stone unturned to depict the hardships and uncertainty revolving around this exam.

12th Fail (2023)
A still from 12th Fail (2023)

Manoj represents all those people hailing from rural India who have the potential to shine but can’t due to a lack of proper guidance and a dearth of opportunities. There are more failures than successes in Manoj’s path of achieving his dreams, but nothing can ever bog him down. He is always ready to restart. Misfortune, personal, and financial crises are everyday companions in our country, where out of 1.2 billion Indians, roughly 6.7% of India’s population live below the poverty line.

Therefore, when the audience witnesses Manoj’s everyday struggles to survive in a city by doing dull, menial work and still managing to chase his dreams with his perseverance and grit, it instantly feels like the story of many Indians. In his sixth or last attempt, Manoj manages to clear the mains of the UPSC exam and is called for an interview, which, in a way, exposes the inherent biases of some interviewers who simply judge candidates on the basis of their class and schooling.

The entire sequence of Manoj breaking into tears after the UPSC results feel like a personal triumph, instilling inside us a zeal to never give up on our dreams despite the myriad adversities. “12th Fail” caters to the issues and dreams of a certain section of our society, a section that is a major part of our country’s populace. In a country afflicted with poverty, the film is the story of an impoverished individual who weaves big dreams, possesses unwavering faith in himself, and successfully achieves them.

While the main plot focuses on Manoj’s journey of becoming an IPS officer, a parallel subplot follows the love story between Manoj and Shraddha, who is also a UPSC aspirant. They both meet at a coaching center and fall in love with each other. Their love story is so heartwarming that it once again reestablishes the fact that loving someone means being there for them through and through, and if Shraddha hadn’t been there for Manoj, constantly motivating him when he was at his lowest, then he probably would have never done it. She chooses him when he has nothing to give her in return except his love and care, and they both evolve together. That’s the beauty of their love.

We have never seen the real-life Manoj Kumar Sharma until the release of “12th Fail,” but for us, reel-life Manoj will always be Vikrant Massey, who leaves us awestruck, delivering maybe one of his career-best performances, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, as usual, does a brilliant job in effectively dramatizing the underdog story. Shantanu Moitra’s background score reminds us of Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali,” leaving us in nostalgia, and both films have one thing in common, i.e., bringing the stories of the economically vulnerable populace of society into the limelight.

“12th Fail” emerges as a sleeper hit, especially after its OTT release on Hotstar. It will be etched in our hearts since it’s the story of one of the heroes of our heartland. We can only hope that Bollywood comes up with more such stories where ordinary people’s dreams and struggles are appropriately represented on big screens since cinema is one of the pivotal means that binds us together as a whole. Therefore, besides being a significant source of entertainment, it should also give voice to our struggles and predicaments.

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