Super 30 has been panned for two main reasons by critics and (as much as I deplore the term) social justice warriors. One, for being an over-dramatized representation of the protagonist, Anand Kumar’s life. And two, for Hrithik Roshan’s brownface. It is offensive because why not choose a person who actually looks like Anand Kumar – Pankaj Tripathi is a crowd favourite for good reason – instead of rubbing mud on a star’s face just so you could have him play a man from rural Bihar. There is clearly some racism in there as well.
I read these criticisms online and, while they sounded fair and well thought-through, the response from the masses in the comments section was that the critics had got it all wrong and that the movie was the best thing that happened in this planet’s history. (Of course, YouTube comments are not exactly best known for being balanced and prosaic.)
So I decided to watch the movie to check for myself which side of the argument resonated more with me. And here is what I thought – yes, the movie is clearly dramatized and yes, Hrithik Roshan’s makeup clearly comprises copious amounts of dark brown foundation finished with fine strokes of dry alluvial soil. But it is also true that, for better or for worse, you need a dramatic storyline helmed by a big star to attract crowds in our country.
The story of Anand Kumar – which was almost an urban legend we heard growing up as IIT aspirants – is such an important story that it is almost a moral imperative to tell it in a way that it reaches the largest number of people possible. If you actually had a nondescript Anand Kumar lookalike playing the lead in a story which stuck exactly to documenting facts, it would’ve been watched by a fraction of people watching Super 30 today. Such is the sad reality of Hindi cinema and us, its flawed audience.
The film begins with the heart-breaking backstory of a young Kumar’s dreams being shattered at the altar of poverty and privilege. “Raja ka beta hi Raja banega” seems to be the curse that leads Kumar down a path far from the bright future he deserved. In a particularly hard-hitting scene, he is reduced to selling papads wrapped in what was once his Cambridge acceptance letter (Note: a dramatized scene, no doubt, but one that stayed with me as a viewer.)
His fate changes when he is spotted by a Coaching Class that recognizes his true worth as a mathematical genius and hires him as a tutor for their chain. He is thoroughly enticed by the riches and glamour this brings his way, until one drunken night, when a conversation with a rickshaw vallah jolts him back to reality. It reminds him that he has now become the Dronacharya propagating the evil “Raja ka beta hi Raja banega” by educating only rich people’s kids while underprivileged but talented children like him languish in poverty – doomed to grow up to be Eklavya’s whose potential is throttled by Dronas like himself. While one sees this change of heart coming from a mile, I was a total sucker for the Mahabharat analogy, and how true it holds to this day, with our education system heavily geared to keep privileged students ahead and the children born in poverty behind.
And so it happens that Anand Kumar fulfils his destiny by founding Super 30, where he provides free IIT coaching to 30 students selected based on sheer merit. What follows is the story of his many struggles to keep this coaching centre afloat in the face of dire circumstances including lack of finances and the ire of the powerful “coaching mafia” as well as local politicians (yay for more Pankaj Tripathi!).
One moment that stood out for me was when Super 30 students, while as good, if not better, than the rich kids meritoriously, fail a test because they are too intimidated by the latter’s fluent English. Which leads to the song, “Basanti no dance, in front of these dogs”. The song admittedly comes as a bit of an absurd shock when it begins, but once you undertake the due suspension of disbelief required to watch a movie like this, you begin noticing lyrical gems like “Galat English bhale hi, we will gaadenge jhanda” and “They throwing eenta, we throwing rock”. These seemingly funny lines, when delivered by the anguished children, signify how they overcome their fear of English and rediscover their self-confidence.
It was a harsh personal reminder for me, as someone who spent the first 25 years of her life priding herself on being called a “grammar nazi”, until I saw more of the world and realized how I was shamelessly and ignorantly flaunting my privilege in doing so. Because, as Kumar wisely puts it, “Many doors in this world don’t open for some people just because they cannot say the words ‘May I come in?’ in English.”
Another moment that shone for me was when Kumar discovers that there is going to be an attack on his life (not dramatized – apparently there have been several attacks on his and his brother’s life, as recently as last year). His first response to the journalist who informs him of this is “If something happens to me, please don’t write about it in your paper. There are many people trying to bring change in this world – it will break their spirits.” If this is even the half-truth of what Kumar said or thought in this situation, then colour me floored with awe and respect.
A shout-out to stellar performances by each and every cast member in the film, no matter how small or big their role – particularly Virendra Saxena and Sadhana Singh who play Kumar’s economically struggling but uber-cool parents, and Amit Sadh who is memorable in his role as the pan-chewing journalist who is an early supporter of Kumar’s cause despite political opposition. A special thanks to whoever wrote the role of Kumar’s love interest, played by Mrunal Thakur – thank you for not writing her as another damsel in distress whose sole job is to look pretty and sad, and for giving her some truly memorable dialogues. The music was a truly unexpected surprise and I found myself humming the songs long after the movie – until it was all explained when I found the names Ajay-Atul behind it.
All in all, Super 30 is worth your money (and then some). Watch it and then go back to the Super 30 website to feel stupid and humbled like me when you find that they don’t accept any donations, but make money through evening classes by charging a nominal fee “less than 15% of any other institutions”. The only way one can seemingly support Super 30 is by joining them (http://www.super30.org/career.html).
Or perhaps more doably, by volunteering to teach English at your local government school.
And any movie that leads a viewer in either of these directions is, according to me, the best thing to have happened to this planet in a long long time.