Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail differs vastly from his previous movies in its treatment and tone. In the process of re-inventing himself at the age of 71, Chopra has made an immersive, emotionally resonant film about the struggle that undergirds aspiration.

12th Fail isn’t just a fairy tale grounded in actual experiences. Like the fictional characters in Satyakam and Newton, Chopra’s hero is a young man determined to stay be honest in a system hollowed out by corruption. Manoj, indelibly played by Vikrant Massey, doesn’t just want to be an Indian Police Service officer – he wants to be the one who enforces the rules rather than bending them.

12th Fail begins in 1997 in a village in the Chambal region. Some of the rebellious spirit that produced Chambal’s notorious dacoits has seeped into Ramveer (Harish Khanna) who, when hauled up for refusing to enable corruption, aims his slipper at the man demanding the bribe.

Ramveer’s son Manoj is more at ease with the graft that oils the system. An upright police officer causes Manoj to earn the “12th Fail” title, but he takes away the right lessons from this fiasco. Manoj goes to Delhi, where he starts cramming for the United Public Service Commission examination. His father’s humiliation looms large over Manoj’s quest.

The cards are stacked against Manoj – he is poor, his English language skills are basic, his love for his coaching class mate Shraddha (Medha Shankar) complicates his effort. The finishing line is nearly always in sight until invisible hurdles surface.

Vikrant Massey in 12th Fail (2023). Courtesy Vinod Chopra Films.

Through it all, Manoj tirelessly sweats and swots. If setbacks threaten his progress, encouragement comes from unexpected sources. Even as the film sticks with Manoj’s monomaniacal mission, it is made clear that he could not have done it alone – nor is he alone.

Apart from his family, one of Manoj’s biggest allies is a failed USPC aspirant (Anshumaan Pushkar). Manoj’s friend (Anant Vijay Joshi) is by his side through thick and thin, while himself trying to crack the USPC exams. Shraddha is the lodestar who keeps Manoj on course.

The movie is based on Anurag Pathak’s novel Twelfth Fail, which was inspired by Indian Administrative Service officer Manoj Kumar Sharma. Chopra’s film scores by giving Manoj’s journey the full-canvas exploration it deserves.

Hectic early scenes capture the giddy quality of Manoj’s dream. The later portions have a more steady rhythm once he reaches Delhi. The expanse of the bustling worlds inhabited by Manoj is replaced by narrower perspectives as he inches towards his goal.

The dialogue keeps aphorisms to a minimum – the slogan “Restart” suffices – while dialling down the melodrama. If Manoj’s strivings have a lived-in quality, the people surrounding him are relatable too.

Medha Shankar in 12th Fail (2023). Courtesy Vinod Chopra Films.

Hope is dashed in a realistic register. Manoj’s relationship with Shraddha is the one area in which fairy-dust enters the picture. But in depicting Manoj’s every sweat drop, the movie frequently overreaches itself.

Far too many curveballs are thrown Manoj’s way. The saga of achievement in extremely trying circumstances clocks a staggering 140 minutes. A crisper version would have worked just fine. The dual-toned emphasis on success and honesty isn’t as smooth as it needed to be.

The detailing, although a bit too copious in moments, eventually matters. In treating an ordinary man’s story as an epic, Chopra has brought us close to the cut-throat culture surrounding UPSC examinations, as well as the do-or-die desire to enter government service, as few films have.

We are right there with Manoj in the packed coaching class institute, where he is one among many. We are present too in the dark flour mill where he works to pay the bills. The streets of Mukherjee Nagar in Delhi, where Manoj initially arrives, are seething with expectation, some of which cannot be fulfilled.

This ordinary Indian is brought to life by an extraordinary performance by Vikrant Massey. He pulls off a challenging set of emotions – naive, hopeful, resolute, confused, optimistic, pessimistic – without dropping a beat. While 12th Fail has an ensemble of excellent actors, Massey’s portrayal of a student making it without faking it tops the class.

12th Fail (2023).

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‘12th Fail’ is about ‘never giving up’, says director Vidhu Vinod Chopra