Magic happens when a film, its protagonist and its lead actor truly resemble one another.

Vikrant Massey, who has been slogging in showbiz since 2007, headlines Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail. The October 27 release follows real-life Indian Police Service Manoj Kumar Sharma’s mind-boggling struggle to transcend poverty and crack the Union Public Service Commission examinations.

In the warmly received 12th Fail, Manoj is an underdog among scores of UPSC aspirants in Delhi. Like Manoj, Massey too has been an underdog, despite the web series Mirzapur and Criminal Justice and the acclaimed movies A Death in the Gunj and Cargo.

“I am filled with gratitude and am overwhelmed seeing the responses to the film,” 36-year-old Massey told Scroll. “Box office success, or stardom, is derived from the quality of the work. In any case, the definition of success and failure is changing all the time. What remains constant is my duty to justify a story on screen and bring life to it.” Excerpts from an interview.

Manoj has sufficient reason to become insecure or lose heart frequently in his journey. How have you handled this pressure in your career?
I don’t think about failure. I don’t think about the problems. Sports have played an important part in my life. I played cricket, football and volleyball growing up. My fondness for sport developed a lot of my character.

Sportspersons don’t worry about the result. Their job is to execute their strategy as well as possible. The result is a byproduct of the execution. My job is go to the set, well-prepared, and give my best. As an outsider, I know the stakes are high. Maybe, that’s why, I don’t worry about outcomes. I focus on just what I should deliver.

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

The saga of a competitive exam aspirant is a modern India story. What did you learn about young Indians through ‘12th Fail’?
When you spend two-and-a-half years on one story, you are bound to experience a multitude of emotions. One particular thing that I always knew, but which got reiterated in this journey, was the strength of the average Indian’s resolve and human spirit.

I think I am decently travelled. I think Indians are strangely thick-skinned. I haven’t seen this anywhere. Particularly, the lower income groups and the marginalised have tremendous determination. Possibly because of the hardships India has been through in its history over the last 500 years. We just keep fighting and surviving day in, day out.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra is 71, your oldest director so far. What was it like working with him?
Both of us are like-minded. Our life calling is the same, which is to make ever-lasting films. We both believe that we can’t be bigger than our art. We both believe that our work should have some archival value and it should outlive us.

He has been making films for years before I was born. But when your worldview, value system, and journey are the same, you transcend barriers like age.

After your early roles in ‘Lootera’ and ‘Half Girlfriend’, you consciously moved away from playing the hero’s friend and only sought lead roles, perhaps, missing out on big-ticket films in the process. What has been your strategy while picking films?
I have this natural knack of getting bored quickly. You are the only person who can recognise your own potential. If you don’t back yourself, nobody else will.

I stopped playing the hero’s friend because I had nothing more to give to the template, and I had a lot more to give as an actor. And I don’t want to restrict myself in genres. I did a thriller like Haseen Dillruba. I did action in Love Hostel. And now, 12th Fail.

I want to explore all the different possibilities inside me. The worst thing you can do as a creative person is restrict yourself. The world is doing that anyway. The idea is to keep experimenting and putting forth my belief system. Mistakes are bound to happen. But the core values should stay the same.

A Death in the Gunj (2016).

You turned your back on television, where you were very successful, in 2013 to pursue films. It took you a while to find success on the big screen. Was this jump a big risk?
Of course, it was difficult. It was a conscious and informed decision. I had put in a decade worth of work in television and one day, I decided to let it all go. Because I was feeling underutilised in television. I started my journey chasing money, with the motivation to support myself, my education, my family.

A point came when I figured that just money wasn’t giving me sound sleep. I also needed to put forward what I knew I possessed within. I went out there and gave it my all.

I also believe I have been lucky to have people being patient and kind to see me in all mediums. And that the best directors worked with me early on.