Varun Grover’s directorial debut All India Rank is set in 1997, when India marked half a century of freedom from colonial rule. This is also the year a young man submits to a punishing regimen of rules, timetables and deadlines.

The hostel room that Vivek inhabits for the time taken to study for the arduous Indian Institute of Technology entrance test has graffiti usually found in a prison cell. Among the wall art, the declaration “F**k IIT” finds the greatest resonance with Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma).

Vivek relocates to Kota in Rajasthan from his hometown Lucknow to please his pushy parents RK Singh and Manju. Kota hasn’t yet earned its reputation for a cutthroat, life-threatening coaching class culture that was fruitfully explored in Hemant Gaba’s documentary Engineered Dreams.

Vivek’s tutorial centre is run by the chalk-hurling yet benign Kalpana (Sheeba Chadha). It won’t be long before you forget what you had for breakfast, Kalpana chortles. Among the other aspirants, Vivek is most drawn to physics nerd Sarika (Samta Sudiksha).

There’s a lengthy queue of films about reluctant swotters as blank canvases onto which the ambitions and expectations of others are projected. Grover’s contribution to a well-thumbed list departs from the recent hit 12th Fail, which valourised its striving hero, or 3 Idiots, which derided the IIT rat race but ensured that its hero was a self-made genius. The attempt to tune out the cheerleading that is inevitably heard in classroom dramas is laudable, if not always successful.

Noodle Sa Dil, All India Rank (2023).

The film’s low-energy hero and fatalistic mood – the promise of the 1990s notwithstanding – are difficult to sustain over the 101-minute runtime. Grover’s screenplay has a collection of finely written episodes that compensate for Vivek’s feeble, familiar coming-of-age experience.

All India Rank snaps to life when away from Kota. In Vivek’s rumpled father and anxious mother, the IIT dream is always more vivid, and more believable. Despite the pressure they put on Vivek, the parents, beautifully played by Shashi Bhushan and Geeta Agrawal Sharma, demand empathy.

Singh belatedly discovers that government service can be treacherous. In Kota, Vivek is learning that the 1990s, with its promise of overnight economic progress, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The 1990s setting is beautifully realised by Prachi Deshpande’s production design, which unearths the props by which we remember the decade. Of these, fixed telephones play an important role, both in funding Vivek’s expensive education as well as contributing to a clumsy light bulb moment for his father.

The soundtrack has a bunch of youthful laments written by Grover. The more enduring sonic milestones in Vivek’s journey are provided by 1990s hits, including the mischievously used Spirit of Rangeela from Rangeela (1995). When Kalpana tells her class that success is imminent, there’s a near-ominous echo to her words.

Played by Sheeba Chadha with tough charm, Kalpana is among the characters who contribute to the memorable extra-curricular scenes. The road leading up to Kota is far more engrossing than whatever transpires once Vivek gets there, chasing a dream that’s eventually a chimera.

All India Rank (2023).