Cheat India, the original title of Soumik Sen’s film, suits its amorality far better than the new one. Now known as Why Cheat India as a result of a censor board intervention, the film offers a sly tribute to a unique strain of the Indian entrepreneurial spirit. It involves finding loopholes in systems and institutions and plugging them with thick wads of rupee notes.

The movie opens in the 1990s and ends in the present. It is, in its own perverse fashion, an Indian success story. Rakesh is a proxy examination scam tycoon who has turned the national obsession for high marks and merit lists on its head. Rakesh pushes undeserving candidates into engineering and medical colleges by getting smarter students to take their examinations for them. He keep a close watch on toppers, and uses his intimate knowledge of their family situations – debt-ridden fathers, sisters who need to be married off – to turn them into minor criminals.

The movie opens with one such hopeful topper, Satyendra (Snighdadeep Chatterjee), who gets on a merit list for an engineering college. Visitors turn up to congratulate Satyendra and give him marigold garlands and freebies, but Rakesh has something better to offer – lots of money, and a better lifestyle that Satyendra’s father can ever afford.

Why Cheat India (2019).

The script has also been written by Soumik Sen, who is in better form here than in his previous film, the misfire Gulaab Gang (2014). Despite being disjointed and overstretched, the 120-minute movie manages to double up both as an expose of the problems that plague the examination system and a commentary on the failure of a generation to secure the future of the next one. Rakesh, who is played with perfectly calibrated charm and detachment by Emraan Hashmi, was an academic failure himself – a fact that his father is never tired of bringing up. However, Rakesh’s family has no qualms in taking his money, and the true measure of Rakesh’s success is in casting everybody around him in his own image. The film has exactly two upright characters, one of them a police inspector.

The omnipotent scamster is hard to avoid or evade. He has his men in every college and coaching centre, and the right political connections to allow him to escape when things get hairy. When a masters in business administration degree becomes the next big thing to aspire to, Rakesh smoothly ups his game, reasoning that there is even more money to be made when the engineer and his chief executive officer are both beneficiaries of his schemes. Whoever said intelligence had anything to do with academic achievement?

Emraan Hashmi neatly channels his bad boy image into Rakesh, and continues the underplaying that he effectively displayed in the recently released Tigers. Some scenes suggest a lonely and troubled man who has everything and nothing, but Rakesh is far more convincing as the smooth criminal. Shreya Dhanwanthary, in her first Hindi film role, turns out a lovely performance as Satyendra’s sister Nupur, who falls for Rakesh’s snake-oil sales pitch.

Hashmi is the only clearly recognisable face in a movie staffed by mostly unknown actors. They convincingly stand in for the lakhs of hopeful Indians desperate for degrees that might help them rise a few rungs on the ladder. However, the problems with casting a movie star as a small-town Gordon Gekko show up in Rakesh’s trajectory, which is not as bumpy as it needed to have been. A shoddily directed courtroom scene allows Rakesh to stand on his soapbox and skewer the film’s supposed concern with exposing malpractice and corruption.

Nearly everything the film says about what is wrong with a culture of learning build on rote learning and marksheets rings true. So also does Rakesh’s fate, which is so breathtakingly cynical that it is not entirely surprising that the censor board wanted the original title to be changed. Why cheat India indeed? Why not, Rakesh asks, and the movie works hard to prove him right.