The credits of Vikas Bahl’s Super 30 roll out in English, mere seconds before a character declares that the language of our former colonisers isn’t necessary for success.
That isn’t the only contradiction. The film revolves around a controversial real-life figure who has been accused of inflating his rate of success in getting his students through the daunting IIT entrance exam. The lead actor is known for for heartbreaker looks, heavily sculpted form and dancing skills – but not so much for his ability to play salt-of-the-earth characters.
The movie that has resulted manages to be moving as well as ludicrous. This biopic of Patna educationist Anand Kumar rolls out the cliches of the teacher-as-saviour drama while also upending them, and chugs along just fine until it undermines itself. Before repudiating Anand’s belief that every problem has a solution rooted in the logic and rigour of mathematics, Super 30 sets itself up as an absorbing fairy-tale, one with a shining knight, ogres and a dream of a more equitable world.
Anand (Hrithik Roshan) is depicted as a modern-day Srinivasan Ramanujan who is on his way to Cambridge university, even if it means leaving behind his sweetheart Supriya (Mrunal Thakur). Anand’s proud postman father Eshwar (Virendra Saxena), cannot contain his glee. He plants a kiss on his wife’s cheek, draws down from his pension fund, and makes the sacrifices that working-class Indian parents must make to propel their talented progeny towards futures brighter than their own.
When tragedy strikes the family, Anand chooses to become the star teacher at the Excellence coaching class chain backed by corrupt minister Shri Ram Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) and run by the ambitious Lallan Singh (Aditya Srivastava). Excellence reels in wealthy and middle-class hopefuls and Anand’s bank balance swells. But a chance encounter with a waiter who is trying to keep up with his mathematics lessons pricks Anand’s conscience.
The handful of songs are by Ajay-Atul, and their background score is lathered over scenes that don’t need them, including the one in which Anand is disturbed by how far he has strayed from his chosen path. Without the overweening score and clumsy flashbacks to scenes that took place barely minutes ago, this sequence is actually a powerful moment of empathy and realisation. A transformed Anand sets up a free coaching institute for poor students and vows to send them to the IITs despite the machinations of Shri Ram and Lallan.
The cheerleading spirit of Sanjeev Dutta’s screenplay sometimes has the reductiveness of an educational app, but there is also room for several sobering Indian realities – the ways in which poverty keeps gifted students out of the classroom, the challenges they face as they navigate a curriculum that demands a knowledge of English, and the sheer effort involved in trying to achieve what comes so easily to the privileged. As Anand despairs of finding the funds to join Cambridge, he casts a rueful eye on a donation box at a temple.
When Anand asks his students to imagine themselves in an IIT classroom, their inferiority complexes fill the frame. In another scene, the faces of the parents who dream on behalf of their children waft across the screen.
Not every scene is as well-observed. As news of Anand’s free coaching institute spreads, students pour in using all manner of transport to reach him – including one boy whose rigorous paddling powers a boat across the rapids and tips this movie into unintended comedy.
It takes just as much effort to earn credibility for a movie whose ordinary hero is is played by a real-life superstar. Hrithik Roshan’s chiselled features have been buried under make-up the hue of sand. His musculature is hidden by shapeless clothes. Instead of spouting romantic dialogue, Roshan attempts a version of Hindi flecked with the cadences of his surroundings in Bihar.
Despite the dodgy accent and the distracting brownface, Roshan sinks into his role to deliver a compelling performance. It’s a measure of Roshan’s transformation that when he puts on goggles and zooms by on a motorbike, looking every inch the movie star, the moment seems jarring. Super 30 unearths the sweet and earnest core beneath Roshan’s swaggering exterior and gets the pin-up to play a different kind of poster boy.
Roshan’s performance is complemented by the rest of the cast, which includes fresh faces (a pleasing Mrunal Thakur, Anand’s students) and veterans (Pankaj Tripathi, Aditya Srivastava). Virendra Saxena has a terrific cameo as Anand’s father, and is responsible for the observation that a king’s son needn’t automatically inherit the throne.
The unconventional contenders, however, need a mythic figure to bolster the point that anyone can crack the IIT entrance examination with the right coaching. There is a mention of story from the Mahabharata, of Eklavya’s sacrifice of his thumb to allow Dronacharya’s star pupil Arjun to come out on top. There’s also a David-versus-Goliath touch to Anand’s bedraggled students standing up to their more powerful competitors.
Despite its efforts to root itself in a distinctive milieu, Super 30 cannot escape the motivational movie template set out by such Hollywood productions as Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting and Queen of Katwe. Still, the movie says nothing about an academic system based on rote learning. The role of caste in holding back students is completely passed over.
The scenes that carry the movie over its contradictions are the ones that explore all-too-familiar truths. The crisp dialogue and largely unsentimental exploration of Anand’s struggles mark the rousing countdown to inevitable success in important ways. Like this year’s Gully Boy, Super 30 suggests that with talent and commitment, it is possible to cross over from the other side of the tracks. Leap high towards your goals, Anand tells his students. The formula is as pat as the solution, but many parts of the journey makes this classroom victory worth the while.