By Rahul Desai

Early on in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12th Fail, a policeman barges into a local school in Chambal. This newly transferred DSP, Dushyant Singh, busts the cheating ‘arrangement’ of its Class 12 exams and rebuffs the corrupt advances of the headmaster. He doesn’t care for a bribe. A crime is a crime. A scene that begins in a classroom – where a teacher is literally writing down the answers on the blackboard – closes with an arrest in the principal’s office. But there’s something about the way this scene is designed. Inquisitive faces dot the corners of each frame. The teen students silently follow the two men through the corridor. Others peek in through the windows. The exam is abandoned. They’re like a crowd shadowing the shifting stages of a street brawl. 

One of these students is the protagonist of 12th Fail, Manoj Kumar Sharma (Vikrant Massey). Manoj looks at the honest cop like he’s discovered his favourite Bollywood star. There’s an invisible screen separating him from the figure he’s in thrall to – he’s the adoring audience and the DSP, the Nehruvian movie hero. Even the background score (a quasi-tribal drumbeat, the sort you hear in a Wes Anderson film) reflects the cinematic drama in his head. A primetime show is unfolding before him. He watches the sharp exchange, utterly transfixed, his eyes wide and mouth agape. 

A few months later, when Manoj rushes to this man’s home for help at the dead of night, he sounds like a fan imploring his big-screen idol to be the character he plays. That imandari cannot be selective, he yells. When a pajama-clad Dushyant does help him, Manoj’s admiration deepens. His goofy grin hijacks the car’s rear-view mirror. Manoj’s disillusionment with the notion of the ethical hero – which was fuelled by his own morally upright father’s defeat to the system – has been punctured. His faith has been restored by a man whose integrity exists beyond the performative duty of his uniform or the audience watching him. The fourth wall is shattered. Manoj is inspired by a movie that behaves like life when the cameras stop rolling.

12th Fail is one of the most effective Hindi films in recent memory because it is shaped by this cultural relationship between stories and audiences. The narrative tension between fiction and reality is rooted in the film’s wonderfully crafted cliches. (This, despite the fact that 12th Fail is about an actual person). Note the three characters that play key roles in Manoj’s journey: best friend Pritam Pandey (Anant V Joshi), mentor Gauri Bhaiya (Anshumaan Pushkar) and love interest Shraddha Joshi (Medha Shankar). At first, all three of them view Manoj as a story, one that’s perhaps too aspirational to be real. They are initially kind to him, but in a way that suggests a mix of sympathy and escapism – the equivalent of buying tickets to watch a social-message drama, publicly supporting the cause, and feeling good about oneself. 

When Pritam first helps Manoj in Gwalior – buying him a meal and a train ticket to Delhi – he is too fascinated by the penniless aspirant to take him seriously. It’s almost like Pritam is doing his bit for society to offset his own privilege and UPSC failures. Ditto for Gauri Bhaiya, who helps underprivileged students as more of a self-preservation exercise. When he first sees Manoj, he likes him and helps him earn some money, but doesn’t expect him to be more than a crowd-funded footnote. Double ditto for Shraddha, who is instantly friendly with Manoj because she is curious about him. She is curious about his origins, his unflappable spirit and his principles, but she also seems to be making amends for her own blind spots. He is an exotic Slumdog-Millionaire-style indie for her; through him, she tries to see herself as someone who transcends the rich-girl-poor-boy trope. Manoj’s core group is sweet but subliminally prejudiced – they’re fine with him as long as he sticks to his identity of being an underdog story.  

But the moment Manoj gets a little real for them, they panic. Pritam resents Manoj once he starts passing the prelims, showing potential and falling in love. His inability to follow his own calling widens the rift. Gauri Bhaiya gets frustrated with Manoj for not capitalizing on that potential (one that he himself didn’t possess), and for getting weighed down by his responsibilities as the family bread-winner. And Shraddha pushes Manoj away for a petty misunderstanding, widening the distance after he reaches her house unannounced to confess his feelings. At some level, it feels like Manoj dared to trust the humanity of strangers, only to be reminded that dependence is a myth for a man in his position. The moment he dared to hope, the illusion broke. 

So he retreats into a dusty shell and decides to do it all on his own, working and living in a tiny grain-grinding mill. He doesn’t want anyone’s help or generosity anymore. He can’t afford to be obligated towards friends who treat him like fiction. Most movies might have been satisfied with Manoj’s bleakness here. It’s the perfect conflict to launch a solo, come-from-behind effort – and to show the world the anatomy of a miracle. But Vikrant Massey plays Manoj with such vintage compassion that it’s hard to imagine the working-class man as someone who strives to prove a point. He is almost incapable of being a reactionary character; his ambition is entirely self-sustained. As a result, a victim mentality has no place in this struggle. If anything, Manoj’s sudden isolation threatens to turn him into a tragedy. He is in danger of staying a film forever. He is in danger of getting consumed by the legacy of the very stories that appropriate him. 

This is when 12th Fail becomes a rare biopic that adapts to – and replicates – the humility of its protagonist. It infuses vulnerability into a genre that too often resorts to narrative arrogance. It reveals that, regardless of his conviction, Manoj cannot do it on his own. And that formula might be his downfall. Pritam, Gauri Bhaiya and Shraddha return to intervene in different ways. It’s not because Manoj needs them, but because the candour of his struggle forces them to stop seeing him as a heartfelt movie – and start acknowledging him as life itself. The sight of him slaving away in a flour-spluttered loft changes their perspective. It’s the kind of transformation that Manoj himself went through when DSP Dushyant Singh went from being a character to displaying great character. They now find in him the purpose he had once found in them – an act that finally establishes them as equals, not givers or receivers. 

Gauri Bhaiya is so moved by Manoj’s situation that he challenges the template of a mentor and eliminates the variables. He yanks Manoj out of the pit and puts him up in his own room, sends money to Manoj’s family, and ensures that his focus has no more asterisks. Shraddha subverts the image of romance in context of agency and ambition: She professes her feelings to Manoj, commits and asks him to be enabled by them rather than get distracted by the relationship. Pritam goes down a self-destructive hole, subconsciously willing Manoj to rescue him. When it happens, it’s Manoj’s unerring humanity – something that used to frighten Pritam – that makes the difference.

The transactional nature of these relationships fades. Manoj relieves himself of debt by winning their love on merit – and conversely, by injecting some life into their own wayward movies. All three of them overcome their own limitations due to their inextricable parts in his journey. A sense of self-worth emerges. Gauri Bhaiya’s investment yields a priceless return, rewording his own language of philanthropy. Shraddha not only achieves her own IAS goal, she restores her bond with her once-skeptical parents. And Pritam finds the fortitude to tell his father that he’d rather pursue a career in TV reporting. They are all inspired by a movie that elevates life when the camera stops rolling. 

When the results are declared, Massey’s acting makes for one of the best moments of the year. Manoj doesn’t just break down. His body crumples in joy, exhaustion, disbelief, relief and pure gratitude – a scene comparable to Will Smith’s iconic anti-celebration in The Pursuit of Happyness. But it’s not just the performance that makes it special. The crumpling is the visual manifestation of Manoj’s new identity – it’s the exorcism of the ghosts of storytelling from his body. He is no longer a page; he is the ink on it. He is no longer the motivational anecdote; he is the flesh and blood of someone who isn’t used to expressing such elation. 

Watching 12th Fail in a packed hall – more than a month after its release – pronounced this relationship between cinema and its audience. I noticed college friends, couples and families arriving for what seemed like their second watch. Some of them anticipated the emotions, but still sniffled when it hit them. There were others who had visibly returned to share their experience. When the lights came on, nobody hid their wet eyes. Different versions of crumpled bodies headed towards the exit. It felt right to be openly affected with – and by – a group of strangers. That’s because the film, like its protagonist, started as a film but ended as an ode to life. It began as fiction and ended as a tribute to reality. There was a sense that the integrity of 12th Fail existed beyond the performative duty of the screen, or the eyes on it. Most of us went from peering through the corners of each frame to shattering the fourth wall. We weren’t just walking out of the theatre as fulfilled moviegoers. We were stumbling out as enlightened people.