Super 30's flaw lies in turning an inspirational real-life story into 'social upliftment masala entertainer'

MK Raghavendra

Jul 17, 2019 09:53:00 IST

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Super 30, as readers may be aware, is based on the life of Anand Kumar, who set up a coaching institution to prepare poor students in Patna for the IIT-JEE. Kumar, born into the family of a postal department clerk, showed enough mathematical aptitude to be admitted to Cambridge. However, he could not raise the funds required to study there. In 1992, Kumar started a coaching institute and ran it for a decade before commencing the ‘Super 30’ programme to coach underprivileged children free of cost for the IIT-JEE, which became a success.

The IITs and IIMs are glamorous institutions that admit only the ‘best’ — determined on the basis of administered tests — but its alumni only go on to become entrepreneurs or CEOs. They have been extremely visible in the public space because they occupy key positions, but they not been known to make significant contributions to fundamental knowledge. The IITs have not produced a Ramanujan, strongly invoked in Super 30, someone who is a visionary and works at conceptual changes. Super 30, I believe, rides on the misconception that IITians do path-breaking creative work of the highest order. But it also rides on a large number of other misconceptions and, even if the film is well-intentioned, they nonetheless do harm to it.

Vikas Bahl’s film begins with a renowned scientist, Fuga Kumar, addressing people in London; he is speaking Hindi to an international audience and talking about the achievements of Indians. His general purport is that India is not another ‘Third World’ country but has populated the globe with great people, notably corporate CEOs. He then goes on to name the man he owes his career to — Anand Kumar — and tells his story.

When the story begins, Anand Kumar is squatting on the floor of a library he is not authorised to enter, solving a mathematical problem, until the person in charge shoos him away. He attracted attention because he was squatting; he could have taken a seat at a table with the other students without being noticed. The peon tells him of a way out of having to steal glances at journals: to contribute to the journal he was studying and earn himself a life subscription.

 Super 30s flaw lies in turning an inspirational real-life story into social upliftment masala entertainer

Hrithik Roshan as Anand Kumar in Super 30

The film admits that it is only ‘inspired’ by Anand Kumar’s story, but there are still obligations when a real story is adapted because it is inspirational. My point here is that it is only something like Super 30 actually happening that makes it inspirational, since we are inspired by the occurrence. If it was only imagined, it could hardly have attracted attention for ‘going against the grain’ and being exceptional. Fictional digressions in a retelling are allowed, but only to make the fiction palatable. They should not become far-fetched since that would reduce the story to implausibility — when its value lies in the incidents described in the narrative having happened against all odds.

Vikas Bahl does not attend to these requirements and virtually reduces Super 30 to a masala film. He exaggerates the poverty of the underdogs, misrepresents their achievements and makes the villains murderous in their intent. Anand Kumar’s father was a postal clerk (a white-collar government job quite well-paid around 1990), but he is made a postman in the film, shabbily dressed and living in abject circumstances. The dilapidated post-office in which he works might even be termed an affront to the Indian postal department. Anand Kumar is presented as a mathematical genius but his actual achievements were not in mathematics but in pedagogy. The papers he contributed were to journals engaged in the teaching of mathematics, one of them a school and university level student magazine. When people are lauded for false achievements, it is tantamount to belittling their actual ones.

When Anand Kumar (Hritik Roshan) gets an offer from Cambridge based on his work the family is overjoyed, but the aid they are expecting from the government (through a minister played by Pankaj Tripathi) does not materialise. The father is heart-broken and dies a sudden death, the family is reduced to penury and Anand has to sell papads on the streets to support the family. Anand Kumar is ill-kempt in appearance, which does not go well with a peddler of food items, whose neatness contributes to his ability to sell; given the persisting ‘purity’ notions in society few buy food from an evidently grimy person.

Soon, however, Anand gets a well-paid job in a tutorial institute coaching students for the IIT-JEE, but his dissatisfaction comes to the fore when he finds poor students turned away. This leads him to start his own free coaching class for talented youngsters with whatever money he has, also providing boarding. The film does not go into the viability of the scheme when sustainability and viability are ‘mathematical’ elements that contribute to the success of any project, and requiring the attention of a mathematician.

When Anand Kumar invites enrollments it is interesting how he goes about it. He prints leaflets in Hindi and distributes them to people like sanitary workers, unskilled labourers of various kinds because he is helping the poorest. I think there is a serious misconception here of what category of ‘underprivileged’ can hope to qualify in the IIT-JEE. There is a sense of a person’s ‘innate’ abilities propagated here and I would suggest that even to test ‘innateness’ in mathematical ability some basic level of education is necessary. The IIT-JEE is for those students who have cleared the intermediate (Plus Two/Class 12) exams, but that is a huge achievement in India for categories like sanitary workers or construction labourers. I wonder how many sanitary workers will have heard of the IIT-JEE, essentially a middle-class fixation. At the very least it would involve reading leaflets in Hindi independently and understanding them. Literacy, as we understand the term in India, is ‘reading and writing with understanding’; but in practice it could simply be scrawling one’s name. Understanding a leaflet places one in the ranks of the educated. IIT-JEE also implies an understanding of the education system in technology, with the IITs at the apex.

Super 30 has received indifferent reviews but perhaps not on account of what has just been narrated. In the latter half of the film, Kumar’s main rival — ‘Excellence Coaching’, actually owned by the minister — whose earnings have been badly affected by Super 30, is implicated in a plot to kill Kumar. He is shot at beside a railway track and, while still alive, placed on the rails to be killed. This is extended to an episode where the minister’s henchmen attack the hospital where Kumar is being treated.  The students empowered by the physics knowledge imparted by Kumar nonetheless defeat the villains, thus turning the entire film into an unabashed masala exercise.

The Super 30 film project, it would seem to me, is an insincere one because of the way the ground-level reality on which it is based is consistently disregarded. Bahl does not pay enough attention to the situation in any of the fields he is covering.

For instance, Anand Kumar is a mathematics teacher but he imparts physics education as well, without external help. The protagonist runs an institution with free boarding without our getting an understanding of how that is financially possible. The filmmaker, when dealing with the ‘under-privileged’, has no sense of the various layers constituting the broad category and seems to believe that there is only one lowest level to which unskilled labour belongs. My own guess is that the ‘poor’ actually served by Anand Kumar would come from semi-skilled categories — petty tradesmen or lower level white-collar workers — and not from the lowest category, the condition of whom is abysmal. These would be the ones still aspiring to middle-class status and therefore aware of the IIT-JEE. Super 30 emerges as a fable with no interest in the reality to which it must apply.

But the most deplorable aspect is the absence of actual success stories from Anand Kumar’s institution. Clearing the IIT-JEE is not adequate evidence of success for students because we need to know about what they did in later life. To show faith that the story of Anand Kumar was indeed inspirational, Bahl should have pursued the destinies of actual students — but all he offers are fictional creations like Fuga Kumar. Lastly, while helping students with no knowledge of English into higher education may be desirable, a question is also whether facilities have been created since 1947 to make that feasible, whether there are high quality text books in Indian languages, for instance, and up to what level they are available.  Patriotic claims and gestures must be backed by ground-level possibilities.

When a truly inspirational story about social upliftment is given ‘masala’ treatment by Vikas Bahl, all it demonstrates the filmmaker’s lack of faith in the subject, since he consigns it to the realm of fantasy.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

Updated Date: Jul 19, 2019 09:36:30 IST