By Poulomi Das Jul. 12, 2019
Hrithik Roshan’s rendition of Anand Kumar is basically playing a tanned version of Hrithik Roshan who has single-handedly murdered the Bihari accent. But Super 30’s biggest failure is as a biopic: We are told little about the genius mind of Anand Kumar, even though Roshan occupies almost every frame of the film.
In Bollywood, a biopic is never really a biopic, that is, a cinematic exercise which condenses an individual’s journey in such a way that it illuminates either a significant cultural period in time or dispenses a contemporary lesson. Instead, a biopic in Bollywood is often reduced to just being “a work of fiction that is inspired by true events”. It’s not surprising that Vikas Bahl’s Super 30 starts off with this very disclaimer, the same way it doesn’t come across as a shock that this “work of fiction” is terribly generic and forgettable.
What is worse however, is Bahl’s decision to go against the very essence of a biopic. Until yesterday, I was convinced that the biggest victim of Super 30 was Pankaj Tripathi, who despite his uncanny resemblance to mathematician Anand Kumar wasn’t cast to play him. That honour instead went to 45-year-old Hrithik Roshan, an actor who stands out in every frame of Super 30 for looking and sounding anything but a mathematician-turned-teacher from Patna, instantly becoming its weakest link. While Roshan gets to play Kumar right from when he is 18 till he is about 30, Tripathi is stuck playing a 50-year-old, despite being younger than Roshan. Even though, the supremely-gifted actor is gloriously wasted in four scenes as an eccentric education minister, he brings more complexity to his character than Roshan does in 154 minutes of Super 30. Roshan’s idea of essaying Anand Kumar is basically playing a tanned version of Hrithik Roshan who has been paid a ridiculous amount of money to murder the Bihari accent. In fact, it gets so difficult to wrap your head around Roshan’s antics, that at one point, I started hoping for a CGI crocodile to show up just so I’d be sure that I wasn’t watching the wrong film.
Now that I have watched Super 30, I stand corrected. The film commits its most unforgivable offence against its premise: The thrilling grassroots entrepreneurial journey of Anand Kumar, an economically backward mathematical prodigy who started Super 30, a free IIT-JEE coaching centre for underprivileged students in Bihar. In India, where education is a thriving business and where clearing this hyper-competitive entrance examination is a prime marker of upward mobility – inaccessible for over 50 per cent of the population – Kumar’s coaching centre was rebellion against status-quo. But what perhaps elevated its standing as a miracle, was the unbelievable success ratio: Between 2008-2010, all 30 of Kumar’s students had reportedly cleared the IIT-JEE (the validity of this claim as well as Kumar’s credibility is questioned from time to time).
It’s only natural then, to expect Super 30 to model itself around this engrossing tale of a man going against a system that is designed to fail people like him while simultaneously laying bare the bastardisation of the Indian education system. But Bahl – who gets credited for the film despite being accused of sexual harassment by more than one woman – isn’t interested in mining social commentary from either Kumar or Super 30’s origins. Instead, he willingly sacrifices the distinctiveness of the film’s premise to only serve the gimmick of Hrithik Roshan “becoming” the Bollywood face of Anand Kumar. The biopic moulds itself around the actor, instead of it being the other way round. As a result, Super 30 plays out as a bloated, insipid underdog saga that wouldn’t have been missed by anyone had it not existed.
Written by Sanjeev Dutta, it opens in 2017 at a London Conference where yet another Indian is giving a textbook patriotic speech about India to a roomful of white people in Hindi. Either the makers haven’t watched Namastey London or they think we haven’t. Things don’t seem to get better when they take us back to 1997 Patna either. When we first meet the 18-year-old Anand Kumar (Hrithik Roshan), he is already brilliant. Bahl doesn’t spend time in joining the dots – we’re supposed to assume that Kumar’s brilliance stems from him being born with genes that were borrowed from Pythagoras himself.
Subtlety is not a virtue as far as Super 30 is concerned.
To prove it, Kumar wins a medal in the next five minutes. He celebrates the occasion by running to his girlfriend (26-year-old Mrunal Thakur) like a dutiful hero and in arguably the most bizarre display of romance, shows off his arithmetic skills by insulting her appearance. She then spends the rest of her three scenes, begging him to marry her and then getting married to someone else before Super 30 completely forgets about her. For a film on higher education, Kumar spends the duration of one song and one flashback actually teaching mathematical equations to the kids. To no one’s surprise, the song is called “Question Mark”. Subtlety is not a virtue in Super 30.
Similarly, it’s not enough that Super 30 boasts of two highly incompetent villains; Bahl also goes out of his way to make them as one-note as possible: If Tripathi is handed the trademark comic villanous lines, then Aditya Srivastava is made to play that cardboard dumb villain who cuts off the electricity supply of Kumar’s coaching centre to get even. Essentially, Roshan’s Kumar is given the hero treatment right from the beginning, with no worthy obstacles or rivals. This is the kind of film where even hitmen hired to kill Kumar are less dangerous than kids who love maths. If there was a limit on the clichés that a film is allowed to employ during its runtime, Super 30 would have exhausted it in its first 20 minutes itself.
Yet, these instances of unimaginative filmmaking would be minor annoyances if Super 30 actually managed to say something: either offered a snapshot of the pervading classism that accompanies the rigged education system or evoked even half an emotion. For the most part, Bahl comes across as a filmmaker who is adamant on just hurrying through his script. The first half is crammed with plot twists (Kumar gets accepted into Cambridge but doesn’t have the money to afford it, his father suddenly passes away; Kumar gives up maths to sell papad; he is eventually hired to teach at a government IIT coaching centre which he suddenly leaves to start his own centre) meant for at least five different potboilers and its second half goes a step further by witnessing two assassination attempts, one of which is stopped by kids who use physics to overpower a gang of thugs the night before their IIT examinations. These detours only highlight the glaring flaw of Super 30: Even after 154 minutes, we learn almost nothing about any of the 30 kids who Kumar enroll in his inaugural batch, save for one kid who grows up to be a NASA engineer (Vijay Varma misused in a thankless role). At the most, we get a formulaic montage of a few parents that stereotypes their poverty instead of understanding it – a scene of domestic violence is packed in, even.
In the last decade, the global popularity of Anand Kumar’s Super 30 programme was widely regarded as both, a response to our broken education system and against the low literacy rates in Bihar, one of the most backward states in the country. Over the years, Bihar has continued to be misrepresented in Hindi cinema and Super 30 follows tradition. Neither Bahl’s direction, nor the film’s script feels rooted to the cultural specificity of the state. The film reduces Bihar’s milieu to just about any other state so much so that the proceedings wouldn’t have been affected if Super 30 was set in Jaipur. But, arguably, the film’s biggest failure is towards its subject: Bahl tells us even less about the genius mind of Anand Kumar, even though Roshan occupies almost every frame of Super 30.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.