Biharis love a good savant story, it has to be said. Growing up, my siblings and I would routinely hear apocryphal tales of this cousin or that one who had pulled off awe-inspiring bookish feats — they’d skipped years in school, or memorised the Gita in multiple languages, mastered advanced calculus at 12 and so on. A darker subset of this story would involve the broken savant, geniuses whose obsessions eventually tipped them over the edge of sanity. My mother remains fond of joking about a man, possibly fictional, from my village, who started memorising the Oxford English Dictionary , but lost his mind somewhere in the middle of ‘E’.
Then there was the much-recycled, partly true story of Vashisht Narayan Singh, an IIT-educated, Bhojpuri-speaking mathematician from the 1960s who worked with some of the best minds in mathematics (true), consulted on the Apollo landings (false) and improved upon Einstein’s theory of relativity (so very false), before retiring to his village as a young man, schizophrenia having nipped his career in the bud.
Which is why around 2008, when we first heard of a young mathematics teacher named Anand Kumar, who was training underprivileged kids for the IIT’s joint entrance exam or JEE (offering free food and lodging, too), the media lapped it up and then some.
Kumar and his Patna-based Ramanujan School of Mathematics rapidly acquired legendary status. Foreign publications such as TIME and The New York Times carried glowing stories about him and his so-called ‘Super 30’ batch of students who cleared the JEE. And then, year after year, we would hear that 28 or 29 or all 30 of his students had cracked the coveted exam. Here was a homegrown hero fighting for social justice, successfully changing the status quo. What was not to like?
Last week, actor Hrithik Roshan played Kumar in the film Super 30 , directed by Vikas Bahl. Super 30 is a ‘soft focus’ biopic, intent on beatifying its subject. Not to put too fine a point on it — the film is an unalloyed disaster, full of cringe-worthy acting, some shockingly inappropriate makeup and a plot line that goes nowhere.
It’s fitting, in a way, how terrible the film is, because the ironies of its production are thrown into sharper focus this way, not least by the fact that the story’s working-class hero, who fights the prejudices of the caste system among other things, is being played by a third-generation Bollywood heir.
The dirtface epidemic and #nepotism
Can someone tell us why every poor person in Super 30 is so very grimy? Did they engage in a spot of friendly mud wrestling before cracking the books open with Kumar? Bollywood’s problems with brownface were evident in Gully Boy , too — in a tragicomic moment during an interview, director Zoya Akhtar claimed that Ranveer Singh being visibly browner than his actual skin tone was a result of a pre-shoot holiday in Bali (yeah, right).
As Twitter user Dominique (@AbbakkaHypatia) pointed out when the Super 30 trailer was released, ‘dirtface’ is slightly different from brownface — the objective is to show poor people as unclean, as folks with poor hygiene habits. This is, of course, a deeply casteist idea, an antiquated brahminical notion. Super 30 is perhaps the worst ever offender Bollywood has seen in this context — and it had tough competition, mind you. Remember Emraan Hashmi in Footpath ? Or Amrita Rao in Vivaah ? Roshan (who is light-skinned enough to plausibly play a Caucasian person) putting on ‘dirtface’ beats them hands down on the cringe-o-meter.
The ‘dirtface’ phenomenon is particularly tragic in a film such as Super 30 , because, at least on paper, it seeks to quash prejudices against the poor. How is one supposed to take Kumar’s egalitarian homilies about pratibha (talent) seriously after that? And as for Kumar himself, Roshan turns in one of the hammiest performances of his eminently hammy career. For starters, his Bihari accent is unintentionally hilarious for about 15 minutes, after which it is alternately infuriating and sad. There is so much more to the Bihari accent than just coarsening your consonants — it’s unbelievable that this even needs to be pointed out.
One of the most significant moments in the film happens when a bored old official at a government office says, “ Raja ka beta hi raja banega (only the king’s son will succeed him)” — suggesting that the young Kumar stop focusing on his studies since he won’t amount to much anyway. Kumar’s father responds that the times have changed and now the ‘ haqdaar ’ (deserving candidate) becomes king. While one can debate the actual merits of this scene — I thought it was maudlin status quoism at best, peddling a feel-good narrative to hide how deep the rot still goes — what cannot be wished away is the real-world context that sours it. This refers to the very public feud between Roshan and fellow actor Kangana Ranaut where, among other things, Ranaut accused Roshan and his actor-director father Rakesh of sabotaging her career. “ Aap ke aur aap ke babuji ke paas duniya bhar ka paisa hai (you and your father have all the money in the world),” she said sneeringly at one point, and the moment became a meme, a scream of rage against privileged oppressors. After Super 30 was released and people saw the raja scene, the meme took over the Internet again.
The biopic question
Last year it was reported that Phantom Films, the producers of Super 30 , would refrain from describing the film as a biopic. Given how often the word was used in promotional material earlier, the move surprised many — real-life feel-good stories were in vogue, with the box-office success of biopics such as Dangal and Padman . The reason was a 2018 lawsuit filed by four students of IIT Guwahati, who alleged that Kumar was a fraud who falsified the number of students who cleared the JEE. An India Today report from September 2018 quoted Ashok Saraf, the lawyer representing the students, as saying: “Because of the wrong projection given by Anand Kumar each year, a large number of students from the North-East and other parts of the country approach him with full faith and hope that Anand Kumar, who seems to be an IIT Baba, will help them in qualifying the IIT entrance exam. But after reaching there, Anand Kumar makes the students take admission in his coaching institute, namely Ramanujan School of Mathematics, by charging ₹33,000 per student in the name of teaching them.”
Other publications picked up the story, and soon there were all kinds of allegations — one of the more popular ones in Bihari circles is that Kumar cherry-picks his Super 30 retrospectively. Basically, many of the supposedly poor candidates are actually students from other coaching centres whose name and image have been bought by Kumar, in order to keep the Super 30 legend going. This illegal practice is a common one among Bihari coaching establishments and other such centres elsewhere, too. Kumar has tried to address these allegations over the last few months, and denied many of the charges.
A gargantuan industry out of control
For all its flaws, Super 30 does talk about one of the biggest problems in Indian education — the influence exerted by the coaching class industry, valued at ₹75,000 crore by Crisil at the end of 2015, and rising every year. When more and more people start intensive coaching for an examination, those outside this system suffer proportionately. When the examination is the fiendishly tough JEE, this difference is felt all the more keenly.
Recently, a viral YouTube video showed Australian engineering/science professors struggling to solve the JEE. All of them agreed that it was the toughest entrance examination they had ever come across. Over the last decade or so, with the coaching industry growing from strength to strength, IIT professors have made it their agenda to set questions that are ‘coaching-proof’. It’s clear, however, that they haven’t been nearly as successful as they wished to be.
One elderly Australian engineering professor also pointed out, “This (the question paper) brings into play the question of coaching classes and access to those privileges...” It’s quite remarkable how within 10 minutes of seeing a JEE paper for the first time ever, presumably, he was able to cut to the chase — namely, that coaching classes amount to a kind of economic discrimination, a de facto quota for the privileged. Worse: they perpetuate the same aggressive, win-by-all-means mindset that lies at the heart of the mental health epidemic on India’s campuses such as the IITs. Also, outsourcing one’s academic progress so thoroughly leaves students ill-equipped to deal with academic pressures on their own — especially in the heightened atmosphere of an IIT campus (according to the National Crime Records Bureau data for 2015, one student commits suicide in India every hour).
Super 30, declared tax free in a few states, is set to cross the ₹100-crore mark at the box office. While that figure no longer means the unvarnished blockbuster success it once indicated, it still ensures that the film is not a financial failure. But perhaps the film is not all bad news. Even if 10 per cent of the people who saw Super 30 end up viewing India’s coaching classes as a problem — and not a solution — the film would have done its bit.