Maybe it’s just a coincidence in timing, but this movie could be seen as a motivational speech for students returning to school after their mid-term break. It definitely presents a heartwarming, albeit sentimental, tribute to the belief that success in India, despite widespread corruption and the caste system, can still be attained through merit-based methods.
The vehicle for this is the semi-true parable of Manoj Kumar Sharma (Vikrant Massey), the middle child of a family of farmers from Chambal (a region known for its bandits, according to the voiceover narration). Oppressed by crooked local cops and a mayor who demands bribes for everything, Manoj accepts the life savings of his peppery grandmother (Sarita Joshi) to go to Delhi and take the challenging civil service exams that will allow him to become a police officer.
One piece of advice given by a personal coach to a group of hopeful students is that passing these exams is similar to playing snakes and ladders. If you fail, you start over and there are only a limited number of attempts before you are disqualified.
While traveling to the bustling city, Manoj dozes off on the bus and is robbed of his suitcase, leaving him without any money. In a cafe, he comes across Pritam Pandey, a fellow student with similar aspirations (played by Anant Vijay Joshi). Manoj treats him to lunch and offers him a place to stay in Delhi, as they both struggle through a series of unsuccessful attempts and repeated “restarts” – a term that is featured in a popular song played throughout the film, reminiscent of traditional Indian cinema.
During his journey, Manoj develops feelings for the confident Shraddha (played by Medha Shankar), a former medical student who gave up her career after a tragic experience treating a victim of abuse. This experience drives Shraddha to seek justice for abusers. However, the question remains: will her wealthy family approve of her marriage to Manoj? Despite working long hours in a flour mill to support his family and studying for six hours, Manoj only has three hours of sleep each night.
Writer-director Vidhu Vinod Chopra keeps pointing out how Manoj’s success is ultimately a kind of arithmetic problem, especially when he learns the secret to passing a key set of exams is learning how to write a dozen 200-word essays in an allotted amount of time. The other big didactic message here is that cheaters never prosper –although the film doesn’t shy away from recognising there’s still a lot of prejudice and bias in the system, whichmakes life tough for guys like Manoj.
However, it all comes together in a very satisfactory manner and it’s difficult not to smile at the sequence of photos at the end, depicting the real Manoj and Shraddha posing with the actors who portray them on screen. It may be overly sentimental, but it never fails to evoke a response.