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How Bollywood exam films are reinventing the classic underdog story

by Joe Bourn

After half a decade of such shows starting with Kota Factory, the species has only quadrupled. A down-on-his-luck protagonist—either a teenager bullied by his parents or a lifelong soldier—struggles to succeed amid a sea of ​​career monsters. They find and make friends. Romantic complications ensue. In the end, if it's an “inspirational story,” there's good news. It starred Vikrant Massey 12th Failure (2023) as a typical underdog struck by bad luck. But it wins against all odds, drawing a tear or two from every viewer. Such is the power of this cinema. But what accounts for our continued fascination with this well-worn subject, even after repeated audiovisual bombardments that have revealed its unique truth?

Pradip K Saha, author of The Learning Trap: How Byju's got a ride with Indian edtech (Juggernaut, 2023), has a simple answer as to why Indian audiences are hooked on these shows: the Cinderella story or the rags-to-riches saga. This is not about India either, he notes. “It's a universal fascination. If you watch a sports biopic, either it's from last year Airthe Iqbal, the one with Shreyas Talpad. The audience is invested in watching a character rise from the quicksand of misfortune.”

It's a recipe that rarely fails. If you investigate further, you will find triumphant successes in its form Chuck De! India (2007) and Dangal (2016), where knowledge about the sport itself is of very little importance. In the final sequence of the hockey movie, you may learn for the first time that the angled placement of a foot foreshadows potential puck projections. But that's okay because you're caught up in the connection between Shah Rukh Khan and the goalkeeper he seems to be talking to telepathically.

It takes great restraint and command to pull this off, enough evidence to understand the deprivation of the protagonists' circumstances and yet maintain that narrative distance to make the film a general commentary on hard work. With coaching institute media, it becomes practically effortless. Everyone knows about the trauma that comes with competitive exams. It is a treat to watch an ant find its way through a maze. You drop enough hurdles and ask people to share in the vicarious joy of success in some way.

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