Failure, if coped with properly, with determination, honesty and patience, can be an enriching and enlightening experience, both for the person who has met with endless failures in life and also for their close ones. The saying “failure is the stepping stone to success” may now sound extremely boring and repetitive but it is true.

At the end of the journey through a series of failures, stumbling blocks, set in relief against a backdrop of solid friendship with ‘strangers’ success becomes all the more sweet.

This is what Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘12th Fail’ spells out without allowing the script to stagger or drag or descend into melodrama and yet reach the summit of the mountain in the end. The best quality of the film is that it is not a fairy tale. It is based on the real-life story of ‘Mohan Kumar Sharma’, a best-selling book written by Anurag Pathak.

When the credits come up at the end of the film, there is an interesting collage of photographs showing Vikrant Massey, who plays Manoj, standing next to the real Manoj in an identical outfit. Before the film opens, a message across the screen spells out, “based on several true stories”.

‘12th Fail’ deals with the struggles public service examinees have to pass through and despite this, most of them do not make the grade. The mainstream student is permitted four attempts and if he/she fails in each one, he/she has to take a lower grade examination for a lower-grade post.

Students from ‘lower castes’ get six attempts but then too, few clear it. Many such failures give up and like Gauri Bhaiyya (Anshuman Pushkar) who, using his tea-shop as a platform, gives free lessons to aspiring candidates like Manoj.

Pritam Pandey (Anantvijay Joshy) as another friend who is forced by his govt officer father to take these exams as the ‘returns are double the salary.’ However, he wants to be in the audiovisual media, and sticks to Manoj through thick and thin, till the closing shot where Manoj lies on the floor of the UPSC Building in Delhi when he clears the tough interview.

The power that runs right through the film from beginning to end is sourced back to the passion of Vidhu Vinod Chopra. He produced and directed his first film with a defined social agenda but he never allows the agenda to overpower the story of the arduous and almost hopeless struggle of the protagonist Manoj. This passion percolates down to everyone involved in the making of this film from the members of the cast through the crew. it is so tangible that you can almost feel it touching you across the screen.

Manoj belongs to a family from the Chambal. His father (Harish Khanna) is suspended from his job because he refuses to write a fake report on the distribution of land in his area, as the report reveals the corrupt practices of the local MLA. The sole school in the hamlet, also owned by the same MLA, makes cheating in the 12th Board exams a regular practice so that all the students pass in the First Class.

However, the new DSP Dushyant Singh (Priyangshu Chatterjee) at the local police station arrives with his team and is shocked with the open and ‘official’ mass cheating. He arrests the principal and walks out in front of the surprised students. Everyone fails that year.

The next year, again the mass cheating is on as Singh has been transferred and Manoj is the only one who does not cheat but passes with a Third Class. The rest of the class passes with a First Class. Inspired by Singh’s honesty, Manoj makes a promise to himself that come what may, he will never ever take a dishonest step in his life.

Till Singh explained to him, Manoj had no clue that cheating was wrong. When Singh rescues Manoj's brother from corrupt cops, he realises how power in the hands of an honest officer can bring positive change. Manoj expresses a desire to be like Singh.

Singh asks him to not resort to cheating to become successful like him. Manoj promises his parents that he will return as a proper police officer. But he does not have the faintest clue about how to become one.

When he lands in Delhi, he is taken in by the crowds, the noise, the traffic he knows nothing about and then, meets a young aspirant, Pritam Pandey who is amazed that this young man does not even know what IAS and IPS stand for or what UPSC examinations mean.

As the film travels along with Manoj on his struggle for survival and following his dreams, he carries the audience along. Manoj is seen studying for 15 hours, working for six hours in a little-lit flour mill, with a sleep break of three hours in the mill itself

He tried to clear the prelims but failed. Then, we get acquainted with the struggles of a small town boy with big town dreams who finally makes the grade to become an IPS officer.

Hitting with footwear runs in Manoj’s family and this adds some relief to the otherwise grave story. His father threw his footwear at his boss the Tehsildar when he was wrongly suspended. His brother throws his shoes at someone and Manoj repeats the act when he goes to release his friend Gauri who is wrongly jailed.

Gauri even begins a class for the failures called “Restart” and this becomes an entertaining song on the soundtrack towards the end of the film. As viewers, we too wait with bated breath to see Manoj succeed in realising his dreams, at the cost of having his girlfriend Shraddha Joshi (Medha Shankar) clear the prelims and the finals before he does. She walks away to become a district collector, but refuses to walk away from Manoj’s life, come what may.

The film moves from the small hamlet in Chambal, to the overcrowded and noisy Mukherjee Nagar in Delhi. The area is spilling over with coaching classes of different grades and most of all, with aspiring students waiting for their exams or results or interviews or all three.

Then there is a short break when Manoj lands in Mussoorie to apologise to girlfriend Shraddha for the misunderstanding that brought a split between the two. However, he has to go back when she refuses to meet him.

There are a few beautiful emotional touches that enrich the film and raise it to a different dimension altogether. One is the scene in which Manoj’s grandmother (Sarita Joshi) hands him her life’s savings so that he comes back in a police officer’s uniform; there is the scene when Manoj’s father comes looking for him and is shocked to meet him in the dark flour mill working on the machine for six hours and the father-son hug one another.

The darkly lit scene speaks much louder than the expressions on their faces. The scenes preceding Manoj’s final interview look natural when he finds that his new shoes are hurting him and adding to his anxiety; the note Shraddha hands him asking him to read it in her absence, the scenes of the final interview taken twice with the sword of Damocles tilted more or less against Manoj.

Manoj comes to meet Dushyant Pandey, now his junior, to thank him and finally, the wonderfully warm bonding among the three friends, Gauri, Pandey and Manoj that cuts through caste, class, success and failure differences.

There is no archetype of the villain in the entire film. The villain exists right through the film in the shape and style of corruption in every field of human endeavour in the country today.

There is corruption in education as exemplified in the expensive coaching class filled with advertisements of fake successes of students who have never studied there. There is corruption in education ‘legitimised’ by political support to mass cheating. There is corruption in village politics where the MLA does not allow anyone else to earn through a parallel line of cheaper public transport and last but never the least, there is corruption in the police force itself which Manoj promises to clear to the best of his ability.

Rangarajan Ramabadran's cinematography is beautiful. His camera wanders across contrasting light and visual situations from Manoj’s humble dwellings in the Chambal to Mukherjee Nagar in Delhi, to beautiful Mussoorie, to the posh compounds of the UPSC building of New Delhi. The changes in lighting are magical, specially in the flour mill, the library, and focused on the thali from which Manoj practically gobbles up a meal in exchange for labour after several days without food.

Prashant BIdkar’s production design offers a lesson, as he had a challenging job to create contrasting surroundings right through the film. The editing, by Jaskunwar Kohli and Vidhu Vinod Chopra is seamless, minus jerks which could have happened given the rapid and dynamic pace of the film.

But the cherry and the cake should ideally go to every actor in the film led by Vikrant Massey as Manoj. His innocent, country-boy look captures the sophisticated heart of Shraddha almost the minute she meets him.

Every other actor, is fleshed out as a character that adds to the character of Manoj is brilliant right through and this includes the very forbidding head of the interviewing panel. I would easily say that this is Vikrant Massey’s most outstanding performance till date while Meghna as Shraddha gives him able support. It is a pleasure to meet Sarita Joshi after a long time as Dadimaa. Priyanghu as the DSP is very good in a cameo.

The theatre was half-empty but the present audience loved the film which makes one believe that if not a crore-earning film like ‘Jawan’, ‘12th Fail’ will surely become a sleeper hit. There is not one dull moment in the film which is as character-driven as it is story-driven and the crowning comes in the shape that we are looking at a film based on real life.

Thank you Vidhu Vinod Chopra, I would say that 12th Fail is your best film ever, since ‘Parinda’.