There’s that exact moment in time when the music sombres and Emraan Hashmi’s face contorts into a grim expression of moral awakening. We remember it best from Awarapan — perhaps the most enduring flick of the old-Hashmi era — when his gangster character was moved to rebel for a girl held captive by mobsters. In Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, he played Joginder Parmar, a sleazy streetwise photographer who is rattled by the killing of a land activist, and the related silencing of his caregiving uncle. A more recent example can be found in Danis Tanovic’s Tigers, where Emraan’s character Ayan — a gifted sales rep working for a global pharmaceutical company in Pakistan — is pointed to the deaths of hundreds of babies, caused by the very product of his peddling.
Quite surprisingly though, in Soumik Sen’s Why Cheat India, that moment never comes. Regardless of the cautionary tone, this film about the corrupt education system in India remains staunchly committed to the smugness of its anti-hero, bespectacled scamster Rakesh Singh, as he skims off a few fast bucks and remains remorseless till the very end. (I wonder if the CBFC’s decision to mess with the film’s title was a direct reaction to this attitude, an old institution punishing its dependents for attempted ambiguity, rather like the schools and coaching centres satirized in the film).
Emraan plays Rakesh 'Rocky' Singh with an inscrutable blankness. He announces his rebellion against the system — the holy trinity of the ‘Medical-Engineering-Management’ rat-race — but also dresses up like a direct product of it. He thumbs through an assortment of old Nokia phones (this is a period film, sort-of) and smiles with a slightly delayed motor response, as though reminded of an SMS joke mid-thought. In his pocket he carries a pouch of prasad from various local temples, which he offers to the parents sitting across from him. And then he lays out his plan.
What Rakesh does for a living is this: he takes money from rich aspirants and pays underprivileged kids to give proxy examinations on their behalf. The main arc follows a talented, middle-class student named Satyendra Dubey, ‘Sattu’ — a young, smiley-faced boy who finishes his coaching years in Kota, Rajasthan (referred to in the film as India’s ‘gyan-mandi’) and returns to his family in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. When Sattu scores a high rank in the engineering entrance exam, he and his family fall fatally prey to Rakesh’s devious means, unaware of the brutality lurking ahead.
Bollywood debutant Shreya Dhawanthary plays Sattu’s elder sister and Emraan’s romantic interest; she shines in some of the early scenes — especially when scrunching her nose to parental sexism, or when someone gifts her a sewing-machine. Director Soumik Sen packs too many tracks into the narrative than he is able to handle. We shift unevenly from fast-paced montages — set in classrooms and colleges — to unnecessary songs and wedding scenes that add little to anything. Too often, a line or remark sticks out for its odd humour: a father mispronouncing ‘Johns Hopkins’, for example, or a junior employee being nicknamed ‘PPT Usha’. The noisy digital cinematography lends some rawness to the small-town milieu, but ultimately cheapens the production value when the drama shifts to Mumbai.
Why Cheat India is a neatly-observed film that needed more tonal clarity to be taken seriously. It features a refreshingly amoral protagonist, portrayed by a talented male lead — but the faux-thriller-like posturings of what is essentially a dark social satire gives him little elbow room to play with. The social-messaging is bleak and pessimistic, which is great as a change for Hindi cinema, and it serves as the only flashpoint in an otherwise drab and predictable storyline.
This is a film that comes close to making a point but doesn’t quite crack it. In 2019 — unlike the many soul-crushing premier institutes of our country — it's a good thing that Bollywood has a raised cut-off.
Cast: Emraan Hashmi, Shreya Dhawanthary
Director: Soumik Sen