‘All India Rank tells a personal story’: A Wknd interview with Varun Grover - Hindustan Times
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‘All India Rank tells a personal story’: A Wknd interview with Varun Grover

May 17, 2024 02:34 PM IST

His first film is about a teen in Kota who knows he doesn’t belong at an IIT. They say ‘Write what you know, says Grover, a comedian, writer and civil engineer.

They say it takes three things to make it in showbusiness: talent, luck and networking. Varun Grover would like to add “time”.

All India Rank, now streaming on Netflix, follows 17-year-old Vivek Singh (Bodhisattva Sharma) as he discovers that he isn’t remotely equipped to chase the IIT dream that he was raised to pursue. PREMIUM
All India Rank, now streaming on Netflix, follows 17-year-old Vivek Singh (Bodhisattva Sharma) as he discovers that he isn’t remotely equipped to chase the IIT dream that he was raised to pursue.

“This July, it will be two decades since I moved to Mumbai and began working in this industry,” he says. The poet, comedian, author, screenwriter and now director has come to believe that knowing and honing one’s craft will get one noticed. “It might just take time…” he adds.

That is something he has gladly surrendered, for a dream that felt impossible when he was a teenager in Lucknow.

Now 44, Grover grew up fascinated by music and cinema. He watched scenes set in Bombay / Mumbai and dreamed of making movies of his own. “Once I came here though, I realised just how brutal and unorganised this industry is. It takes about four or five years to understand how to navigate this place.” His best shot, he soon realised, was to focus on his first love: writing.

His credits as lyricist include Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Udta Punjab (2016) and Dunki (2023). He won the National Award for Best Lyricist for Moh Moh ke Dhaage from Sharat Katariya’s acclaimed Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015). He also wrote the screenplays for critically acclaimed projects such as Masaan (2015) and the series Sacred Games (2018-19).

He connected more directly with his audience through stand-up comedy, a space he has treasured for the complete creative control it affords. He co-created the political satire group Aisi Taisi Democracy with fellow comedian Sanjay Rajoura and musician Rahul Ram. They post videos on YouTube and tour together (they were in Australia last July).

‘I only studied engineering because I didn’t know how to reach for what I really wanted: a life as a writer,’ Grover says. (PTI)
‘I only studied engineering because I didn’t know how to reach for what I really wanted: a life as a writer,’ Grover says. (PTI)

Grover is currently in the midst of his first solo stand-up tour, Nothing Makes Sense.

“It’s a very personal set about how today’s India is shaped by unresolved generational trauma. I hope to tape it for a special by the end of the year,” he says.

Meanwhile, the movie dream has finally come true. His first film, All India Rank, is now streaming on Netflix, after a brief theatrical run earlier this year. It tells a personal story.

Set in the 1990s, it follows 17-year-old Vivek Singh (Bodhisattva Sharma) who has moved from Lucknow to Kota to prepare for the IIT-JEE, the centralised joint entrance exams for admission to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology.

An IIT degree is what Singh has been raised to want, but he still doesn’t want it. It has become his parent’s only remaining hope, and yet it doesn’t seem like a dream he is remotely equipped to pursue.

What does it feel like to know that one’s most is not enough? How does a teenager balance the lure of independence, friendship and love against the burden of his middle-class family’s transferred ambitions?

“The film is about a phase of my life that shaped me, and I wanted to tell this story before it fades from my memory,” says Grover, who graduated from the IIT-BHU (Banaras Hindu University) with a degree in civil engineering. “The film isn’t autobiographical, but it is personal. The parents in the film are an amalgamation of many parents I knew in my mohalla in Lucknow.”

Write of return

It was during the making of Masaan and then Sacred Games that his dream of directing was revived. “I watched the directors of these two projects closely and took a lot of notes. After Sacred Games, I felt more confident about being able to direct,” he says.

Grover knew All India Rank was the story he wanted to tell. “They say ‘Write what you know’. I applied that to directing as well.”

Did it bother him that films and series about the IIT struggle are almost a genre in themselves?

It is something he thought about, he says. “I decided not to watch anything from this genre. I didn’t want to be influenced or worry about what the audience would have seen or not seen. But I read some reviews, and understood that most of the productions focus on the competition, while my film was about confusion. This is about the kid and his parents, and not so much the coaching industry,” Grover says.

Looking back, he adds, the only reason he studied engineering was because he couldn’t figure out how to reach for what he really wanted. “To me, being a writer seemed like the coolest job in the world.” But he didn’t know how to make it a profession.

“Our Hindi textbook in school has short bios of every writer whose work was featured and all of them mentioned that the writer had a day job and they wrote in their free time. Someone worked in a bank and someone else was a lecturer or professor.”

It was while at his IIT that Grover started meeting writers, read more Hindi literary fiction, and discovered how people become journalists and end up at film schools.

“No matter what, I still write for at least an hour every day,” he says. “I believe that music lives longer than any other form of entertainment, so writing lyrics gives me a lot of creative satisfaction.” Stand-up comedy leaves him with mixed emotions “because it is both scary and fulfilling”.

He compares filmmaking and writing for cinema with being in a relationship. “This is the medium that takes the longest. And when you live with a story and character that long, it’s not surprising that they mean a lot more,” he says. “I like to think of myself as a detached person, so if someone doesn’t like my songs or comedy routine, it doesn’t really hurt. But with films, there is an added sense of hurt when someone says it didn’t work.”

Brave new words

All India Rank spent some time on Netflix’s Most Popular Films list for India. Grover considers his job done, and is ready to move on to his next project.

He is working on a screenplay for a film he will direct, and the screenplay for Reema Kagti’s Supermen of Malegaon, a comedy-drama about aspiring filmmakers in the Maharashtra town known for its low-budget spoofs of hit films.

Grover has written the Hindi dialogue for Raam Reddy’s The Fable, which stars Manoj Bajpayee; it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. He has written some lyrics for the upcoming Jigra (2024; directed by Vasan Bala; starring Alia Bhatt).

He celebrates every achievement, big or small. Because the original dream was just to live in Mumbai, he says; he still can’t believe he gets to tell stories for a living.

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