Rakesh Singh (Emraan Hashmi) grew up in Jhansi. The way out of the small town, and into a dignified salaried life, was becoming a doctor, clearing a joint entrance exam. He tried thrice and failed. His elder brother, on the other hand, became a surgeon in Johns Hopkins University. But Rakesh turned the very system on its head that had slotted him as a failure. For a handsome amount of cash, he began selling seats in engineering colleges to mediocre students who, like him, didn’t find answers or solace in rotational mechanics.
There’s a story to be told here. We know the antagonists: the callous teachers, the unrelenting parents, the ‘system’ that rewards rote learning. We know the victims: the 17 year olds who, failing an exam of prime importance, battle shame and guilt. Hashmi’s Rakesh then, employing devious means in an unfair set-up, is just levelling the playing field. Cheating is bad, or so we were told by the dispensers of morality — teachers, parents, and relatives — who, more interested in tickets to social acceptance than quality education, were themselves far from perfect.
But Soumik Sen, the director of Why Cheat India, brings to this movie not the sensitivity of a confidant but the passing curiosity of a voyeur. The story, told through Rakesh’s point of view, introduces Satyendra Dubey, or Sattu (Snigdhadeep Chatterjee), who has recently cracked an engineering entrance exam. Sattu, a product of the Kota factory, ranks 287 in the exam; restores his pride in his family; roams around his hometown, Jaunpur, wearing a bunch of garlands. But what exam is this: IIT, AIEEE, or a state exam? We don’t know, because the film doesn’t care or worse, doesn’t know. (Much later, Rakesh refers to H.C. Verma, the author of a famous Physics textbook, in the context of an MBA entrance exam.)
Sattu soon befriends Rakesh (in a scene that really stretches the definition of a ‘chance encounter’) and, for Rs 50,000, starts writing exams for other students. For an 18-year-old, in the first year of his college, this is a transformative change. Sattu is soon hooked on to drugs, the lure of easy money, and prostitutes, writing exams in Agra, Varanasi, and Kolkata. But the film treats them as ornamental details, seeing Sattu as a prop, telling us nearly nothing about him.
Rakesh, in the meanwhile, keeps expanding his business, finding new victims and heroes. Hashmi, playing a small-town anti-hero, brings some charm to his role — a sense of comical irreverence — but he too, like Sattu, is rendered largely opaque. We do get some background information about him — the burden of expectations, his adolescent fears, a stale marriage — but they only function as plot-driving tools; they don’t give us a true measure of the man.
The film is, similarly, reluctant to interrogate the mechanics of Rakesh’s enterprise. Here too, we get the superficial details — how the ID cards are photoshopped, how students are recruited and enticed, how the answers are leaked before an exam — reducing a sophisticated con-game to a checkbox-ticking exercise. Like the men, the business of cheating here is not a breathing, living creature. Devoid of penetrating insight and sharp specifics, the film’s central characters and industry float aimlessly, struggling to build points of contact with the audiences and sustain their intrigue.
If these basic annoyances weren’t off-putting enough, the film relies on banal tropes to keep itself alive. So you’ve songs for every occasion, interrupting the story (as if we were back in the ’90s), underpinning any weighty sentiment. You’ve a sidekick, Rakesh’s younger brother, deprived of an agency, exploited only for comic effect. You’ve abrupt scenes that either shock or puzzle.
Why Cheat India ends with a handful of stats about India’s education system. We’re told, for instance, that only 7% of Indian college graduates are employable; that there are 297 fake technical colleges and 23 fake universities in the country; that the coaching institutes are obscenely profitable. But don’t be fooled by these numbers: this film is indifferent to the plight of students. It sees them as numbers, as cautionary tales, as herds to be directed and forgotten. India’s parents and coaching centres have done that for eons. We didn’t need a film for that.