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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 10, March 9, 2024

Sociological Reflections on the Movie “12th Fail” - Figuring out Indian Society Through Cinema | Sanjiv Kumar

Saturday 9 March 2024



This film is centered around the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) journey of the protagonist, Vikrant Massey aka Manoj Kumar Sharma. Manoj Kumar Sharma’s extraordinary journey is masked by complex social realities. This article will attempt to critically explore the main character and the “hidden privileges” that allowed him to complete his journey, which the filmmaker conveniently ignores. This article is an attempt to investigate how his unique situations, support structures, caste privilege, and cultural and social capital contributed to the film’s powerful portrayal of endurance and resilience, as well as how these elements are now popularised on social media platforms through memes and reviews.

Key words
Caste, cultural capital, social capital, stigma, organizing images, narratives, social structure


The movie is written and directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and is based on the non-fiction novel written by Anurag Pathak about the real-life story of IPS Manoj Kumar Sharma. Manoj Kumar Sharma belongs to Bilgaon of Muraina district, which is in Madhya Pradesh and comes under the geographical region of “Chambal”. In the Movie, Vikrant Massy is Manoj Kumar Sharma, Medha Shankar is Shradha Joshi, his wife, Anant V Joshi is Pritam Pandey, his friend, Anushman Pushkar is Gauri Bhaiya his senior, Harish Khanna is his father Ramveer Sharma, Geeta Aggarwal Sharma as Manoj’s mother, Sarita Joshi as Manoj’s grandmother.

Manoj Kumar Sharma comes from an upper-caste Brahmin family, and his friends in the film are also from the same background. However, the director conveniently fails to emphasise how Manoj’s structural location in society provides him with certain advantages, Prof. Vivek Kumar (2014) suggested that whereas a person from lower social strata of Hindu social orders, Shudra or Dalit, faces multiple discrimination as a result of their structural location in society. It is possible that Manoj may be unaware of his caste privilege as a result of changes in traditional casteism; however, as sociologist, Prof Jodhka (2015) suggested, casteism never died, and that privilege may also play a significant role in making it easier for him to access various services. According to sociologist Divya Vaid (2014), caste is a more visible and subtle alteration with a long-term and widespread impact. The film’s director fails to explain that castes are placed in lower strata and have no social privileges, and they continue to be stigmatised in educational and social settings (Kumar, 2014).

The film is set in 1997, and according to Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat, from 1993 to 1997, there were 8364 cases registered against untouchability practice in India; from this data, it can be seen that untouchability practice was at its peak, and it may have been exceeded, as many individuals who could not be registered any case (Thorat, 2002). The concern is whether somebody from a lower socioeconomic status, such as Manoj and his family, will be able to make such a significant decision or not. Did he make such a significant decision because of his caste status? Can the marginalised access the same resources as Manoj? These are critical questions that the film fails to address.

If the situations of the Brahmin child depicted in the film were like way, what was the situation of Dalits and Shudra at the time? Shudras and Dalits are always barred from mainstream society due to cumulative and collective social marginalisation as a result of their structural position in the Hindu social order. Given the reality of caste socioeconomic challenges, it is almost certain that any lower caste student faced far more than Manoj, as well as the fact that Manoj’s father worked as a clerk in a government office and his grandmother received a pension on behalf of his grandfather, who served in the army as a ’Subedaar’. This makes it evident that Manoj was more fortunate than any other person. After all, in extreme situations, any individuals from this marginalised section who try to reach that situation or make a great decision are usually stigmatised due to structural inequality; that stigma demotivates the person who is willing to take such a decision, some specific norms imposed on them by the so-called upper caste, and they were stigmatised; Goffman called it discredited and discreditable stigma. (Goffman, 1963).

In this movie, it was also portrayed how Manoj’s father beats his senior officers with slippers, from this one thing comes out how easy it was at that time to beat with slippers. After suspension, he has the potential to go to the high court for fighting. Somewhere, this action reflects his strong background in the context of cultural and social capital and, to some extent, economic capital. The caste system involves social and cultural capital; the upper caste is associated with charisma, respectable networks, and symbolic features, while the lower caste is associated with stigma, disdain, and resource exclusion (Kumar, 2014). For understanding this, Bourdieu is very relevant here; he explains cultural capital, can exist in three forms: in the embodied state, i.e., in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body; in the objectified state, in the form of cultural goods, and the institutionalized state, of educational qualifications (Bourdieu, 1983). It can be observed how, at that period, Manoj and Shardha had a love marriage when all things were very complicated in that period also, it can be seen that Shardha’s background was powerful, and a love marriage was done in the same caste; if love happened in another caste than challenge can be seen in other way.

It can be seen how the memes go viral on social media, i.e. about Wives should be like Shardha, etc, which is toxic to the minds of youth to some extent, and because of this, much misinformation is spreading in society. Because individuals now more than ever communicate primarily through visual information rather than words, memes are essential in the digital world. Social memes and visuals, which the human brain absorbs 60,000 times quicker than text, are major components of online media consumption, especially when it comes to issues of fakery and misinformation (Hajimichael, 2021).

Let’s look at some of the important frameworks in the study of Bollywood and examine the politics of representation in Bollywood. It is readily apparent that the Bollywood film industry attempted to promote a uniform vision of India across multiple identities using stereotypical portrayals but when these films are analysed, these films are full of racism, sexism, casteism, colourism, appearance bias, and regional bias (Garg, 2021). The portrayal of IPS Manoj and his family can be seen in this film. Still, many aspirants from marginalised groups succeeded in the civil services test after overcoming numerous obstacles, but they have not documented their stories. To some extent, Bollywood has reached every village, and many people idealise it; however, in such situations, it is critical to determine which narrative is being controlled and who controls the narratives (Macdonald, 2020), and these narratives operate through what Veena Das (1991) refers to as “organising images”, which can redirect in a positive or negative context; examples include memes, cartoons, and so on.


The film 12th Fail ignores various realities in the protagonist’s life and focuses solely on one: his fight for the UPSC exam, which ends happily. Many individuals have achieved good positions despite many obstacles, but their stories always remain incomplete and untold because the mostly discourses controlled by elites of the upper class and caste, that’s why the structural location of caste matters (Kumar, 2014). Bollywood, which covers urban as well as remote villages of the country, which supposed to show and represent every aspect of society, in which most of the spaces are inaccessible for any marginalized people (Garg, 2021). Furthermore, the scenario that has emerged in relation to UPSC interviews is unusual, some officials have also criticized the exaggerated portrayal of the interview. The film also ignores the wider subject of how UPSC craziness would affect today’s aspirants. But the question remains answerable: What about those aspirants who never achieve the ultimate accomplishment they seek? And are these coincidences that occurred in Manoj’s favour truly conceivable for a marginalized person? Will Bollywood bring out the story of those who are downtrodden? The recently released Animal movie portrays women in a negative light, raising concerns about the direction Bollywood is heading.

This situation parallels the question posed by Prof. Gayatri Spivak in her essay Can the subaltern can speak?

(Author: Sanjiv Kumar is an independent researcher, who completed masters In Sociology, from the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, 110067)


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