Barely days before the film’s release, the Censor Board instructed the makers to change the title of the film from ‘Cheat India’ to ‘Why Cheat India’, on the belief that the original title sounded negative, almost like a command to cheat India. Given that we are already a jugaadu nation and many of our people are the complete antithesis of principled citizens, they probably thought Cheat India was going too far and handing people a cinematic license and some deadly ammunition to defraud others. After all, Bollywood already takes a lion share of the blame for the “Western, unsanskaari modern-day Indian woman” too, isn’t it?
I personally thought Cheat India sounded sassy, wicked and just what the film hoped to touch in its runtime. But sitting through the 128 minute affair made me realize the abominable, shoddy way in which the makers had squandered this opportunity. And that instead of naming it “Why Cheat India”, they could’ve titled it “Why Cheat Audience?” instead.
Directed by Soumik Sen (who has previously directed movies such as Gulaab Gang and other unmentionables), the movie picks a genuinely interesting, and worrying theme – the education mafia in India that helps students get through the grind of examinations, many of them life-changing such as the JEE and Medical examinations – without having to use their mental acumen and efforts for the same.
Rakesh Singh aka Rocky (Emraan Hashmi) is a cog in the well-oiled wheels that help run this barter system – where rich, affluent kids gets a pass to premier educational institutes in the country and smart kids (often poor and needy, who appear for these exams) get fat loads of cash in return for their “social services”. I say “social” because Rocky makes it sound like he is doing the strugglers and the fringe-dwellers a favour by allowing them to have a dash at the big life. This includes daru, women, paying off hefty student loans, randomly gifting family members expensive stuff and the ever-present ‘behen ki shaadi’. At the expense of thousands of deserving students getting thrown out of the rat race, incidentally their one shot at a better life as well.
Rocky, a Jhansi-born lad who’d failed in competitive examinations a grand total of three times, and could not become a doctor or an engineer to take a chance at the Indian version of The American Dream finds purpose in his life’s mission – as desperate wealthy parents flock to him to get their laadlas enrolled in prestigious universities, and poor, struggling students live the high life. Unwittingly sucked into the vortex of this promise is Satyendra Dubey aka Sattu (Snigdhadeep Chatterjee) who has recently cracked the engineering entrance exam and secured rank 287, after surviving the intense grind at Kota factory. Needless to say, this is a moment of pure shaan, baan and aan for the lad and his entire family.
Soon enough, Sattu happens to meet Rocky at the cinema hall, who beats up a few rogues in the theatre and restores democracy among the cinema-watching crowd, who (quite seedily) express their appreciation by clapping feebly at this heroism. And despite Rocky’s claim in the trailer, that he neither wants to be a hero nor has the time to play the villain, this ‘chance encounter’ played out between Sattu and Rocky ends up painting the latter as a saviour.
Rocky doesn’t waste a minute and lets Sattu know he could be a saviour in more ways than one, if only the latter batted from his side. Sattu only had to use his smarts, write papers for dumb but rich students, and get paid Rupees 50,000 for his efforts. For a fresher in a college, in the 90s, this kind of money appears to Sattu as the ticket that could lift the burden off his father and take him out from the trenches of a lower-middle-class life. Before we know it, Sattu becomes one of Rocky’s star ‘players’, traveling all the over the country and writing exam after exam. Ill-gotten money is hard to let go off, as are the vices that often come with it. It therefore, comes as no surprise when Sattu takes to drugs and women to get through the pressure of this newfound high-life. All is well, till Sattu flounders and the first noticeable glitch in Rocky’s wide and penetrative web makes its ugly face known. However, Rocky, who by now has snaked his way up to becoming a family than Sattu’s “guru”, swoops in and recues Sattu by arranging for him to go to Dubai instead. And just like, Sattu drops out from the storyline like a limp feather, not to be heard off again until much later, but even those mentions of him are superficial, as is Sattu’s treatment in the film. Despite Chatterjee’s earnest performance, he is relegated to being portrayed as a prop, floating about aimlessly, rather than an actual character whose story drives the film forward.
However, in all honesty, the plot of the film in itself does not make a linear progression – it flails all over the place. It simply tries to frame a credible narrative around numerous standalone, disjointed scenes – of Sattu and the other hapless helpers like him using Photoshopped IDs, writing exams, exiting entrance halls flaunting their victory grins, taking money, getting dirty with women – without ever investing in exploring actual character graphs.
We are never quite certain about Sattu’s parents’ reaction to this charade of Sattu unexpectedly going great guns in life, despite the chap pulling off these stunts right under their noses. Our only reference of the same lies in his sister Nupur’s (Shreya Dhanwanthary) curiosity around all the money and all the gifts, whose range of interest in her brother’s sudden rise in life is restricted to merely asking, “Itne paise kahan se laa raha hai?” but never digging deeper to uncover the truths. But how and why would she? Considering she too is used as a prop specifically designed to fill in the shoes of the hero’s (villain?) lady love. So while she is smitten with Rocky, and is content serving him feeki chai, her brother’s life begins to fall in tatters, bit by bit, until it is too late to undo the damage.
This is not my only grouse with the Why Cheat India. There are other ornamentals thrown in here, such as a failed, insipid marriage (much like the film’s second half), a perpetually disgruntled father, a sidekick (who is surprisingly more enthusiastic about playing the bad guy than Rocky himself), an elder brother playing the staple Golden Child of the family – all without ever really making us feel Rocky’s predicament, or his guiding force to choosing what he has chosen in life.
There is a lack of urgency in any of his dealings, and what begins with Rocky’s slick, nonchalant, crooked demeanour, gradually turns into an impassive observation of all the muck around him. His father’s constant rejection of him still affects him, but he purses his lips and looks on. His wife’s postcard existence in his life apparently is also a moot point, but we don’t see it as such.
In the second half, love blooms between him and Nupur, again, on a whim and without traces of any real passion serving only as a plot tool. Despite Shreya’s natural, effervescent acting, there’s only so much that one can relate to in her character without grasping the spine of an edgy storyline for support. Not even his progression to big scale management scams draws us in, as we are merely treated to hordes of students and teachers filing in, exam papers and their answers getting leaked over telephones, and the police’s lukewarm efforts kicking in to catch the culprit red-handed.
So when Rocky makes an appearance in court and launches into a high-octane lecture about the corrupt education system (oh, the irony!) and the pressure on students to clear exams by rote learning, of parents that burden these children with their expectations and the state of deserving, but poor students in this chain, one is inclined to yawn because it negates every act of fraud, every sin, every wad of notes ever revelled in, in the minutes gone by. You are abruptly left to make sense of which side Rocky is on, as he justifies being a corrupt peddler in an already corrupt system.
For film fanatics who may have watched con man acts in movies such as Special 26, none of what transpires in this film will feel heady, making you want to grab the edge of your seats. None of it will make you root for the good-guy-gone bad.
With Why Cheat India Emraan Hashmi makes a comeback indeed, but a rather underwhelming one. As an anti-hero, he starts off on a promising note, but meanders, stumbles, and literally sleepwalks through the arduous stretch of the movie, as unaffected as the plot is. Among the coterie of supporting actors, Snigdhadeep Chatterjee and Shreya Dhanwanthary however, stand out and will hopefully get the chance to prove their talents in heftier projects. The music, with the exception of Phir Mulaqat and Stupid Saiyaan, is rather dull.
With the right script, Why Cheat India could have been so much more than a tortuous rehash of the ills of the Indian education system. Despite the dangers inherent, life will go on for the lakhs and lakhs of hapless students fighting insurmountable pressures of the system, just as it does in the movie.
The censor board could’ve rightly stuck with Cheat India.