In Varun Grover’s semi-autobiographical directorial debut All India Rank, a coming of age dramedy, he plays a Lucknow boy who is sent away from home to Kota to prepare for IIT

Actor Bodhisattva Sharma, all of 20, is the star of Varun Grover’s directorial debut All India Rank. The film won high praise from audiences at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival as well as the Dharamshala International Film Festival, where it was screened recently.

In this film set in 1997, Sharma plays 17-year-old Vivek Singh, a boy from Lucknow, who is packed off to a coaching centre in Kota because his father (played by Shashi Bhushan) wants him to clear the IIT entrance examination and become an engineer. Given a choice, the boy would rather stay home with his parents; he is not even remotely interested in this career path. Like many middle-class parents in a post-liberalised India in the 1990s, the father dreams of raising the family’s standard of living by investing in his son’s higher education.

Sharma is impressive in his portrayal of the timid, brooding, angsty teenager who hates the situation that he has been forced into but also feels responsible for fulfilling his duty as a son. “I don’t have any direct friends who went to Kota to prepare for the IIT entrance exam, so I spoke with friends of friends. They told me about their experiences and shared pictures,” says Sharma. Some of his relatives went to Kota to study but did not last long enough. They got frustrated and came back. The boy in the film wants to quit midway but he is not allowed to.

Tapping into the personal emotional landscape

Getting this role was not a cakewalk for Sharma though he had appeared in OTT shows like Paatal Lok (2020) on Amazon Prime Video and Candy (2021) on Voot, and the film Khuda Haafiz 2 (2022). He bagged the opportunity to act in All India Rank after multiple rounds of auditions and workshops. His admiration for Grover made the excruciatingly long process worthwhile.

“My mom introduced me to Varun Sir’s stand-up comedy. She is a massive fan,” he says. “She made me watch Masaan, which Varun Sir wrote. I fell in love with that film. I had watched the show Sacred Games but didn’t know that Varun Sir had co-written it. When I learnt that he also wrote songs for films like Gangs of Wasseypur and Udta Punjab, I was even more impressed.” The greatest enthusiasm in his voice is reserved for Grover’s work on one of his favourite songs — Moh Moh Ke Dhaage from the film Dum Laga Ke Haisha.

After Sharma shot for All India Rank in Kota, Jaipur, Lucknow, and Mumbai, and got to know Grover personally, his fondness for the man grew even further. “I have never met a more honest person; a person who is so sensitive and accepting,” he says, with gratitude.

Working on this film gave Sharma an opportunity to reflect on his own experience with the education system. Unlike the character he plays, he got the freedom to pursue his interests. “I am lucky to have very understanding parents. They never pushed me to study a particular subject or weighed me down with expectations of becoming a doctor or an engineer,” says Sharma, who spent his early childhood in Assam and moved to Delhi at the age of five.

During his years at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, in the capital, Sharma enjoyed “the privilege to try out as many things as possible — football, theatre, art and various activities.” He got involved in theatre at the age of 10. When he realised that acting was “a surefire choice”, he did not hesitate to move to Mumbai to explore opportunities that lay in store.

This was not the easiest time for Sharma, who had to leave behind his family and his friends in Delhi. While peers back home were going to college, he was going to auditions and sets. Living on his own was a challenge. “I understood why people miss ghar ka khaana,” he says. Ironically, he was able to tap into this emotional landscape while working on All India Rank as he was playing a boy who is compelled to be away from home to be at the coaching centre.

An actor prepares

Despite this common ground, there was a crucial difference. Sharma was not in Mumbai sacrificing his interests to please his parents. The decision to pursue acting was his own. The fact that his parents exposed him to French and Iranian films when he was younger certainly helped. “I did not come to Mumbai with dreams of becoming a superstar. Seeking popularity has never been a goal. It can be a by-product. Good work is what I like to chase,” he says.

Sharma might sound wise beyond his years but he also retains a childlike innocence that is endearing. He talks animatedly about his preparation for All India Rank, which included looking at photo albums and learning about popular culture from the 1990s. “Varun Sir showed me a lot of music videos and advertisements. I remember the Made in India music video with Milind Soman and Alisha Chinai, which was apparently a huge hit,” he shares.

All India Rank will release in theatres in February 2024

Apart from Grover, Sharma’s go-to person for advice was actor Shashi Bhushan, who plays his father in All India Rank and was also Sharma’s acting coach for Paatal Lok. “Because we shared a teacher-student relationship, I already saw him as a sort of father figure,” says Sharma, recalling with pride how their off-screen relationship has translated on screen.

Living his role

Though playing an unhappy teenager was not new to him, things got pretty intense when he got into the skin of his character. “Sometimes, I felt that I was more Vivek and less Bodhi. The character had engulfed me. I would hear ‘Action’ in my dreams. It was a bit scary,” he says. Asked if he has devised any strategies to draw boundaries so that his mental health is not affected by the conflicts that his characters go through, he states, “This might sound a bit masochistic but nailing a character in this intense way gives me pleasure and satisfaction.”

Sharma is eagerly awaiting the theatrical release of All India Rank, which is likely to happen in February 2024. In the meanwhile, he is happy that Rana Naidu — the series that he was shooting for when he got a call to audition for Grover — is now streaming on Netflix. Apart from keeping himself open to new projects, Sharma is also studying English literature.

He has registered with the Indira Gandhi National Open University, which offers distance education. “I love books. I used to read a lot as a child, so I am thrilled to get back to it.” He is curious to see how the formal study of literature will help him hone his craft as an actor. Hopefully someday, Grover will make a sequel to All India Rank and the boy who feels imprisoned by his father’s dream will have a chance to discover what makes him happy.

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