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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Setters, Review: Questionable answers

Setters, Review: Questionable answers

Job-oriented education has been a hot topic in India, where unemployment figures and poverty levels are very high. Corruption begins when a child is admitted to the kinder-garten class, with the help of a handsome bribe, euphemistically called ‘donation’. The spiral often continues till the graduation level, where the focus shifts to obtaining leaked examination papers, getting proxy candidates to appear on behalf of weak students, feeding live answers into the ears of hopefuls and, if none of the above works, tampering with marks. Specialists in this trade are called Setters, who arrange for ‘setting’, which is trade slang for ‘fixing’. That these malpractices should provide the material for a film is a welcome development, though the wide awareness of the malady, in the public domain, means that it is no daring exposé.

Setters sets-off with a daring operation, worthy of a bank heist, executed by a man called Apurva (Shreyas Talpade), with amazing ease and élan. In fact, it is an expedition to gain access to envelopes containing examination papers, being transported in sealed trunks, inside security vans, while on the move, and to re-seal and return the envelopes after the job is done. Soon, you discover that Apurva, who is going to make a fortune by selling these papers to 50 clients, has a heart of gold. One old man is not able to pay the agreed price and offers his house papers instead. His daughter is shocked by this offer and refuses to accept the paper, preferring to risk failing, rather than seeing her ancestral property sold for a lark. This awakens the angel in Apurva's heart, who foregoes the amount totally.

From Mumbai, the action shifts to Banaras (Varanasi), where we learn that the Big Boss of the racket is a priest and gymnasium-owner, Bhaiyajee (Pavan Malhotra). Ruthless and heartless, Bhaiyajee has a daughter, Prerna Singh (Ishita Dutta), who is appearing for a competitive exam herself. Meanwhile, a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of Banaras is told on phone from New Delhi to investigate the existence of a gang that is tampering with professional examinations, like those for the railways, banking and medical sectors. In a moment of inspiration, it dawns upon him that nobody but a wily Banarasi fox would be able to run a racket like that, so he summons Inspector Aditya (Aftab Shivdasani) to form a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of honest officers and unearth the under-grounders. As bait, the DSP puts in a line about a certain Apurva being his one-time best friend, who failed the Indian Police Service exam, and who used to love Isha, now Aditya’s wife.

Honest officers are about as rare as the yeti, so Aditya has to visit Dibankar (Anil Charanjeett) an ex-cop who has resigned just the previous day, on conscientious reasons, and ask him to reconsider his resignation. Sure thing, says Dibankar. Next he heads for gaol, where another honest cop, Ansari (Jameel Khan) has been lodged, on false charges. Ansari is released for the cause, and joins the team. Inducted next they have a cyber-wiz lady, Aarushi (Venus Singh), who completes the quadrangle, and the SIT is raring to go. Trouble is, Apurva is always two steps ahead of the law, and even after he splits from Bhaiyajee, who directs his favours towards another lieutenant, Kesariya (Pankaj Jha), Apurva has a network of loyal operatives, from forgers to techies, who stand by him. From here on, it is Tom and Jerry, cat and mouse, proving for the umpteenth time on screen that criminals are high IQ denizens who should never be underestimated.

Three writers share the credits in the story, screenplay and dialogue departments: Ashwini Chaudhary, Vikash Mani (who is also executive producer on the film) and Siraj Ahmed, with the dialogue being the handiwork of Ahmed (no relation of mine). In the first half, Ahmed comes up with some great similes and grandstanding dialogue, which are conspicuous by their absence in the latter part. An entirely unnecessary triangular track is created about Aditya, Isha and Apurva, though it is aborted thankfully and unceremoniously. Often taking you for granted, the story and screenplay go into great detail about the gang’s machinations, but forget to feed you the vital details. A viewer’s universe is what is shown, or explicitly implied, on screen. He or she is not supposed to fill in the blanks or strain logic. Director Ashwini Chaudhary is complicit in this ‘missing’ game, and the artificially created breakneck pace is suspect too. Title cards giving names of various cities in rapid succession, and time-lines, indicating how close the approaching exam getting, do move you nearer the edge of the seat, only to discover that it was a wild goose chase, both for the SIT and the audiences.

Why was Ansari recruited to the team when the only thing he knows is fisticuffs and guns? They were not dealing with terrorists. How did a priest of Banaras become the Chief of such a nationwide scam? How did Apurva trace and pool together crooks with specialised criminal acumen and blind devotion to their mentor? There is no clue or back-story. Why is Kesariya such a wimp, in spite of being a henchman of Bhaiyajee? Who taught a frail bank cyber executive to grab a suspect by his testicles and put him in untold agony? How is it that all the suspects rounded-up are able to withstand third degree torture? Are orders to form an SIT team and root out the menace of setting issued from Delhi to Varanasi merely on phone?

Why would a forger and ‘applied art’ expert, Nizam (Vijay Raaz) and a photographer-photoshopper, Balam (Manu Rishi) work in embroidery/chicken dealer sweat-shops, and as wedding photographer respectively, when they make a decent living outside the law? Obviously this is not their first caper. Why does the gang waste time making several copies of papers on a photo-copying machine in a running vehicle, whilst getting away from the scene of the crime, when time was of essence? They could always make the copies later. How can Prerna just walk-out of her house with a trolley-bag, after a cursory, “I told you last week that I was going with my friends to Shimla today,” and drive off alone, without Bhaiyajee batting an eyelid. In what could have been a moment of glory, Aditya accosts five key accused individuals, who turn out to be impersonators.  Curses. He’s been had. So what should he have done next? Let all of them go, or grilled them to get to the real McCoys? Now guess what he does. Being a gymnasium built muscleman, Aditya is unable to chase and apprehend Apurva, and almost loses another suspect in similar fashion, albeit with a comic touch! Another comic touch involves the team shadowing the criminals, who seem to be on an eating binge, foxing their detractors completely. Done with poker-faces and in flat monotones, it does raise a couple of laughs. Then when one finds that not one but two key players have their daughters appearing for exams even as Apurva’s hijack is on was a bit too much.

Shreyas Talpade does not let his unsuitable looks come in the way of a committed performance. By comparison, Aftab is wooden, but you cannot fault a police officer for this trait. For a man of 40, he is fighting fit and handsome. Of course, the characteristic slight tilt of the head when he delivers his lines is alive and well. Ishita Dutta makes a loving Prerna, while Sonalli Seygall as Isha is presentable in a small role. Pavan Malhotra has a big opportunity to show his talent, and revels in his villainy. We can see that the director has tremendous faith in him. In a couple of scenes, though, the script makes him wander outside his character.

Good to see Vijay Raaz’s face, physique and tone being put to good use. Neeraj Sood is cast as a Bhanu, who runs Coaching Classes that promise you meritorious ‘results’, for a fee that runs into lakhs (one lakh equals one hundred thousand) of rupees. He plays his part well. Earth-born Venus Singh is chic and on-the-job, hands on. And she does not restrict the use of her hands to keyboards. Pankaj Jha does a fair job, as does Manu Rishi. Anil Charanjeett is all sinews, with little else to write home about. We shall see, and hear, more of Jameel Khan, in the films to come. In a poorly written role, with only one scene to show his worth, he does, and in style, both in terms of voice and demeanour.

Cinematography by Santosh Thundiyil is as mobile as the actors, most of who are in a tearing rush. Some top angles and the Ganga Ghat shots are exhilarating. Editing by Manik Dawar and Simranjeet Singh Malhotra (associate) works hard at suffusing the proceedings with dozens of single digit count frame shots, building-up very high expectations that remain largely undelivered. Dipika Lal and Anirudh Singh have three main sets of costumes to design: present day casuals, police uniforms and Bhaiyajee’s retinue. They are in tune with the actors wearing them. Like the editing, the repetitive theme music is used to denote a sense of high urgency. Though it is catchy, frequent repetition makes it a hindrance. Salim-Sulaiman have done the score, which has a couple of songs too, written by Raftaar, Dr. Sagar and Enbee. Both are intrusions and the writing has language flaws too.

Setters is not so much an exposé as it is a chronicling of the extent of the malaise and its modus operandi of the tribe called Setters. In the cyber-security world, when you develop an anti-virus for a strain, hackers and cyber-criminals come up with ten new versions. Likewise, will the virus of education crime transmute into newer life forms that will sound the death knell for hapless millions, who put their everything at stake in an attempt to clear exams and climb the corporate ladder, yet continue to fall behind those who will take the setter elevator? That’s the unpalatable truth. Those are the core questions, to which there are no answers, and if there are answers, the answers are themselves questionable.

Rating: **



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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