Director Prakash Jha is known for his films that shed the light on social issues and movements. His latest is Aarakshan, which takes a look at the policy of reservation in Indian education. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Manoj Bajpayee, Prateik and Deepika Padukone, the film explores the issue on a more personal level and delves into how the policy affects a school, a family, a relationship, a friendship and even closer how it changes one man. Like most social issue based films, Aarakshan was steeped in controversies – destroyed sets, threats to the cast/crew and eventually all the brouhaha led to multiple state governments putting a ban on the film simply on the basis of possibly the title or the perception of what the film was about. Did the film live up to the title, the story and the controversies that surrounded it? Read on!
Disciplinarian principal Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan), who believes in equality for all, runs his college with an iron-hand penalizing wrong doers irrespective of their societal status in the same tone as providing free coaching and financial assistance to students. His favourite student university topper Deepak (Saif Ali Khan) comes from a low income backward class and earns his way to academia excellence on merit. When Prabhakar Anand is forced to resign on account of a misquoted statement on India’s reservation policy, Vice-principal Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) usurps the post. However, Mithilesh’s agenda lies in multiplying his independent coaching venture while sidelining the welfare of the college.
How many ways are there to praise the performance of Amitabh Bachchan? Dependable as ever he pitches a perfect act. His confrontations with an equally stellar Manoj Bajpayee are persuasive to keep you glued to the seat. Saif does justice to his role of a Dalit, feeling the anguish, mouthing lines of chaste Hindi with near-perfection and earnestness. While Deepika manages to get away with an effective performance, Prateik in his till date career weakest is below-average, completely inept in the character of a rich anti-reservation student.
The screenplay by Anjum Rajabali and Prakash Jha, which ideally should have been the film’s biggest strength, wavers. Some of the best lines on reservation, which were part of the promos are just about as limited in the film. Occasionally stirring, the cause ‘Reservation’ takes a back-seat to ‘war of the ideals’ of the good guy vs. the bad guy. The pitfall is that Aarakshan talks less about reservation, and more about the buck-making trend of the education system that is increasingly plaguing the nation. It starts off explosively, and paints a compelling first half, but when it comes to a point of taking a stand, it conveniently steers into another direction. This unfortunately has been the predicament for most movies of recent times that have been based on societal/real life issues. Which makes me wonder – Knowing the sensitivity of the subject and pre-release angst involved with films of this genre; are the filmmakers intentionally conservative with the treatment of the subject? Would the screenplay have been any different if we weren’t a society that subjected its artists to uncalled agitation for the issues they want to take up on celluloid?
Where I was hoping the film would go full throttle and delve deeper into Deepak’s life (low caste community in large)– his status, his fight, his anxieties, Jha instead pulls him off-screen for longer than required; shifting spotlight onto the verbal feud of ‘education as a business transaction’ between Prabhakar and his nemesis Mithilesh. In isolation, this sequence works brilliantly, but as part of the larger motive it fails. While there isn’t enough for anyone to make a judgment on the subject, pro or anti, the filmmaker plays very safe barely presenting the basic facts, not necessarily filling in the flesh in detail.
This is the kind of cinema that demands a fair balance between the subject and the art of film-making. The performances, characterizations, narrative, timing need to be in perfect sync failing which the very purpose of the movie is lost. In the case of Aarakshan, despite strong potential for high-octane drama, factual errors weighted down by a consistency-challenged storyline steals away the integrity of the subject.
Having said that, due credit must be given to the team for taking up a series of social issues, even though they didn’t manage to establish anything substantial by breaking the halves of the film into different episodes. Even the two separate themes of Reservation and Education as taken up by this film would have worked if they were neatly intertwined into each other, instead of appearing as mere subsets. Despite some negatives, if you can excuse the non justification done to the primary theme or expectations created around it, Aarakshan must be watched for some thought provoking insights and perspectives.