Driving down to the preview theatre in the suburbs for a dekko of Prakash Jha's Aarakshan, I heard on the FM station's news break that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has banned the film for two months in her state. Wow, I thought, must be an explosive film.
Driving past Prateeksha, I saw a posse of policemen guarding actor Amitabh Bachchan's corner bungalow in Juhu, in anticipation of pro- or anti- reservationists creating trouble. Gosh, I thought, it must be an explosive film.
And, any follower of news knows that over the last week there have been many angry voices against the film. Maharashtra strong-man Chhagan Bhujbal called for the deletion of some scenes and dialogues, suits had been filed in the court against releasing the film. Controversy always sells, we know that.
Now I don't know who director Prakash Jha's PR agent is; whoever it is, the person deserves kudos for the way hype has been created around the film when it clearly doesn't warrant any of it.
Nor does the film warrant a title like Aarakshan, which means reservations. The film is less about reservations and more about education and should rightly have been called Shikshan (education). But will the political class froth at the mouth over such a title? Will the media then cover the film in such great detail? No. Another PR coup, in selecting a sexy title.
Ajay Devgn must thank his lucky stars for not having the dates for regular director Jha, leading to Saif Ali Khan stepping in. On paper it must have seen like a stellar role, to play a Dalit which must have seemed novel for the latter given his blue blood, but in reality Saif has little to do in the film. He does an impressive turn in a confrontationist scene with Prateik (when he mouths that Humein mehinat ka paath padha rahe hain aap? dialogue), has a ball bashing up helpless guys in another scene, but on the whole Deepak Kumar, the character is unconvincing. He goes missing for a while after taking a rickshaw presumably to the Bhopal international airport, till he chucks his Cornell doctorate and lands back in the city
Truth be told, there is only one main character, played by Amitabh Bachchan as the principal Dr Prabhakar Anand, and everyone else is mere extra. As this is a character the thespian has played before, in Mohabattein, it taxes him little.
Prateik, who impressed with his naturalness before the camera in Jaane Tu Yaa Jaane Na, seems out of sorts here. But what do you do when your character fades in and out of the script so!
Deepika Padukone is no stranger to criticism of her acting prowess, which I always thought was unfair.
I mean, how many Hindi films care for the heroine's theatrics! As Amitabh's daughter she does what is expected of her through the film, but when given the scene at the end that could shut her critics up, she flubs it badly. Dialogues are meant to be delivered, not spoken, she needs to be told. Manoj Bajpai plays the schemer yet again and does it with relish. Thankfully, he doesn't have a change of heart at the end which is a relief.
Because everyone else does! Saif reveres his principal, changes his mind, and changes his mind yet again. As does Prateik. Deepika walks out on her parents, and once outside has a quick change of heart. Saif goes to Cornell, has a change of heart, and comes back. The board of trustees has a change of heart and sacks their stellar principal.
Through all this, one man stands firm, and that is Dr Prabhakar Anand. Everyone around him ultimately see that he was right and they were wrong, and all ends simplistically.
On the whole, when a fine bunch of actors don't impress you as you leave the auditorium, the director has to shoulder the blame. For not having the conviction in seeing the plot through and meandering into the next bylane. Granted, in a fractured society like India where tempers run high and the freedom of expression is a quasi one, it is not easy to make a film on reservations that won't ruffle feathers. Heck, it is an issue where both sides are right.
Don't the offspring of those who were denied access to education and a life with dignity for generations have a right to overthrow the inhuman yoke and seek their place in the sun? Of course they do.
Shouldn't merit be the ultimate yardstick in a society that is trying to build itself after centuries of subjugation? Of course it should.
Alas, India doesn't fit into any pat solutions, because the problems it faces are not pat. Hence the solution needs to be nuanced.
And any film that sets out to tackle such a topic needs to be nuanced, which Aarakshan clearly is not. At 20 reels could it have been shorter? Maybe, had it stuck to what it set out to do. The way it is done, Aarakshan feels like two films separated by the recess.
After clobbering you with two songs in the first 30 minutes, making you dread if it will turn out to be a musical take on reservations, there's a drought of songs after that.
The Saif-Deepika romance is underdeveloped for fear of overshadowing the main story, which is fine. But their breakup and reunion happen too easily, like the climax which almost makes you guffaw.
And, when the surprise element in the film emerges like a deus ex machina, you do end up guffawing. Without reservation.
Also read: Review: Aarakshan lacks focus
Review: Aarakshan is disappointing