Chhagan Bhujbal, Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and many other politicians in India should really calm down. Prakash Jha's Aarakshan is definitely not against the current reservation system that benefits India's so-called backward castes. Rather Jha -- in a poor cinematic judgment has made a film which could be referred to as pro-Dalits and other backwards castes.
I wish people would see Aarakshan and instead object to Jha's vision, the execution of his muddled script, which half way through forgets its purpose, and varying degrees of unimpressive performances. Yes, Jha tries to highlight the complicated caste-based reservation system, attempting to look at the situation from all angles. But that is only until the first half of the film.
After intermission, Aarakshan is a completely different film -- essentially an argument against the expensive private tutoring schools, reflected by the very obvious good (represented by Amitabh Bachchan's character Prabhakar Anand) and the equally obvious evil (represented by Manoj Bajpayee's Mithilesh Singh).
Jha -- who takes up social issues and gives a controversial flare to his films, is at his most confused self in presenting Aarakshan to us. Perhaps the issue of caste-based reservation is too complicated and yet has the potential of flaring up (as it has happened before the release of the film) and so he simplifies it in a paint-by-number style until he runs out of ideas.
Aarakshan's politics is not problematic. But it fails to be an issue-based film with a message. It is disappointing and a huge let down if in case the viewer is expecting an engaging conversation and a perspective on India's reservation system.
Bachchan's Anand is an idealist principal (so much like his other bearded principal performance in Mohabattein) of a top private college in Bhopal -- Shankuntala Takaral College, named after its founder, a smiling Hema Malini in giant framed pictures, who is MIA for the past 32 years.
The college is not bound by the Supreme Court mandated reservation system, but Anand is a good intentioned man, who for all the right reasons cares for his students and wants to give them best opportunities. He pays fees for students who are broke, signs bank loans for those in need and believes in the goodness of mankind. But do not call him a casteist, because that will make him very mad!
The mankind in Anand's world is led by Saif Ali Khan's Deepak Kumar, a Dalit, brought up by his mother, who irons people's clothes and Prateik's Sushant Seth, who is from the high caste family, and the son of one of the college's trustees. There is Anand's daughter, Poorbi (Deepika Padukone), who is having a relationship with Deepak, although she does not mind Sushant's occasional friendly flirtations. And there are many, many extras, who -- as in other Jha films, stand facing the camera, equidistant from each, looking serious and giving the depth and weight of support for the film's protagonist, in this case Anand.
Like Jha's previous films there are many other characters --
some developed better than others. But in terms of screen time -- Bajpayee's Singh is only second to Anand. But just as much as Anand is principled and honest, Singh is corrupt, a liar and a cheat. If you cannot tell that from the first time Singh speaks a dialogue, then you just have to look at the awful wig that Bajpayee wears -- jet black hair, with curls falling on one side of his forehead, a small streak of white hair in the middle, very much like what Indira Gandhi must have shown when she initially started graying.
Suffice is to say that Anand's principled positions and his support for the reservation system will lead to his downfall -- although temporarily, since it is a Bollywood film where good people always win in the end. He will lose all of his supporters, but they will come back and stand by his side in his good fight, also because it is a Bollywood film. And the mean and evil people will lose in the end -- yes, just because it is a Bollywood film.
A note about the evil people. Jha makes them look like bad caricatures, and they all belong to the upper castes. If only Mayawati, Bhujbal and Yadav would realize this point. These upper caste people are so evil that Jha even has them drink red wine out of proper glasses underlining the message that they are western, unIndian, and debased!
Aarakshan is purely Bachchan's film and the superstar performs ably, never surprising us beyond what he is done before, but keeping us engaged with his deep voice, diction, stern look, and at times caring smile. Khan looks earnest with his moustache. He is almost believable as Kumar, but never strong enough. Padukone looks pretty, but she cannot carry the serious, intense moments. Prateik is a disappointment. The young actor was terrific in Kiran Rao's Dhobi Ghat, but here he shows his limitations and inability to perform a role that requires greater character depth.
And Bajpayee -- one of the finest actors in the Hindi cinema, is over-the-top and plain awful in Aarakshan. The audience will have to wait until Bajpayee's next film -- Bedabrata Pain's Chittagong, to once again see how brilliant an actor he is and can be.
Malini does make a brief appearance at the end of the film. Her gray hair (perhaps a wig) makes her look stunningly beautiful and that certainly is the best moment in the film.
I do not know why Jha made Aarakshan. But I wish a better director would make a film that questions why India's students have to wake up at 5 am to prepare for their examinations. Why is it that every student in Aarakshan takes prep classes -- additional tutorials over and beyond what they learn in schools? There is something seriously wrong with India's education system and Aarakshan unwittingly points to that problem. And that is its only contribution to any debate in India.