Mayank Shekhar's Review: Aarakshan

By Hindustan Times

Aarakshan
Director: Prakash Jha
Actors: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan
Rating: **

Young Sushant Seth (Prateik Babbar, looking perpetually dumbfounded) is a rich kid who’s just graduated from a college that his father is a trustee of. The boy wants to get into Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia’s popular mass communications programme. He’s opted for a career in the media. It’s a tough course to get into. You could question his choice of college (I had run away from that dingy school within a month of taking admission. Shah Rukh Khan, their most famous student, is also a dropout!). But never mind that.

The boy is sure of securing admission. That doesn’t happen. Over 50 per cent of seats in Jamia, it turns out, are reserved. He’s dejected, shocked. This moment completely changes his attitude towards Dalits in particular. Which is, kind of, strange. Those Jamia seats he lost out to, were in fact reserved for another minority, the Muslims; not the backward castes. But that’s another matter again.

His is the only main character in the film that’s genuinely against reservations for minorities in state-funded colleges. The others support the government’s move for reasons of their own. One, social: Amitabh Bachchan’s Prabhakar Anand sees merit in righting the wrongs of history. Two, economic: Manoj Bajpayee’s character, doing the bidding for private entrepreneurs, smells money when upper-caste rich can’t find a place in government colleges. Three, personal: Saif Ali Khan’s Deepak Kumar is a Dalit himself.

Yeah, I know what you’ve been thinking. Suave, slick, urbane Saif for a downtrodden, poor Dalit man, who roughed it out studying in a slum while his mother ironed clothes for a living? He doesn’t look odd at all. No surprises there. Because, this is the movies. That’s how it works. You're looking for a guy-next-door? Go next door!

Saif’s character is scoffed at for being from a backward caste. He gives it back. Suitably. This unsubtle, loud, severely talkie drama, as you can tell, is in every way, more pro-reservation then. Had it not been, would it have been ‘casteist’ for it? Are we banned in this country from debating merits or demerits of reservation on caste lines altogether? Only cheap, opportunist netas would think so. They rule. The public be damned. They can't even decide what movie they can watch.

One of those netas (Saurabh Shukla) is in this film too. He's starting a vast private, profiteering education empire. As so many of these blokes do. He’s also interested in planting one of his own men to control a reputed private university, which is run by an upright principal (Amitabh Bachchan).

Hatthi (annoyingly stubborn) is a good Hindi word to describe this sincere old man that politicians and their chamchas or cronies are up against. He won’t budge from his principles, believes in remedial education for the needy, holds free classes in his own backyard, takes pride in producing fine talents. There is a certain honour to this character, perhaps too filmic, one could argue. It’s still inspiring to watch an uncompromising honest man stick his neck out, go to any extent possible to preserve what he stands for. This doesn’t seem to happen in the world around us. That’s why we go to the films. I guess. Bachchan lends immense dignity to this role. It’s the only one that’s neatly defined.

The pawn that politicians plant to dislodge this principal, on the other hand, is a cardboard, caricatured Bollywood villain (Manoj Bajpayee: oily, wily, ‘Prem Chopra’). He neglects his job, owns seven coaching centres, intends to expand further, represents the worst of the commercialisation of Indian education. Which is really what this movie is about.

Why does this corrupt goon hate the honest college principal enough to take over his house (after his job), swear to drive him to the streets: "make him beg"? I don’t know. Why should the whole world instantly hate a college principal, merely because, in his personal capacity, he’s spoken in favour of affirmative action? I’m not sure.

Besides the writing, this appears to be ‘filmmaking in a hurry’ as well: the art director didn’t have time to design a half believable hotel room, music directors reworked their old, familiar tunes (Achhi Lagti Ho from Kuch Na Kaho for Accha Lagta Hai)…

The result is the least satisfying of Jha’s recent films: Gangaajal (2003; a debate on police atrocities), Apaharan (2005; on the kidnapping and ransom industry), Rajneeti (2010; where political party is seen as India’s new monarch). Hip Hip Hurray (1984), by far, is still his best film on the youth. That was minimalist, sensible. This one tries so hard to be equally “massy, mainstream”. It ends up being neither. A fine opportunity is lost.

The filmmakers do have important points to make though. The state of education truly sucks. It’s a serious matter. I just can't see if they have as convincing a story to tell. Conflicts are lost in simplicities, motivations seem unclear, songs stick out, corny situations take over.

Heavy commercialisation of education, the film critiques, perhaps affects the film industry in the same way. Humble advice to makers of movies, which holds equally true for readers of their reviews: Please, don't just go by the stars!

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