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By Aarakshan is a tame attempt at awareness from the usually fiery Prakash Jha
  • Published 13.08.11

What were the three states thinking when they banned Aarakshan? A couple of the states supposedly didn’t even watch the film. If they had, they would have quickly realised — it’s unlikely that they would have sat through the whole of it — it’s just not worth it. The ban that is. Really.

How can a film change the minds of its viewers when it cannot make up its own mind? Not just on its stand on the reservation policy — it actually doesn’t have one — but also on what it wants to be. Is it a film about how the history of casteism has found percentage points in the government’s reservation policy? Or is it about how coaching centres and capitation fees are the bane of the education system?

No, Mr Jha, they are not inseparable. Your main antagonist speaks your line in your film: “Even if the less-deserving candidates get seats in colleges thanks to reservation, they will have to admit themselves in our coaching centres to get more marks.” You really didn’t need the R-stamp for your take on the monetisation and monopoly of coaching centres in India.

The only common thing between the two halves of Aarakshan is that both are equally boring.

All the facts — and karara dialogues — for and against reservation are simply belted out in the first half by the main cast. Who says what depends on where the characters figure on the grey scale. But there is not a hint of drama even though the actors are on histrionic overdrive. Just placing different points of view on the table can make a fair documentary but in a big starry Bollywood film, they beg to take sides and some sort of a stand.

It’s actually the same set of points the Aarakshan team discussed in the St. Xavier’s College auditorium stage recently. How reservation is meant for students who have no means. How reservation has snatched the dreams of meritorious students. How reservation is being used for the wrong reasons. How reservation needs to be better executed. But any good debate has to end with the house voting for or against the motion. The contrived Aarakshan leaves you even more confused, in that dull either/neither/just-let-me-go-home zone.

And maybe because it cannot successfully dramatise the theme itself, the film switches modes and becomes the personal story of a righteous and idealistic educationist (Dr Prabhakar Anand, played by Amitabh Bachchan) who is misunderstood and betrayed by people close to him. By the time he loses his job and house, Aarakshan plummets to an archaic Bollywood tale of revenge and retribution. What a pity.

Jha, who has made many a brilliant film on social issues with almost all of them having touched upon the caste system, plays very, very safe here. But he lends the film — perhaps unconsciously — a bloated sense of self-importance that does Aarakshan no good.

The only aakarshan of Aarakshan is Amitabh Bachchan. Yes, some of his shudh lines about anushashan remind you of Mohabbatein, some of his scarf-around-the-neck white-beard spectacled moments remind you of Viruddh and some scenes may even remind you of the Gujarat Tourism advertisement, but when he stands and delivers his lines, you listen. There is so much of earnestness, integrity and heart in Bachchan’s Prabhakar Anand, you secretly wish this principal with principles could hop reels and walk into a more deserving film.

Saif’s role is underwritten and perhaps an afterthought to sell the film on the younger shoulders of a ‘hero’. You don’t need any of those complicated mathematics formulas shown in the film to guess why Ajay Devgn opted out of this role. Even worse is Prateik’s character, who wants to study mass communication but starts teaching sums.

Deepika, though, is again the refreshing thing about a movie. Both her scenes with Bachchan — one where she revolts and the other where she redeems herself — show how she has come of age as an actor.

Manoj Bajpai in this second innings of his — long after the Mumbai-ka-king-kaun phase — is so good. There’s a real relish in the way he plays evil in each of his scenes.

There are two songs in the first half hour and a couple of more later. And they are full songs, courtesy Shankar Ehsaan Loy and Prasoon Joshi. Even Raajneeti just had snatches. Another telling sign of how Jha’s leaning towards the box office has become Pisa-like.

The last thing we expect from the man who gave us Damul and Mrityudand is to sit on the fence and hope that the two Indias he talks about bridge their gap through tabela tuition classes. Perhaps reservation needs more than just a tame, healing touch.

No, you don’t need to reserve yours seats for this one. QED.

Pratim D. Gupta
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