Cast:Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Manoj Bajpai, Prateik
An angry exchange of words erupts between newly appointed junior lecturer Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan) and his mentor and college Principal Dr Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan).
The former hurls a pointed question at his senior: “What is your position on reservation?” The latter responds in kind but refuses to answer. That’s perfectly in keeping with the underlying spirit of Aarakshan. Words, words, and more words… but no clear pronouncements! So don’t expect any answers from Aarakshan.
Prakash Jha’s highly anticipated film isn’t really what the title might suggest: a sledgehammer drama about a simmering political issue that has never been addressed before in a mainstream Hindi film. Instead, it’s a rather safe, superficial and simplistic take on an extremely complex theme. The film lets off steam, and generates some smoke, but the fire is missing.
Given all the pre-release brouhaha over its emotive subject matter (leading to several states banning its public screening), Aarakshan is quite a copout.
It ends up being more about the depredations of the nation’s education mafia than the vexed question of job and college quotas for backward caste candidates and its fallout.
The basic premise is rooted in the real world all right and the film might touch some raw nerves. But the dramatization of the conflict over the quota raj that divides India down the middle tends to border on the excessively shrill, if not completely shallow.
A good teacher and a bad teacher–-a hero and a villain cast in the classic Bollywood mould - fight a bitter turf war on the campus of a sprawling college called Shakuntala Thakral Mahavidyalaya. The conflict trickles down to the level of the students, who get sucked into the vortex like a bunch of willing but misguided foot soldiers, sparking off violent disagreements between the two groups.
The Supreme Court ruling upholding 27 per cent reservation for OBCs is alluded to and treated as the spark for two of the film’s most dramatic confrontation scenes – the one mentioned above and another one between Deepak Kumar and upper caste student Sushant Seth (Prateik), who also happens to be the son of a member of the private trust that runs the college.
And, then, Aarakshan bails out of the danger zone. Essentially, the film is structured like a run-of-the-mill good-versus-evil drama where the characters are convenient cutouts, each representing a particular line of thinking, rather than tangible figures prone to psychological ebbs and tides.
So we have a math professor who is perched on a horse so high that he might have been better off in the Vatican. He doesn’t speak; he delivers sermons, as if from a pulpit.
He has a wife (Tanvi Azmi) who believes that he is a "real hero" in a world full of "cowards" and a daughter (Deepika Padukone) who is doting, dutiful and forever ready to spring to her dad’s defence. And, of course, this picture wouldn’t be complete without the suave college topper raised by a low-born mother who worked as a maid in the homes of the wealthy.
And there is the crafty, creepy college staffer who is so smarmy that he could give Mogambo the heebie-jeebies. But for the measured skills of Manoj Bajpayee, who digs his teeth into this dark persona with great glee, Mithilesh Singh would have been just another evil madcap.
In this scenario, words fly thick and fast like bullets as the gunfights of a conventional potboiler are replaced by verbal fireworks. A thriving coaching centre housed in a property that the upright math professor has been duped of and the college principal’s chamber stand in for the den of the baddie.
The R word is uttered several times in the first half, but the political ramifications of reservation are only touched upon in passing and then quickly discarded as the film shifts into morality play mode and the protagonist sets up a classroom for the poor in a cowshed.
The second half is another film: the title is forgotten and Aarakshan dives into a plot woven around the ageing protagonist’s battle to rescue his students from the clutches of the greedy men who have turned education into a money-spinning racket.
The bad teacher tells the good teacher in one scene: "You were a zero, are a zero, and will always be zero." The tables are turned, as expected, on the villain by the time the film comes to an end. By then, Aarakshan stops adding up.