It's a bit anti-climactic, watching Prakash Jha's latest release, Aarakshan. Jha has always been controversies favourite child, with his last outing, Raajneeti attracting press for being an evident political pastiche of the Gandhi family. This time though, Jha has outdone himself, setting off protests and bans around the country by touching upon the 'touchy' issue of reservations and affirmative action in India's public arenas, like colleges and politics. Alas, a viewing of the film reveals that while Aarakshan may take its title from the issue, like Hema Malini, who gets just a scene or two in the film, the subject of reservation only comes in to play a cameo in the overall plot of this otherwise straightforward good-vs-evil drama.
The title notwithstanding, Aarakshan is not a film about reservations. Though caste-based policies and politics are issues that demand serious examination in every sense, Jha is content in relatively glossing over the subject, instead using it is as something of a catalyst in the conflict between his film's two central characters, Dr Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) and Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpai). While Anand is the ideal, legendary principal of one of the country's top colleges, Singh is a reprobate lecturer in the same institution, always at odds with Anand's values. Amongst Anand's students are Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan) and Sushant Seth (Prateik Babbar), best friends and at opposite sides of the social spectrum, with Kumar being a dalit student, who has been the college topper, while Sushant is the son of one of the college's trustees. When a Supreme Court order reaffirms reservation in colleges for backward classes, the issue splits the college down the middle, with people on both sides of the affirmative action fence. In the midst of this, Singh sees an opportunity to displace Anand at the helm of affairs, and milch the education system through his KK coaching classes, where he charges exorbitant fees to teach the same students he's supposed to mentor at college, something that the idealistic Prabhakar Anand, who has always believed in education for all, rebels against by teaching deserving students for free.
Though one may be disappointed by the fact that Jha doesn't truly deal with the subject of reservations in the film, that is not to say that the film isn't a watchable affair. Indeed, with two powerhouse actors in Bachchan and Bajpai in central roles, Aarakshan does pack a punch. However, more than reservations, Jha's obsession in the film is clearly the commercialisation of the country's education system, through the sort of coaching classes setup that people like Mithilesh Singh espouse, something that definitely deserves some introspection. The sort of solution that Jha promotes in the film, with free education for all, also hits at the roots of doing away with the need for affirmative action altogether. In that sense, Aarakshan is definitely a success for Prakash Jha.
But where he is liable to attract criticism, is in the touch-and-go approach he takes towards his core issue of aarakshan itself, where he is content in showing a few sporadic protests and marches happening in the country, and having Saif Ali Khan and Manoj Bajpai exchange caustic dialogues on how dalits and the backward masses of the country have been denied a fair chance in the country's public spheres. In fact, beyond the intermission of the film, the subject is all but forgotten, Jha instead focusing completely on the conflict between Bachchan and Bajpai.
Jha also deserves some barbs for the way he uses his characters. While Saif Ali Khan gets the rawest deal in what may be his best work since he mesmerised audiences as Langda Tyagi in Omkara. Khan's Deepak Kumar, who is genuinely talented, and yet believes in affirmative action, shows great potential in the first half of the film, a complex character worthy of inspection. Audiences are bound to be disappointed when he all but disappears in the second half of the film, returning only towards the end to help his guru Anand in his endeavours.
However, the film's strengths come in its characters too, namely, those of Bachchan and Bajpai. Bachchan is brilliant as ever as Anand, channeling palpable emotions in his role as the stern, yet caring principal of the college, a role that seems to have been written just for him. Bajpai's character, on the other hand, does seem a bit caricaturish at times, seemingly composed of pure evil. Still, as one of the best actors of this generation, Manoj brings a level of belief to Mithilesh Singh that a lesser performer simply couldn't manage.
Deepika's role, as Poorbi, Anand's daughter, is a bit unnecessary, since she doesn't really play a part in the film's story. However, the actress does a fair job of it anyway. Tanvi Azmi is also quite good in her role as Bachchan's wife and pillar of strength. Prateik Babbar, as Sushant, is perhaps the film's biggest disappointment, simply unable to carry off the intensity of his serious scenes, and looking in dire need of better direction. The actor, who impressed in films like Dhobi Ghat before this, is the definition of unconvincing here. Hema Malini's cameo is something of a deus ex machina, though it is a very, very short role, she impresses, especially with her different look.
Though Prakash Jha perhaps seems to be offering up a solution to the problems of societal injustice through the education-for-all model he espouses in the film, his naiveté in dealing with the problem is revealed in the opening scenes of the film itself, as a perfectly eligible and talented Deepak Kumar, finds himself insulted and denied at a top institution of professional education in the country, only on account of his caste. And therein lays the crux of the matter, where, however capable a person can be through primary education, ultimately, unless there's a shift in the mindset of the nation, nothing can really eradicate the need for affirmative action.
At the end of it, one doesn't quite understand what has happened with Aarakshan and Prakash Jha. Though the film has been marketed on the back of the issue of reservations, and is certainly worthy of a watch, Jha, ultimately seems to shy away from a deeper examination of matters in his film, something that is truly disappointing.