Film Review | Aarakshan
Director-producer Prakash Jha is known for his penchant for issue-based films, notably Mrityudand, Gangaajal, Apaharan and Rajneeti. In his latest release Aarakshan, he tackles the sensitive subject of reservation of seats in higher education.
In a powerful opening scene, Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan) is seen being humiliated by a prejudiced interview panel and denied a job based on his lineage. In the next scene, he is describing the event to his mentor Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan), principal of the college where he was a topper. This leads to another scene with Anand’s daughter Poorbi (Deepika Padukone), who is Deepak’s girlfriend. They break into a song.
You know then that the first scene was most likely an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.
Rudderless: (top) Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone in Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan; it’s Amitabh Bachchan who holds the show together.
Writers Jha and Anjum Rajabali lose a grip on their material early on. Three songs by the off-form composers, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, appear in the first hour, diluting any establishing of the theme and idiom of the film. Anand is first portrayed as the popular and venerated, yet idealistic and unbending, principal of Shakuntala Thakral Mahavidyalaya (STM) whose three-decade-long tenure is threatened when he refuses to bend the admission rules for a politician’s nephew with low marks. Corrupt members of the board of trustees now plot Anand’s ouster. The division among students over a Supreme Court ruling on 27% reservation for other backward classes and Anand’s handling of the ensuing fracas gives the board a reason to challenge his leadership and instate their man Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee).
When issues of reservation and Machiavellian scheming by his nemesis Mithilesh contest his authority and decision making, Anand must take a stand that could threaten the safety of his family.
Thus Jha sets up a simplistic good versus evil dispute and a high-caste versus lower-caste conflict, the latter played out via quota-system victim student Sushant Seth (Prateik) and Anand’s protégé, Deepak, who is fighting the system to find a place within it. The crux of the first half is summarized when Deepak urges Anand to take a stand on the reservation issue, saying you can either be for it or against it.
Anand’s tough stance also erodes the relationships of those close to him, such as Poorbi and Deepak; Poorbi’s friendship with the upper-caste Sushant; and with the residents of the town who once bent over backwards to help Anand.
From here on, the lumbering screenplay, that is both literal and verbose, captures Anand’s fightback and explores various angles to the controversial issues. With the help of a milkman, and his own family, Anand sets up a communal and free-for-all tutorial class in a cowshed. When their home is usurped by some opportunistic family friends, the homeless Anands take shelter in the cowshed and sleep in a room that looks like it could be out of a Neemrana property. Every day Padukone’s hair still manages to look perfectly set and curled. You know a film has lost the audience when all you can think of is where she plugs in her tongs in the cowshed!
The running time of about 2 hours and 40 minutes is testing, wearisome and robs the film of a much-needed punch. Jha loses out by wanting to tell the audience everything. A little script editing and film editing might have helped the movie tremendously, because by the climax, you are past caring. The plot digresses from dealing with the issue of reservation versus merit and caste politics into a diatribe against mercenary private coaching classes, capitation fees and other ills plaguing the education system. Yet it lacks that one big swell, a scene like “O captain! My captain!” from Dead Poets Society, something that could bring a lump to your throat or call into question your own stand on inequality and quotas.
Additionally, all through the tedium, you wait for Hema Malini to descend from one of her oversized portraits that hang on every wall of the STM that she founded. So her cameo in the penultimate scene is no surprise at all.
Thankfully, Bachchan holds the show together. He towers above the rest and makes the most of a script that is weighed down by the burden of the subject. He brings gravitas and dignity to the role of the righteous Anand. He is the one reason to watch Aarakshan. Prateik is yet to prove he has what it takes to go beyond the gene pool he inherited, while Padukone shows limited range. Barring Bajpayee in bits and Khan in parts, the rest of the cast is unimpressive.
Bajpayee plays negative from scene 1, adding no shades of grey to his performance, which is a disappointment after his incendiary turn in Rajneeti. Khan is stuck with a character that whimpers along rudderless. Like most of the other characters, he too flip-flops and shows an absolute lack of backbone or integrity. This weakens an already meandering story that, in the end, also conveniently avoids taking a stand.