Aarakshan (Reservations) turned out to be a disappointment for us.
Directed by Prakash Jha, one of India’s rare political film-makers, the much hyped movie is supposedly centered on the hot-button issue of reservations aka affirmative action that allows less qualified candidates from lower castes to get government jobs and seats in colleges via special quotas. (By the way, a corporate bootlicking American politician named Barack Obama got into Harvard University through a similar Reservation program for Blacks.)
But the reservations subject occupies center-stage in Aarakshan only for the first 1 hour or so.
Then the reservation train derails and the movie is all over the place turning its gaze one moment on the commercialization of education, the next moment hinting at corruption and moments later focusing on personal enmity between two individuals.
Reservation is a vexing issue in India and there are no easy solutions on a matter that has often led to severe violence and occasional deaths, particularly in North India.
But the movie never even makes an effort to explore the topic in depth or treat the subject with the gravity it deserves.
And that’s a shame!
Since Prakash Jha and Anjum Rajabali are responsible for the screenplay, responsibility for screwing up the story must lie at their feet.
On the positive side, the key actors have done justice to their roles.
Amitabh Bachchan as the sincere college principal Prabhakar Anand, Saif Ali Khan as his student Deepak Kumar, Manoj Bajpai as the greedy and scheming Vice-Principal/Principal Mithileesh Singh, Saurabh Shukla as the Education Minister, Deepika who plays Prabhakar’s daughter Poorbi, Prateik Babbar as the upper caste student Sushant and others have handled their roles with aplomb.
Aarakshan is one of the few Indian movies where it’s hard to slam the actors for a bad job.
Playing a college principal with 35 years of experience and the recent recipient of a two-year extension, Amitabh Bachchan handles his role of a principled man caught up in the turmoil of the Supreme Court order on reservation for backward castes with considerable restraint marked by occasional flashes of anger.
The anger, the excitement, the melodramatic actions and the adrenalin rush come from the younger generation that includes Vice-Principal/Principal Mithileesh Singh, Poorbi, Sushant and the backward caste teacher Deepak Kumar.
The confrontations involving the young turks Saif Ali Khan, Manoj Bajpai and Prateik Babbar have come out well.
In a surprise, Deepika Padukone managed to avoid peeing over herself as she’s wont to do in most of her movies. Perhaps, a bit of the acting talent of her colleagues rubbed off on her in Aarakshan.
True to most Indian films, Aarakshan too comes with a happy, albeit, extremely unrealistic ending.
Hema Malini in a special appearance turns up at the crucial hour, restores the wronged man Prabhakar’s honor and a special remedial program is established at the college for the poor and less privileged sections of society.
Of course, that’s not how things work in India where the cost of education has shot through the roof lately making it highly unaffordable for a vast chunk of the population and where the little man always loses in his clashes with the powers that be.
Also, what disturbed us a lot was the way Manoj Bajpai’s character Mithilesh Singh was handled. We’re told initially that he’s a sharp, clever fellow and, hey, he does provide ample evidence of his mettle through his scheming tactics that put him on top and his former boss Prabhakar Anand on the street.
But by the end of the movie, we see Mithilesh Singh losing his mental balance and screaming like one possessed by the devil. Absolute nonsense. Still, within the confines of a poorly etched role, Manoj Bajpai throws in a decent performance.
We were not particularly swayed by the music or any of the dances that are standard fare in Bollywood films.
Bottom line, Aarakshan could have been a lot superior with a better set of writers but ends up, alas, as a merely average film.