x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Aarakshan

This Bollywood film about affirmative action is a disappointment.

Aarakshan is rather disappointing.
Aarakshan is rather disappointing.

Director: Prakash Jha
Starring: Amitabh Bachan, Saif Ali Khan and Manoj Bajpayee
** 

Affirmative action is such a bone of contention in India that this film was banned in a couple of Indian states upon its release last week.

Ironic, then, that one of the drawbacks of the movie is that it tries so hard to be even-handed in its approach to the policy of enabling 27 per cent of places at government education establishments to be reserved for lower-caste students. At times it's so heavy-handed and clunky in laying out the arguments for and against quotas that it resembles a high school debate rather than a quality drama.

Deepak Kumar (Khan) is seen at a job interview for a role as a professor where it's clear that his low caste is an issue. In true Bollywood fashion, Kumar makes a grand statement about equal rights and manners before storming back to the apparent safety of his school.

The school is run by a stand-up guy, Prabhakar Anand, (Bachan), one of those formulaic too-good-to-be-true characters who only ever exist in cinema, are always trying to do their best for others even if it means personal sacrifice and, naturally, make you wish they were your dad. The director Jha shows how students feel hard done by when they are refused entry to make way for those from a poorer background, and also how some richer kids attempt to buy their way into school at the expense of lower-caste students.

A fight almost breaks out between Kumar and star student Sushant (Prateik) when demonstrators at the school gate celebrate a supreme court ruling. But the film completely changes when Anand is forced out of college for making a controversial statement about the quota system. His nemesis, Mithilesh Singh (Bajpayee), sees education as a business and soon sets up a series of private education colleges to rake in the cash.

It's here that Aarakshan confuses the issues of quotas with the current bête noir of cinema: the privatisation of public life. Anand starts up a free school in a cowshed that becomes popular at the expense of Singh's business. There are lots of shots of teachers pointing at blackboards with kids making amazing progress. Everything is over-egged, especially when it concerns the secondary story in which Anand loses his house and it becomes a private college. And speaking of quotas, the songs are the biggest disappointment.