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Protests over Bollywood film about caste quotas

A new Bollywood film, Aarakshan, which focuses on affirmative-action programmes for the Dalits, the untouchables, has ignited protests across India and brought criticism from politicians and low-caste minority groups.

Policemen stand guard outside a cinema hall screening the just- released film
Policemen stand guard outside a cinema hall screening the just- released film "Aarakshan," in Mumbai, on Friday. Three Indian states have banned the movie following fears that certain scenes may trigger trouble. Rajanish Kakade / AP Photo

NEW DELHI // A new Bollywood film tackling the contentious issue of caste-based quotas in education and government jobs has ignited protests across the country and brought criticism from politicians and low-caste minority groups.

Called Aarakshan, meaning reservation in Hindi, the film focuses on affirmative-action programmes for the Dalits, the "untouchables". There are 160 million Dalits in India.

The film was banned before its release on Friday in Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh because local governments feared it would spark communal violence.

Punjab revoked a ban on the film on Saturday, allowing it to be shown in theatres as the start of a long weekend celebrating Raksha Bandhan, the bond of protection between a brother and sister, as well as today's Independence Day.

It was a pre-emptive measure taken by the Punjab government, where more than 31 per cent of the state's population of 27 million belong to lower castes.

Days before the release of the film, demonstrators in Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore and Mysore burnt film posters, vandalised cinemas and chanted slogans against the director, Prakash Jha.

The film focuses on the tension in a college campus between lower-caste students, who stand to benefit from a quota policy just upheld by the Supreme Court, and their more affluent classmates, who now have to contend with the reservation policy

One of the characters from a higher caste mocks his lower-caste compatriots for getting into a top university on the basis of his birth, not his marks.

India's 1950 constitution requires that at least 22.5 per cent of government jobs and seats at public-education institutions be reserved for low-caste students and those from tribal communities. In 1980, a government commission concluded that to increase the social mobility of marginalised communities, the percentage be increased to 27 per cent. That finding provoked violent protests across the country, with incidents of higher-caste students immolating themselves.

It was not until 2008 that the government began implementing the 27 per cent reservation policy, but the controversy continues.

"The reservation issue has been portrayed very insensitively in this film," said Ravi Kumar, the general secretary of Dalit Panthers of India, an advocacy group for Dalit welfare, based in Tamil Nadu. Mr Kumar has not seen the movie but based his comments from the complaints of those who had.

"Many people who have seen it are unhappy. There are anti-Dalit slurs. It is derogatory," he said. "It is a fact that reservation is needed in a society like India that is caste-based. So it plays a big role. Caste-based reservation is affirmative action, then why are you showing something opposing it?"

Although the Indian censor board cleared the film, Jha, the director, has had to appeal to India's Supreme Court to overturn the state bans.

"Aarakshan is not anti-reservation and/or anti-Dalit," Jha told reporters last week. "In India there are people who benefit from this policy and there are those who have missed an opportunity because of the policy. Reservation and the quota system is a hard-hitting reality ... It is almost an India versus India situation and by showing this in my movie, I am trying to bridge the gap."

Expected earnings were between 60 and 70 million rupees (Dh4.8m-5.6m) during the first weekend of its release but the film had only grossed 45m rupees.

Tarun Adarsh, a film trade analyst based in Mumbai, said the film had fallen short of its earning expectations in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, which are the biggest box-office earners after Mumbai.

"Imagine the loss," said Mr Adarsh.

The film has succeeded in one respect, sparking dialogue on the issue among the very students it portrays.

Nipun Sharma, 20, a student at the National Law University in New Delhi, said that the quota system had caused debates among his friends.

They see on the one hand that granting admission to a student whose family has been denied opportunities due to an ancient caste system helps to end a cycle of poverty, while on the other, worthy applicants have been denied admission to make room for lower castes.

"Essentially the focus has shifted from it being a social issue to turning into an economic advantage for the backward classes," said Mr Sharma. "It has become a financial debate now. College admissions determine the rest of your life."