The hugely anticipated film pits righteousness against politics and goes on about both to little effect, but the stars do their jobs well
Battle lines are drawn. On one side, a righteous teacher. On the other, a group of ruthless business-minded hucksters who want to sell education and the right to it to those who can pay. Politics in a historical context seems to be what makes director Prakash Jha’s cookie crumble– he used classics updated with his version of The Godfather plays out the Mahabharata for his film Raajneeti, for instance, and brought in a galaxy of stars to make it work, which it did. This time he has Amitabh Bachchan as Prabhakar Anand, the principal of a college in Bhopal. And AB crosses dialogue, if not swords, with the likes of Deepika Padukone (his screen daughter), Saif Ali Khan (his protégé, Deepak), Manoj Bajpayee (vice principal Mithilesh Singh), Prateik (Sushant Seth) and others. The acting is competent, even superb in places, each character well placed and trained, every one of them as real as they can possibly be as part of a big-budget Bollywood production.
Bachchan is perhaps reprising the role he has played before – remember the head of the gurukul in Mohabbatein? This time, though, his paternal/avuncular and benign qualities are more in focus as he becomes mentor, advisor, good-guy, papaji to generations of students who go through the halls of the college. And for the Dalit Deepak, he is indeed a father figure, which is how the film begins – “Tell us about your father,” he is asked at a job interview. But the same uprightness is challenged when Anand has to make a tough choice between Deepak and Sushant, the latter, more privileged, upper-caste and as talented. Complicating the issue is Singh, who plays the villain, complete with sly glances and dramatic music, who wants to make education and its access a commodity that can be bought for the right price. And, of course, there is the issue of reservation – one individual may be less deserving than another, but the first has a slot ‘reserved’ because he belongs to a ‘backward’ and therefore strangely more indulged class of society.
At two hours 45 minutes, Aarakshan is a long haul that is pure pleasure in parts, banal bore in others. It starts out well, with each character well delineated and the story focussed and absorbing. Then, suddenly, about halfway through, it falls flat on its well-intentioned face, becoming oddly wishy-washy and going nowhere fast with no real point of view. Perhaps this happened as a result of all the protest against the production and certain scenes that were critical to the pace and the story being deleted. The whole contentious matter of reservation is side-stepped and the spotlight placed on privatisation and commercialisation of education instead. But, somewhere along the route that Jha meanders along, everyone connected with the production did say it was about just that, remember? So can the rubbery limpness be blamed on unexpected political censorship? We wonder…
We expected more from Jha and his stars – a final product that was more gritty perhaps, or even less melodramatic and typically Bollywoodian. Maybe there was more hype than substance in the film, which could do it no favours.
But with all its flaws, it certainly deserves a dekko.
Director: Prakash Jha
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Prateik, Manoj Bajpayee.