Filmmaker Prakash Jha is a breed apart. Beginning as a premier proponent of India’s parallel cinema movement in the 1970s-1980s, he never chose to lose his moorings. Instead, he opted to increase the contours of his canvas by opting for a kind of cinema that combined art with mainstream, meaning with masala. Hence the importance of films like Gangajal, Apharan, Rajneeti, where you will manage to focus on some of India’s burning issues, without getting bored to death.
Aarakshan follows the same rules of the games, where the filmmaker attempts to take an incisive look at India’s policy of reservation and its impact on the Indian education system. Atleast that’s the issue he begins with and focuses on in the first half of the film. The tensions that the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Mandal Commission’s recommendations elicit find a resonance in the day to day functioning of Bhopal’s premier private college as pro and anti-reservationists threaten to shatter the campus calm. Principal Bachchan tries hard to impose discipline within the stormy precincts but soon, the turmoil sears both his personal and professional life. His favourite student and ward, Saif Ali Khan, who has managed to fight the odds despite his underprivileged background, accuses him of being a casteist and turns his back on him, while upper caste student — another favourite — Prateik Babbar, accuses him of being a pro-reservationists and holds him responsible for messing with the career of meritorious students. But more dangerous are the moves of the managing committee which begins to see a potential enemy in him and replaces him with the corrupt, insincere, vice-principal, Manoj Bajpayee, who chooses to concentrate more on his umpteen coaching centres than on the affairs and the concerns of the college and its students.
So far, so good. As long as the film concentrates on the key concern, it is full of high drama, with powerful encounters between the prime players. The confrontations between Amitabh Bachchan and Saif Ali Khan are absolutely explosive and riveting stuff, with Saif pitching in one of his finest performances after Omkara. But poor guy! Little does he realise what happens to him in the second half. He is suddenly and arbitrarily removed from the screen as the movie completely loses track from the main issue and peters off into a completely different story. One that tries to follow the usual hero versus villain formula where a larger-than-life Bachchan battles a mean and machiavellian Manoj Bajpayee. The issue of Aarakshan is totally forgotten as the film becomes a diatribe against private coaching institutes, with Professor Bachchan providing an inspiring alternative by giving free tutorials in a tabela (cow shed). Needless to say, all his admirers soon join the tabela revolution, including Saif who is reduced to a mere by-stander in the entire show.
Sad. Because as a film on the issue of reservation, Aarakshan was rocking till the first half. But as an omnibus on the travails of India’s education system, it flounders into no-man’s land. Watch it for the intermittent high drama and the gritty performances, scattered as they are.
Amitabh Bachchan, a principal of a premier college in Bhopal, is forced to resign from his post after he makes a controversial statement about India’s reservation policy. Having alienated himself from his well-wishers and students, which includes his dalit protegee, Saif Ali Khan, he tries to rebuild life again. More importantly, he tries to save the Indian education system from unscrupulous sharks like Manoj Bajpayee who want to totally commercialise it and convert it into India’s largest money-making enterprise, courtesy private coaching centres, capitation fee etc.