Aarakshan sweeps in bold and full-throttle into the rocky terrain, but post popcorn-time, abandons the issue itself. Bizarre as it sounds, the first half earnestly pursues the reservation topic showing us how students, teachers, parents, politicians are divided on the issue; how friends turn enemies overnight due to their take on the matter; how it transforms into an 'Us vs. Them' battle.
This is explored within the confines of a highly regarded college principled by Dr Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan). He is a man of admirable integrity, refusing to grant his daughter a single grace mark that would get her into medical school. He doesn?t think again while rusticating the son of a trustee or firing his favourite professor for getting into a scuffle. Naturally, his list of supporters is matched by those he makes uncomfortable. And when he refuses to grant a minister?s son admission, his list of detractors escalates.
When the 27 per cent reservation quota for backward castes in government institutions is upheld by the Supreme Court, it creates a ripple of celebration on one side, and angst on the other. Prabhakar doesn?t take a stand, even when directly asked whose side he?s on. He has been quietly coaching underprivileged children on his own, and is vehemently against teachers running coaching classes that favour the rich.
The announcement of the reservation has a deep impact on the institution, even though it?s a private one. And when Prabhakar does take a stand, it costs him dear.
Producer, director and co-writer Prakash Jha needs to be lauded for taking a clear stand. You may or may not agree with the thoughts of central character Prabhakar, but you must appreciate that through this character, Jha makes the film?s leanings clear. It?s such a rare thing ? not to sit on the fence. And then, just as you?re fully immersed in this concern, the film changes tracks. Just like that.
The second half is a gripping one ? only, it has nothing to do with 'Aarakshan' (reservation). It becomes a battle between treating education as a business and teaching as a noble profession that moulds lives. The battle is very valid, and very immersing; it?s just that the viewer feels out of sorts as the first half had prepared them for a dialogue on reservation.
Throughout the film, Prabhakar?s character is the only one that remains stoic and consistent. The others transform like this and like that without any justification. For example, a student who says the caste that will benefit from reservation is fit only for menial jobs has a turnaround in a heartbeat. How? A professor who is pro-reservation suddenly feels sorry ? the reason explained doesn?t justify the transformation.
The film has other questions to answer. Why does the film always put underprivileged and weak (zarooratmand aur kamzor) students in one bracket? They are mutually exclusive. The road to the finale is superb, but the ending itself solves nothing.
Amitabh Bachchan?s performance is incredibly compelling. Many may point that he has played the disciplinarian too often; that this is another such role. But Bachchan makes Prabhakar?s idealism aspirational. It?s magical, really; how Bachchan makes this old-worldly character so hip.
Deepika, Saif and Prateik are dependably superb. Partly the fault of the cardboard characterization, Manoj Bajpayee?s Mithilesh Singh comes across as a caricature of a villain complete with the evil grin. Darshan Jariwala and Tanvi Azmi light up the screen with strong, subdued performances.
The superb dialogue crackles with conviction at all times. The songs (except the incongruous Mauka) and background score are great fun.
Aarakshan is not afraid to take a stand and Jha?s sure-footed storytelling is a delight, but what?s the point if the issue itself is abandoned mid-way? Still as a film, it remains highly watchable for the performances and the gripping, relevant story. Just don?t expect a real, layered dialogue on the controversial topic of reservation. Other than that, worth a watch!
Verdict: Three stars