The film barely offers an honest debate on caste-based reservation; instead the plot merely promotes private education, mixed with an unhealthy dose of charity, individual morality and traditionalism, writes SAQIB KHAN
Bollywood’s latest churn-out, Aarakshan, directed by Prakash Jha has raised furore in some parts of the country, with some State governments (namely, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh) going all out and deciding to ban the screening of the film, even demanding cuts in the film.
A film touted as one that dealt with issues surrounding OBC reservations, some argued that the film has portrayed certain caste groups in poor light. However, when you watch the film you'll find that this issue is hardly its centre-point and that there has been an attempt to balance both sides of the argument in the limited space provided to the subject of reservation in the film (with more space provided to the anti-reservationist standpoint or view, brought out subtly). Basically, Aarakshan offers the story of a personal battle to reform the education system, where the approach and solutions presented are rather problematic.
Firstly, the title of the film is not justified by the film's plot and story. It is only in the first half of the film that the issue of reservation is directly dealt with. Even there it can be seen that there has been attempt to balance both sides of the argument in which the anti-reservationist standpoint has been somewhat given more space.
Yes, if we take into account the main characters of the film, there are more numbers of them against/who raise doubts about the reservation policy, and seem to express concern for “meritorious students”. So right from the staunch anti-reservationist vice-principal (Manoj Bajpai, who later becomes principal of the college), the lead actress (Deepika Padukone), anti-reservation youth led by the college student (Prateik Babbar) to the mother of lead actress; the list of characters who take an anti-reservation stance is long. This approach also seems to be the reason for depicting an upper caste meritorious student “suffering because of reservation” (the one who speaks in formal Hindi!). Meanwhile one of the main protagonists of the film, the principal of the private college (Amitabh Bachchan), can be at best said to keep a fairly apolitical stance, s one who only upholds and is concerned with tradition and discipline.
In the second half, Aarakshan meanders into what can be termed at best as the story of a personal battle. Though it does talk about the mushrooming of private coaching centres, the issue of reservation takes a backseat and the personal charisma of the ousted principal (Amitabh) becomes the focus. So there is a renewed attempt to reform the education system (in terms of free coaching and helping of students), but what we get to see are acts of charity, moral goodness of oneself and discipline with a strong flavour of traditionalism (seen in repeated scenes of touching of feet, unquestionable authority of parents over children, starting of classes in cowshed, etc.)
Given the college portrayed in the film is one run by a Private Trust, predictably, there is no attempt to talk about issues such as public education and the role of the state in ensuring education and coaching (if needed) for all. So what we get to see in the end is one set of private institutions being replaced by another private body led by the charismatic ex-principal (Bachchan). This emphasis on charisma also plays a key role in ‘change of heart’ among sections of population which help him to finally win his personal battle against the unscrupulous principal (Bajpai) and also succeed in his effort to reform the education system.
To sum up, it can be said that the title Aarakshan seems to be quite misleading as the film is fairly removed from the issue; at best it just touches it from a very superficial standpoint and reiterates the often-repeated arguments propounded by the anti-reservationist lobby in recent times.
The film's approach to reform the education system is also quite problematic. This is the approach where moral dimensions, charity and personal integrity of an individual play a key role. Added to this is the fact that what this change stands for: another private educational body.
Thus, in the garb of reservation, what Aarakshan depicts is a miniscule discussion of the core issue with - subtly - more space to anti-reservationist position; and what instead it strongly puts forth and promotes, as a solution, is a private education system laced with charity and moral righteousness of an individual, mixed of course with traditionalism.
(The author is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences)