Aarakshan is an extremely ambitious drama (in the TRUE sense of the word) that aims to cover almost everything that is wrong with the Indian education system - from the infamous quota system to the corrupt education boards to inevitable student politics to the illogical economics of private coaching classes over regular college/school education. Needless to mention, the film therefore almost hits a running length of 3 long, intense hours.
As writers, much like documentary filmmakers, Prakash Jha and Anjum Rajabali definitely feel a lot for the subjects that they invest passionately in. The sincerity behind their 'storytelling' can be sensed, so much so that much like Raajneeti, plenty of scenes are conceptualized as sermons and told to us in as direct a manner as possible and by the most authoritative figures and voices imaginable. When you have actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan and Manoj Bajpai on board, why wouldn't you cram in as many scenes as possible? The talent on display, after all, must contribute as much as they can to the task at hand. No?
As expected, the writers have chosen the most entertaining way to get their point across - by smartly combining the'reservation' issue with the 'coaching class' issue and, voila, there's your hard-hitting commercial film of 2011. Or then again, maybe not. The most entertaining way is often not the most effective and authentic way. The filmmakers seem to be aware of this, but are completely unapologetic about their loud and over-the-top style. No harm in that, really, but when you set out to deal with a sensitive issue like the mistreatment of scheduled cast and tribes as against the recent reservation privileges that have been granted to them, nothing is as simple as just black or white. Considering the sheer size of this country and the variety of population that inhabits it, no bill ever passed, no matter how much it is meant for the eventual advancement of true democracy, will ever merit a simple right v/s wrong argument. The ripples are bound to be felt by many, whichever side they're on. Also, ours is one of the few countries where a majority (in pure statistical terms) is often referred to as the true 'minority'. The underdogs. And everybody loves an underdog story.
So here we have Mithilesh Singh (Bajpai) standing in the red corner representing us general boring folks, for whom marks and tuition classes are a way of life and not a crime. And in the white corner, from the wastelands of underdog India, we have suppressed teacher Deepak Kumar (Saif) representing the tough-as-nails underprivileged opposition that are ready to take the fight to snooty greedy us. The writers begin to get a bit greedy too. There's Sushant (Prateik), who is a character solely put in this film to constantly have a change of heart faster than Kalmadi's brain changes buttons. He represents both corners at different points of time, hence resembling a candy strip by the end of the film. Then we have the principal of STS (of course) college, Dr Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan), who is basically God without the halo and powers. Just a decent, good-hearted politically correct man who is too good to be true. By the second half, he is forced to take a side because Bajpai turns out to be the reincarnation of evil. There's Poorbi (Deepika), who is the principal's daughter and Kumar's love interest. Also, by far the most intriguing character in the film is that of Yashpal Sharma, a tabela owner who is the principal's most ardent fan and admirer. Interesting, no? So many paths already, and so much potential. Jha, very obviously, realizes that and squeezes out every ounce of juice he can from the delicious crisscross of intersecting ambitions and personalities. In the process, he readily decides to forego his editing scissors at home, clearly painting out a idealistic crowd-pleasing story that pits good v/s bad. The eternal formula. Therefore, material has to be rushed through in order to cover all aspects of the problems, resulting in half-baked characters and non-existent transitions. The songs are a violent distraction to proceedings and the production design and cinematography are tacky, to say the least - majorly so during the dramatic rain sequences. The scale of the film is impressive, as was with Raajneeti and one can't help but wonder if the assistant directors have turned into masters of crowd control.
With his considerable dialogue-writing skills though, Jha rescues the film from Bhandarkar-category and manages to equip Amitabh and Saif Ali Khan with legendary speeches that rival Nana Patekar's in Krantiveer. He recognizes a vast majority of his audience (pardon the pun), and evidently plays to the gallery. There are, as there should be in most Prakash Jha films, poignant moments of substance: especially when Deepika points out the irony of the situation where the very bill that has been passed to encourage equality has now created the greatest sector divide in independent India's history.
The heart, soul and voice of the film is Mr Bachchan, undoubtedly and he makes you want to hold his hand and pat his back. He is the face of reason and justice and he plays it to perfection. Saif Ali Khan more than holds his own against Bachchan, inspite of his limited screen time, and delivers an understated yet power-packed performance that goes a long way in sealing his acting prowess after a lean spell. Also, the moustache suits him. Bajpai is at his menacing best, and Jha seems to have taken it upon himself to resurrect this talented actor's career. The rest of the cast do what they're supposed to. In one of the biggest surprises, Prateik delivers one of the most confused performances of the year. An actor cannot lose his abilities overnight, hence, it may have a lot to do with the hurried direction, much like Patekar's character in Raajneeti.
All in all, considering the topic at hand, Aarakshan is still a safe film that takes a loud stand, creatively and theoretically. It has its moments, though disjointed, and could still turn out to be one of the rare cases of simplistic but smart presentation - where the filmmakers show the audience exactly what they want to see. And as many know - being able to predict the climax of a film is not always a bad thing.
- Reel Reptile