Sunday, August 21, 2011

Aarakshan (आरक्षण)

No Love Aaj Kal

Prakash Jha had been responsible for hard hitting films that deal with issues involving society and politics, and last year's Raajneeti was one of those ensemble pieces that struck very close to home. This year with Aarakshan he takes on the caste system in India, one in which many would like not to admit exist, but nonetheless taken other forms such as discrimination, charity, and reservation, depending on which side of the equation one is found standing at.

At first it may seem somewhat logical, where in the context of an education system that Aarakshan is set in, that seats get put aside for the less privilege so that they would get help in the form of a leg up in the educational circle. After all, education is always considered as one of the prime levelers and route out of the poverty circle. Alas any system created by man is always subjected to abuse, and through the narrative we get to experience the various viewpoints held by those disadvantaged by society, those with the silver spoon in their mouths, and those found sidelined by the conditions put forth, especially when good intentions get misread, misinterpreted and exploited.

Aarakshan also touches upon corruption gets set into the education system, where grades do not always matter in admission to a well known institution, but also dependent on how well heeled, or greasy, one's network is. It's rather typical and almost expected that those in power tend to influence and sway opportunities for their friends and family, where nepotism and cronyism rear their ugly heads, and I fear the day should it materialize over here. Already we're seeing reports of how one has to volunteer time and sometimes material in a nice way, in other to secure a passage to good schools, where a parent's celebrity status is notwithstanding nor a guarantee of a shoo-in despite hours put in to perform various chores for the school. It's highly competitive true, but somehow this leaves behind a very bad aftertaste where it's no longer ballot or merit, but what you can do on a consistent basis to warrant a place.

Then there's the notion of how tuition centres spring up left, right and centre in order to take advantage, and make a profit from, the entire educational system which is extremely grade dependent, where a single mark would mean to make, or to break. It's always interesting to see how education is treated as a lucrative business, and how this eventually saps all fun out of learning for acquiring knowledge, but to turn it into nothing more than regurgitation for a piece of paper, where teachers find it advantageous and a conflict of interest arising from doing the minimum in school so that students have to seek external help, and lo and behold, the same instructors become available for hire outside of the school system.

As always with Prakash Jha assembled an ensemble cast to discuss all these issues in his 164 minute film, where we have Big B Amitabh Bachchan playing Professor Prabhakar Anand, the principal of a famous college who is an idealist, with a good heart toward those who are underprivileged, opening his home for free tuition to needy students. Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone reunite from Love Aaj Kal to play lovers again, this time the former as Deepak Kumar, the Professor's protege coming from a lower societal standing, and the latter as the Professor's daughter Poorbi, who is also wooed by Sushant Seth (Prateik Babbar) from the privileged class.

Aarakshan cannot be more schizophrenic though with its tale of two halves, the first which tackles all the caste based issues and in depth discussion of the reservation system in education, where Sushant finds himself ousted from a place in the school because of reservation, and an entire tirade takes place between Sushant and Deepak, who also despised it since his view is that there's no need for charity to be given, and prefers a system of merit instead. Things blow out of proportion especially when the entry of a scheming vice principal Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpai) being the villain you'd love to hate, a shady, dubious character who's the puppet of the education minister and his posse hell bent on ousting and destroying Prabhakar Anand, and found a way to do so through the squabbling Sushant and Deepak.

The second half is where things get a little bit more personal with the Professor trying to get back at those behind his ousting, and the dealing with more micro issues rather than the broad based ones inserted into the first half. In a way we see how fire got to fight with fire, with a fight back with the community against greedy capitalism, and with something I think most can identify with, where our charity gets taken advantage of by those whom we offer help to. This segment allowed plenty of Amitabh Bachchan to show why he's one of the greatest actors of his generation, where the likes of Saif Ali Khan, Prateik Babbar and even Deepika Padukone getting left in his shadow. It became a little bit predictable and melodramatic toward the finale, at times convenient as well with the last minute introduction of a deus ex machina type character to set everything back on an even keel.

While 3 Idiots touched on the education system as well from the students perspective laced with a generous dose of comedy, Aarakshan is the more serious in tone counterpart taking a cold hard look at the system from the educator's point of view with a critique on societal prejudices. It may not be perfect, but it addresses what it set out to and left the door wide open to provoke a response. Recommended!

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