Prakash Jha’s new film “Aarakshan” (trans. “Reservation”) has been banned in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh. The fear is that the film, which purports to be about reserved quotas in educational institutions, will inflame lower caste viewers and then there will be riots, looting and mayhem. This was so not necessary. No one who watches the entire film will have the energy to riot once it’s over. The damn thing goes on for 3 hours. Maybe a little more. Since Maharashtra has not banned the movie, at 9.45am, I was standing with 20 bored cops outside the cinema. I was there because I had to review the movie (I keep vowing I will never, ever review another Bollywood movie and then I find myself saying yes). The cops were there to preserve the peace between me, the chap selling tickets and the 15-odd kids who trooped in at 9.47am for a 9.50am show of “Aarakshan”. Clearly, they were bunking classes. This is almost as poignant an irony as the fact that a film about education is, well, stupid.
“Aarakshan” is a rubbish movie and entirely unworthy of any controversy. Fortunately, since I’ve had to write a review, much of my grrr-ness is out of my system so you’re spared a review. There are certain things, however, that I do need to rant about. Brief synopsis of the film’s plot. The principal of a high school faces all sorts of harassment when he says he is in favour of the Supreme Court of India ruling that decrees all government schools and colleges must reserve seats for backward castes. This leads to the principal getting fired and being replaced by an unscrupulous colleague who is only interested in making money from students by teaching them nothing in school and forcing them to take private tuitions. It ends up becoming a face off between the old and new principal’s philosophies about education. In case you were wondering, the old guy wins.
Now, on to my rants.
1. How unwaveringly Hindu is Jha’s vision of India! This is shocking enough for me to use an exclamation mark without irony or sarcasm. This man has not a single Muslim, Christian or Sikh in the film, not even as a minor character. There’s an idol of Saraswati that gleams whitely and people bow their heads before a Ganesha and this is supposed to be ok because they are the gods of secular stuff like learning and wisdom (respectively). No biggie that they’re Hindu gods, clearly. Plus, the saviour ends up to be a woman who leaves the life of “rishi” (Hindu ascetic) in Rishikesh. This is like something out of a right-wing Hindu fantasy. Very disconcerting.
2. While the movie is immensely boring, it has done its damndest to be politically correct in its treatment of caste and discrimination, which is a hot potato subject. Once “Aarakshan” was cleared by the Indian censor board, how is it ok for individual state governments to start whining and demanding more changes? This is ridiculous. How many times is a film supposed to suffer changes? Also, the fear is that the portrayal of lower caste communities and characters will incense viewers. If anything, Jha and his writing partner Anjum Rajaballi had the right idea: the lower caste characters don’t use force and mindless violence to make their point. They outwit their adversaries, they get higher scores; it’s a victory of the mind. It’s another matter that Jha and Rajaballi couldn’t write the story or dialogues in a way that didn’t seem naive, stilted and trite.
3. Why is it ok to show upper caste people as idiotic twats? This is not to say that characters belonging to upper castes should be shown as sparkly clean and charming. But why is it that people are either oily and vile or morally upright and winsome (well, winsome by Jha’s estimation anyway). Jha’s upper caste characters are mostly pronounced bigots. They’re selfish, primitively conservative and it’s obscene the kind of crap they spout. Sadly, there may be some people in India who think similarly but I doubt anyone, particularly from middle and upper middle classes, would so carelessly and proudly make casteist statements. Why on earth can we not do subtlety in our writing? Why are we so scared that if the bad guy has even a smidgeon of grey in him, our audiences will go over to the villain’s side?
4. Why is it that the only things that are taught in “Aarakshan” are maths and physics? The argument that these are the subjects for which kids actually take tuition in real life doesn’t hold since everything about “Aarakshan” is unreal. You can tell quite clearly that the school that Jha has shown is a dream school; the slums, painted in happy yellows, look like something painted for a postcard; we’re expected to believe Saif Ali Khan is in his early twenties. So clearly, realism isn’t the guiding principle for this film. Why then aren’t the humanities subjects worth teaching?
5. There’s a song titled “Mauka Dede” in “Aarakshan”. The lyrics are a barely disguised promise to a woman that if she gives the guy a chance, he can get a hard-on going. Aren’t you relieved that the message of equal opportunity and speedy erections can be communicated by a single song?