Aarakshan: Film Review

Banned in parts of the country, Aarakshan offers a thoughtful look at the competitive frenzy fueling today’s Shining India.

Prakash Jha's hybrid art-house/commercial film may do better in the Indian diaspora than at home due to its controversial topic.

FREMONT, Calif. —Deepak Kumar (the intense Saif Ali Khan) is a bright but low-caste student, who seeks entry into a top-notch private university. When its admission board patronizingly makes it clear to him that a man of such humble means lacks the polish to join their exclusive ranks, Deepak’s angry humiliation drives him to deliver the first of Aarakshan’s many impassioned monologues on the side of justice.

Aarakshan is heavy on speeches, but the film manages to work because director Prakash Jha has cast it wisely, and has clearly put time and care into exploring the nuances of the issue. If this film lacks the emotional power of his last film, Raajneeti (2010), it nevertheless rewards thinking viewers.

The title of Aarakshan refers to India’s “reservation,” or quota, system designed to help lower-caste and tribal/rural Indians to gain entrance to government jobs and public universities. It gets tricky though: If a lower-caste student works hard and succeeds, his or her success might be perceived as due to quotas instead of hard work.

As with America’s affirmative action policies, the practice is controversial and complex — indeed, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, two of India’s largest states, banned the film before its release out of a fear that it would inflame activism on both sides. This means that the hybrid art-house/commercial film may do better in the diaspora than at home, even though it has opened in a relatively modest 90 theaters in North America.

Aarakshanstarts with a reservation theme but segues into a battle between idealistic professor Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) and ruthless entrepreneur Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), who wants to create an empire of pricey for-profit schools and whose motto is “There is no business like education.”

The performances are strong, for the most part. Bachchan excels in roles like this: discerning, principled, ready to roar like a lion. Deepika Padukone and Khan, as his daughter and top student respectively, also convey smarts and backbone; but relative newcomer Prateik Babbar (Mumbai Diaries) comes off as vapid. The villains (led by Bajpayee) are largely over-the-top.

Technical aspects are solid, especially the songs by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, though Wayne Sharpe’s background score is uninspired.

The film’s real impact doesn’t kick in until the second half, when Anand mounts a mini-revolution by offering top-quality tuition for free to students from all walks of society.

Those scenes are inspiring, but the air is let out of its most climactic scene, with a long-telegraphed deus ex machinafeaturing a last-minute appearance by well-known Bollywood legend-turned-Parliamentarian Hema Malini.

Still, given America’s checkered history with affirmative action, and the growing clout of for-profit schools, the message in Aaarakshanis as relevant in the U.S. as it is in the world’s largest democracy.


Opens: Aug. 12 (Reliance BIG Pictures)
Production company: Prakash Jha Productions
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Manoj Bajpayee, Prateik Babbar
Director/producer: Prakash Jha
Screenwriters: Prakash Jha, Anjum Rajabali
Executive producer: Firoz A. Nadiadwala
Director of photography: Sachin Krishn
Production designer: Jayant Deshmukh
Music: Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, Loy Mendonsa
Background score: Wayne Sharpe
Costume designer: Priyanka Mundada
Editor: Santosh Mandal
Unrated, 165 minutes