Film Review: Aarakshan

This Hindi-language drama, revolving around the controversy over India&#8217;s <i>aarakshan</i> (reservation) laws, which established quotas for admitting disadvantaged students who fail to meet ordinary standards, focuses more on issues than the spect

The specifics of India’s controversial reservation laws, which affect admissions standards in state-run universities, are probably unfamiliar to most Americans. But change the word “reservation” to “affirmative action” and the issues come into focus. Is setting aside almost half of all seats in state-run universities for promising students who don’t meet admissions standards because of the low level of instruction at the grammar and high schools most poor and “backward-caste” children attend a progressive strategy designed to level the playing field? Or is it a misguided charity program that penalizes high-performing students whose families happen to be financially well-off? The debate is so heated, the film has been banned in parts of India.

The issues in Aarakshan play out through two sets of triangular relationships. The first comprises Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan), the principal of S.T.M., a highly regarded college; his protégé Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan), a fledgling teacher; and politically connected professor Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee). Though S.T.M. is exempt from the new, stricter reservation laws by virtue of being a private institution, Anand has always reached out to promising disadvantaged students…students like Kumar, who would never have gotten into S.T.M. on his grades alone, and whom Anand not only admitted but coached until he was up to speed. Singh opposes reservations on the grounds that they drag down the overall level of instruction by forcing professors to teach to the least accomplished students in their classes, but his convictions are also tinged with opportunism. His appointment to S.T.M.’s board was engineered by the Minister of Education, whose own expensively educated nephew was denied admission.

The second trio is composed of Anand’s daughter, Poorbi (Deepika Padukone), who attends S.T.M., and her two suitors, Deepak and Shushant Seth (Prateik Babbar), a handsome, good-looking classmate from a wealthy family who’s devastated to learn that between reservations and his average grades, he can’t get into the graduate program he wanted to attend.

Anand is an idealist, but Singh knows how to play politics, and as quotas become a hot-button issue that taps into deep-rooted prejudices, Anand is at a disadvantage. The knowledge that he’s in the right is cold comfort when even his own wife and daughter think he’s in the wrong.

Director/co-writer Prakash Jha is one of a handful of mainstream Indian filmmakers who regularly focus on political and social issues, and has made movies about bonded labor (which turns lower-caste workers into virtual slaves), the oppression of women, caste-based discrimination, political corruption, and police officers whose loyalties lie with crime lords rather than the people they’re supposed to be protecting. But rather than alienating ordinary moviegoers, he sticks just close enough to Bollywood conventions that his films aren’t relegated to inconsequential art-house status. Here, he cast big stars like Bachchan and Khan, and cut down the number of musical numbers while still hiring the powerhouse composers Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa to supply the tunes. And while most of the songs accompany montages (like the melancholy “Kaun Si Dor,” which is accompanied by shots of the protagonists as they grapple with the way reservations have wrought havoc with their expectations, friendships and family relationships), the rousing “Mauka” (which means “chance,” as in “opportunity”), which establishes the movie’s underlying theme and is reprised at the end, gets a full-blown production number. It’s a brief respite from the knotty drama, which resists easy resolution.