As a general rule, a movie should only have one main idea or theme; anything more complex than that, and the messages can get muddled. Filmmaker Prakash Jha overreaches with Aarakshan (“Reservation”), his meditation on the failings of the Indian education system.
The title refers to the Indian government’s version of affirmative action, by which a percentage of government jobs and spots at public universities are held for members of the lowest caste. The policy aims to level the playing field for people denied such opportunities in the past, to the chagrin of some in the middle and upper classes who feel the policy denies them opportunities in the present.
In Aarakshan, the policy pits two college friends against one another: Sushant (Prateik), who opposes it, and Deepak (Saif Ali Khan), himself a member of the lowest caste. Caught in the middle is Deepak’s girlfriend, Poorbi (Deepika Padukone), whose father, Professor Anand (Amitabh Bachchan), runs the college they attend.
When Anand expresses his belief that the policy of reservation could have some merit, it gives his opponents on the school board a chance to oust him. He’s replaced by his slimy vice principal, Mithilesh (Manoj Bajpayee), who’s gotten rich by running a chain of tutoring centers on the side. Mithilesh doesn’t show up to teach his college courses, which forces kids to pay to go to his tutoring centers if they want any hope of passing the class. Evil genius.
Despite the title’s nod to the more emotionally charged social issue, Aarakshan is primarily about education’s change from a right to a marketable commodity. Reservation is hardly brought up during the second half of the film, as Anand wages a personal battle against those who would turn his college into a diploma factory.
This is where Jha gets in to trouble. Aarakshan tries to be too many things. It’s a drama about a friendship riven by a controversial policy. It’s a warning against the diminishing quality of education. It’s a story of one man struggling against a corrupt system.
There’s no way to successfully shoehorn so many themes into one movie. Characters are reduced to giving long-winded speeches defending their positions, accompanied by dramatic music. (Wayne Sharpe’s background score is one of the film’s few highlights.) It’s an artless way of making a point, and it inflates the movie’s runtime to a boring 2 hours and 45 minutes.
What’s more unforgivable is that, during all that time, only one character undergoes any development. Sushant realizes that belittling Deepak’s heritage has cost him his two best friends, so he relents his opposition to reservation. Had the movie focused on the three friends, the development would be significant.
But, because of the sweeping societal criticism Jha invokes, it’s notable that none of the movie’s bureaucrats or officials have a change of heart by film’s end. All remain steadfast in their opposition to reservation and their support of for-profit education.
During the climactic showdown, Anand emerges victorious simply because his supporters outnumber those of his opponents on that particular day (and thanks to a little help from a deus ex machina). He gains no converts, and all of the bureaucrats with their bulldozers and eviction notices live to fight another day. The system doesn’t change, nobody has learned anything, and there are no consequences for being on the right or wrong side of the issue.
With significant editing, Jha might have been able to make a statement with Aarakshan. But the movie is too dense and ponderous to provoke any meaningful consideration of educational policies. If the characters within the movie aren’t prompted to change their minds, why should the audience?