'Aarakshan'

Prakash Jha's socially conscious meller "Aarakshan" concerns the quotas determining India's "reservation" system, whereby a percentage of public university admissions and government posts are earmarked for the lowest caste (Dalit) in order to redress centuries of equality.

Prakash Jha’s socially conscious meller “Aarakshan” concerns the quotas determining India’s “reservation” system, whereby a percentage of public university admissions and government posts are earmarked for the lowest caste (Dalit) in order to redress centuries of equality. Yet while its questions of affirmative action and charter schools could theoretically resonate with American auds, the pic’s corny theatrics, talky, preachy approach and taxing 164-minute running time will not translate. Pic sparked a political controversy in India that, along with its stellar troupe of thesps, might spell respectable domestic B.O.

Jha sets his drama around a prestigious private college in Bhopal that becomes a battleground of class warfare when the privileged realize the reservation system may cost them status and jobs. Prabhakar Anand (played with imposing dignity by Amitabh Bachchan) serves as the revered head of this premier institution, a touchstone of academic excellence regardless of caste (he tutors under-advantaged students for free on the side).

Anand’s daughter Poorbi (Deepika Padukone); her Dalit boyfriend, Deepak (Saif Ali Khan); and their upper-class friend Sushant (Prateik Babbar) form a popular threesome on campus, prompting a spirited musical number with crowd participation and a one-on-one romantic ditty that sends Poorbi and Deepak through several changes of clothing and scenery. As the mood grows more somber, the musical interludes taper off, no longer performed onscreen but pensively played on the soundtrack.

Serious topicality looms when Dalit youngsters rally at the college gates, celebrating a Supreme Court decision on quotas, polarizing the students inside. Deepak angrily sides with the demonstrators while Sushant morphs into a militant defender of the privileged. Meanwhile, Prabhakar’s tenure comes increasingly under fire from the elite, unable to bribe their children’s way into the institution, and from the mushrooming industry of education-for-profit tutoring centers.

Jha casts Manoj Bajpai as the marvelously loathsome villain Mithilesh Singh, appointed vice principal by the governing board as the first step toward ousting Prabhakar. The utterly unprincipled Singh sets out to systematically destroy Prabhakar by turning his every generous act into a source of humiliation, costing him his house, position and reputation.

Though Prabhakar’s refusal to compromise alienates everyone at first, he maintains a steadfast insistence on teaching, in contrast with the spectacle of the avaricious forces allied against him; the climactic showdown finds him fending off bulldozers, armed police and shady politicians. Yet the visual excitement Jha generates is severely mitigated here by the good guys’ exaggerated fearless stances, the swelling, triumphal score and the conjuring of a deus ex machina.

Aarakshan

India

Production

A Reliance Entertainment release of a Basic Industries Group presentation of a Prakash Jha production. Produced by Jha, Firoz A. Nadiadwala. Directed by Prakash Jha. Screenplay, Anjum Rajabali, Jha.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Sachin Krishn; editor, Santosh Mandal; music, Wayne Sharpe; musical directors, Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, Loy Mendonsa; art director, Jayant Deshmukh; costume designer, Priyanka Mundada; sound (Dolby Digital), Jitendra Chaudhary; choreographer, Jayesh Pradhan. Reviewed at Big Cinemas Manhattan, New York, Aug. 10, 2011. Running time: 164 MIN. (I: 83 MIN., II: 81 MIN.)

With

Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Prateik Babbar, Manoj Bajpai, Darshan Jariwala. (Hindi dialogue)
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