Film Review: Aarakshan

Directed by: Prakash Jha

Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Manoj Bajpayee and Prateik Babbar

WARNING: Review contains spoilers, if you do not wish to know what happens, please revisit my review after seeing the film.

All pictures courtesy of:

Sometimes, we all need to escape the daily reality that is life and for me, Hindi cinema is one way to forget all my woes and troubles and become absorbed into the cosmos that the film presents. This week saw London rocked by riots and a sense of lawlessness, something that I never thought I would encounter in my lifetime, having been born and raised in the city and being a proud Londoner. As the riots are quashed and the inevitable blame game and analysis goes into overdrive, not only did I need to see a film to distract me from the events of the week but also I wanted a film that would provide food for thought; a mindless comedy or masala entertainer was not the order of the day – I needed something that would provoke thought and engage the heart at the same time.

As if hearing my call, Aarakshan was exactly what the doctor ordered – after recently watching Raajneeti again (liking it even more upon a second viewing), Prakash Jha’s latest offering may have garnered controversy before it even released but I have found that when reputable directors like Jha or a Vishal Bhardwaj are placed in the midst of a media frenzy, it is often the quality of their work that speaks for them rather than attempting to appease snarky journalists. The screening itself was quite eventful – an interesting debate erupted during the interval from the other side of the cinema (which everyone eavesdropped on, not just me!) and then a leaky ceiling that I was sat under gave way 5 minutes after I had moved away from it. That everyone jumped out of their seats and then carried on watching the film said it all – nothing was going to spoil the film for us!

I really liked Aarakshan. I thought it did take a bit of time to get into its stride but when it does start running, the momentum of the film is unassailable and draws the viewer in with no respite until the intermission. I did feel the second half faltered slightly into a To Sir With Love tribute amongst other things but the pay off arrives later on and the script and story of the film become as one and impress their point upon the audience in the same way Prabhakar does on his detractors in Aarakshan. There were two things I didn’t like about the film – the first was the two songs near the start of the film which are good but serve no real purpose (unlike Saans Albeli which was beautifully realised and placed) and the second was a few individual scenes where the film seemed to meander. I mention these as for the most part Aarakshan is dedicated to presenting a balanced argument over the idea of reservation in Indian education and largely succeeds. I also liked how the film was able to ramp up the drama in a moment’s notice and sustain the viewer’s attention, delving into dense topics with a clear cut clarity so that even someone with no idea of the issues surrounding the film can form their own opinion.

Technically, the film is marvellous with matter of fact cinematography and the editing, when successful, keeps the energy of the film buzzing. I liked the background score which was quite dramatic but really contributed in underscoring the high tension of some scenes and presenting a sound that is in total synergy with the film. Styling wise, everyone looks good with nehru collars and scarves abound and though Deepika looks gorgeous in everything she wears (the kohlapuri chappals, patterned kurtis, the muted colour pallette), the styling is more understated than anything and this works firmly in the film’s favour as it is more substance than style and for a film like Aarakshan, that is how it should be.

Performance wise, there were surprises. First off, Saif surprised me with the intensity and effort he brought to the role – he actually underplays it very well and gives a measured performance. At first, I thought he didn’t really have any scope to perform but on reflection, realise his less is more is not easy to pull off and though he may not hit the mark on the odd occasion, the majority of the time, Saif delivers the goods  and a good performance. Deepika however, is a bit more uneven – sometimes, she seems to be surging forward by showing spirit and then moments later, goes back two steps into her comfort zone, seeming almost absent from proceedings. It is a shame as she does get a few performance orientated scenes where she could make an impact but instead, underwhelms. It seems her good moments are more by accident than design. Prateik has very little to do in the film and phones it in which does him no harm – one suspects his role has been edited down but having said that, he does what is asked of him and gives no cause for complaint. Manoj Bajypayee is superb as the evil money grabbing professor, exuding a menace and darkness that is the perfect foil to Bachchan’s principled Prabhakar. It would be very easy for Bajpayee to go overboard and into caricature but he manages to control himself and though the character never feels three dimensional, it is abundantly clear what he is meant to represent and that is down to Bajpayee’s performance.

Without a doubt though, Aarakshan belongs to Amitabh Bachchan who gives yet another powerhouse performance, creating a character that is very real, believable and likeable. Whether it is his stern will to adhere to his principles no matter what, or to uphold the sanctity of being a teacher, as Prabharkar, Bachchan not only drives the film and the story forward but adds a gravitas and class to it that elevates the film above being too preachy or feeling like a long sermon – his delivery of the Hindi dialogues is faultless and there are some impressive scenes here – the scene where he calls an assembly is electrifying and feels like an acting masterclass as Bachchan not only has all the extras but the viewers too hanging on his every word. I also loved how he reflected the character’s internal struggle, taking insults from Bajpayee with a dignity and allowing the other actor to shine without compromising his own performance. Essentially, Bachchan gives every inch of his being into the film (as he always does) and as a result, Aarakshan works big time and oozes conviction and class with every frame.

Having gone to see the film to take my mind off things, there was a degree of verisimilitude that I had not expected (though in hindsight, it seems silly) there were scenes of riots and then that scene where Prabhakar addresses the mob with calmness and composure that many a politician in the real world could learn from. In terms of my views on reservation, I found the argument presented by the film – that it is attitudes and the system that needs to adapt and perhaps introduce free education so that those from less privileged backgrounds can fulfill their potential – was a valid one and in any case, the debate the film raises is a worthy and one that deserves to prominence.

I would recommend Aarakshan because not only is it an intelligent film but also an entertaining one too – this is not entertainment for the sake of it but a film that that entertains and educates (no pun intended!) at the same time and engages one’s mind and heart. I also will be seeing this again on DVD and telecast as I think there are many layers to the film that would make it stand up to repeat viewings. Perhaps the fact that the cinema ceiling was about to cave in and people still stayed till the end of the film speaks volumes (all of us in that audience were mad) – had it been a lesser film, I have no doubt everyone would have walked out. Worth a watch.

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