The fuss over Aarakshan

BY hoot| IN Media Practice | 15/08/2011
The problem with Arakshan is not that it is needlessly provocative,but that it is such a disappointing film. .Free speech battles should be fought over more deserving material.
A HOOT comment
The problem with state governments banning a film not seen is that they end up giving it more importance than it deserves. When you do see it you know why the extended censor panel constituted for ‘Aarakshan’ had no problems with it. Why would they object to a film which poses a provocative  issue and then loses focus and becomes a good guy-bad guy Hindi movie?  Any bite that there might have been, offensive to those ranged on either side of the caste-based reservation debate, is diluted when Prakash Jha and his film move away from the subject altogether.
Arankshan became a free speech issue primarily because Mr P L Punia, chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes decided to take anticipatory offence at what the film might offer. Successive prime time TV debates on the subject helped to blow up the issue. After the film was cleared by the censor board, Mr Punia demanded that the board screen it for him. At which point various TV channels got into the act, distorted the facts a bit, and voila, you had a cause célèbre. From there it was short distance to state governments picking up the issue and declaring ban after ban, led by the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh.
At 64 you could argue a nation should be able to handle a creative depiction of a controversial subject. The constitution guarantees free speech but with reasonable restrictions as Mr Punia kept reminding us. Did Aarakshan provoke enough to require the reasonable restrictions? Only if you doubt the maturity of viewing audiences.  When the Mandal commission declares additional reservations for Other Backward Classes, a private college where the story is set explodes with the rage of upper caste students who find their access to jobs and seats in educational institutions curtailed.  Demands have been made for some of the dialogues to be edited but they do not deserve to be. If anything, Jha needed to continue the momentum of the debate he sparks, beyond the first half of the film.
As of now there is no more than one searing dialogue by the Dalit lecturer, played by Saif Ali Khan where he contests another’s assertion that the upper castes do the work and the Dalits have it easy. On the contrary, he says, and goes on to list graphically what it has meant to be a Dalit in India.   The other moment comes when the principled college  principal played by Amitabh Bachchan  bristles at the suggestion that he is casteist, when Khan demands to know what is stand on the Mandal reservations is. These remain live issues. Will they go away if our creative community is not allowed to air them?
The problem with Arakshan is not that it is needlessly provocative. It is that a film maker who has gone on TV discussions to talk of his film day after day for the last week or two has made such a disappointing film. Reservation of seats, and the damage it is presumed to do to the careers of many deserving students is one issue. The undermining of the educational system by mercenary private institutions is another.
Mr Jha takes off by the middle of the film on the evils of coaching centres and stays there till the end. There is much melodrama in between. Amitabh Bachchan—looking too old to play the part of a college principal –and his pretty daughter (Deepika Padukone) becomes the focus of the film, the issues fade into the background. The smarmy vice principal who is the chief villain lacks the nuancing you would expect from Manoj Bajpai. The background music is all wrong, and deafening. Deepak, Saif’s character, goes off to do research abroad, but returns inexplicably to add drama to the last reels of the film. By then he’s forgotten his dialogues on caste injustice.
Our altogether too uncritical media has gone to town making an issue of a film that is a missed opportunity, more than anything else. Free speech battles should be fought over more deserving material.
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