Bollywood director-producer Prakash Jha’s latest film, Aarakshan, released to much hype and controversy in August 2011. Made with a Bollywood A-list star-cast of Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, and Manoj Bajpayee, the film deals with the sensitive subject of reservations in the Indian education system, and predictably brought about a fierce discussion among the various stake-holders in the issue. The film faced bans in various states.

In an interview prior to the release, Jha, who has previously made hard-hitting films likeGangaajal (on the constraints on the police),Damul (on bonded labor) and Apaharan (on kidnappings for hire), suggested that his motivation in picking the topics of his movies was trying to portray the conflicts that arose with changing times.

When did you start working on Aarakshan?

The idea for the movie has been around for a long time, around seven years. I have been reading articles, meeting people, thinking about it, assimilating things …. It was a major social movement and the way it brought about basic fundamental changes in our society (led me to make this movie).

What are some of these changes?

The rise of this new political class of Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar… the politics of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh… in Southern India we already had the domination of the backward castes, but in North India it all happened post 1970s and early 80s. But that is one development. The whole education format changed then, and one can see that, in the post-Mandal Commission-era (post 1980), there has been a rise in the business of education. Because of “Mandalisation,” because of reservation, the number of seats (in education institutes in India) got reduced, increasing competition, and thus there are more specialised coaching institutes (in the country). The capitation fee [school donation] also increased as kids who could not get admission in government institutes went to private medical institutes, where they gave money and got admission. People began to see huge (commercial) opportunities in education.

In an open market economy, which was the case in the post-90s economy, there was a lot of need of specialised managers, engineers, and the like, and suddenly the whole texture of education changed. Until then, kids were studying B.Sc, M.A., B.A., and the like. No one today in India studies pure humanities, or pure physics, or chemistry, or mathematics. They are all going to become engineers, managers, or get some kind of specialised jobs.
These are some of the things I had been observing. And I came across an emotional story of a principal’s life seven years ago. Not a true story. But between me and my co-writer Anjum Rajabali, we felt that yes, here is a structure we can talk about—this story and commercialisation of education, in the backdrop of reservation.

Then I went to (Amitabh) Bachchan and narrated the character and story to him, about seven years ago. And we had been talking for a long time about work together. I thought if he could do it, it would be fantastic. He really liked it too. It took seven years to start working on it. And of course, I had a commitment to do Apaharan (2005) and Rajneeti (2010) in between. Aarakshan was scheduled after Raajneeti.

Did you think the title Aarakshan is loaded with meaning and controversy to begin with?

So let us talk about it. If it is there in our society, then why not talk about it? The more we talk about it the more natural it will become. It is a constitutional truth… isn’t it? We are living in a society which is caste-based, and we cannot deny it. Our polity is caste-based, our thinking is caste-based. So what’s the harm in it?

Is it only India that you see as caste-based?

It is everywhere. Balkanisation, ghettosim, racism… I mean, affirmative action took place in America as well. Didn’t it?

While the movie does not take a stand for or against aarakshan (reservation), what is your personal take on it?

Asking me “Are for reservation or against it?” is useless. The point is, whether you are for it or against it, it is there. Let’s learn to live with it and understand the pain of people who have been bearing it for centuries. Let’s understand the pain of children who are dealing with policies which are caste-based.

By God’s honest truth, I have no opinion on it. I am somebody who has been observing things. If you ask me, in Apaharan, are you for Tabrez Alam’s character (played by Nana Patekar) or for Ajay Shastri’s (played by Ajay Devgn), I can’t be judgemental. I am telling a story. Even if my generation went through the trauma of Mandal Commission, the fact of the matter is, in a society where you have subjugated a large section of people, how do you bring them into the mainstream? How do you create an opportunity for social mobility for them?

The look of Prabhakar Anand (played by Mr. Bachchan) in the movie is based on your real-life look and style. How did you feel about this?

It’s just a look, you know. I cannot look like him. It’s just happened that while talking (about the character and the look of the film) we decided to base his look on me. He grew his own beard for the first time for this role. He had never ever grown his own full beard for any character before. Even in Mohabbatein (Aditya Chopra’s Bollywood film, 2000, where Bachchan had a long-beard look), it was not real. Incidentally, this is also the first time in

his 40-year-old career that he is doing a social issue-based film.

Do the similarities between Prabhakar Anand and Prakash Jha end at this stylisation or is there something more to it?

No, no. It is just this much.

Which Indian state is the film based in?

It is based in a Hindi speaking state. We have shot it in Madhya Pradesh, India, so you may say so.

Many of your earlier works, like Damul, Mritudand, Apaharan, and Gangaajal, were based in Bihar. Was this one consciously not in Bihar?

I did not base Rajneeti in Bihar. It was Bihar only until Apaharan. When I did those movies, the times were like that, society was like that. Now on, (my films) could be based anywhere.

Your films have the country’s political system as an integral part of it. Even you contested election from Bihar in 2004 and 2009. What does this system mean to you?

I am not a politician. I wanted the job of a Member of Parliament. I applied to the people.

They rejected me. That is the end of it. I no more have the ambition of becoming a Member of Parliament.

Was it a disappointment, being rejected when you were working towards the betterment of the people at the grassroots in the state.?

Of course, when you don’t succeed you will be disappointed. But that’s the way you go. If a film doesn’t work, what do you do?

Since Aarakshan talks of real problems, are there any real life episodes in it?

I don’t think there are any real life incidents, but there are several experiences from real life. But nothing major. Like a student getting admitted (to college) on a capitation fee. Or the son of a close friend of mine not getting an admission at Jamia Milia Islamia (one of the top ranked universities in India, situated in Delhi) because there is 51.5% reservation there.

Why the initiative to open a multiplex cinema hall in Patna, Bihar?

I wanted the people there to have the experience of multiplex, and no one was building it there, so I built one.

Why do you think your hard hitting movies (like Apaharan and Gangaajal) have done better than family dramas like Dil Kya Kare and Rahul?

I have no idea about that. I make movies my kind of way. A good story will always work, whether hard-hitting or not. A story has to be told in an engaging manner. When my films are releasing, I am always tense about whether I have been able to tell it in an engaging manner. So I keep my fingers crossed.

What will be your next project?

It will deal with the concept of development in India. I have been working on a script, and we will shoot early next year.

Suchi Sargam is a journalist in India.