AARAKSHAN. Director: Prakash Jha. Players: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Manoj Bajpayee, Prateik Babbar. Music: Shanker Ehsaan Loy. Theatrical release (Reliance).

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For dwelling on topical, politically charged themes, few Indian filmmakers have attracted as much attention in recent years as Prakash Jha. Gangaajal(2003) borrowed from the true story of a wave of police brutality in response to frustration over their powerlessness in Jha’s native Bihar. Apaharan (2005) again returned to gangland Bihar after a wave of sensational political kidnappings swept the region. Rajneeti(2010), Jha’s biggest box office hit, also attracted attention for plotting a powerful political matriarch that drew parallels to Sonia Gandhi. With Aarakshan, Jha turns his attention to the hot button topic of affirmative action, in favor of the so-called scheduled castes, ordered by Indian courts in recent years.

Enlisting Bachchan in one of his most pivotal role in recent years, Aarakshan is well-made and well-intentioned, but it rushes to get to the precipice and then pulls back just when it most urgently shouldn’t.

The jewel in Jha’s crown here is definitely Bachchan, who plays Prabhakar Anand, an educator with a stellar reputation. Anand’s teaching methods—he himself is an ace mathematician—promote traditional learning without regard for a student’s family background or means to pay. The extremely high rates of matriculation from Anand’s school inevitably draws attention from the pay-for-play-minded, scheming Mithilesh Singh (Bajpayee), who connives his way into becoming the school’s vice principal. After a local court issues an edict for schools to integrate students from traditionally disadvantaged groups, Singh exploits the controversy into having Anand removed as the school head.

Undeterred, Anand sets up shop across the street and starts a brand new school.

In the central role, Bachchan’s screen presence is both forceful and reverent. This is best put into focus in a couple of very long shots where Anand and Singh silently stare from their respective ivory towers a couple of hundred feet apart. Singh gazes with a sinister sneer while Anand remains cool and non-judgemental—at such distance and even spectacled, his eyes sparkle only with impish curiosity of one who would much rather be teaching instead of becoming the center of a vast controversy.

Boosting Bachchan, there is a wonderful cast of supporters. The interplay between Bachchan’s protagonist and Bajpayee’s antagonist is drawn out sharply and both are stunning in their deliveries. There is Khan as Deepak Kumar, one of Anand’s former students and math whiz who returns from America to help his traditionally disadvantaged community join the mainstream. Deepak’s attachment to Anand’s daughter Poorbi (Padukone) puts their restrained love to test in a battle of wills pitting Anand against just about everyone else. There is also Sushant (Babbar), an upper class scion who undergoes an awakening of sorts on his own.

Shankar Ehsan Loy are known for delivering finger-snapping, bouncy musical scores (Dil Chahta Hai, Bunty Aur Bubli, Rock On!). Here they run counter with a laid back score.  “Kaun Si Dor” is a memorable classical vocal piece by Pandit Channulal Mishra and Shreya Ghoshal. To get the 75-year old Mishra on a soundtrack is a milestone indeed. Also notable is “Roshanee,” a groundswell thematic hymn crooned by Shankar.

Affirmative action in India is one of the last remaining taboos in Hindi movies. “Polite” Indian society frequently shuns any discussion related to the social inclusion of the groups that Gandhi collectively labeled “Children of God.” For raising that bar, Jha deserves a great deal of credit. What Jha needs to be figuratively scolded for, however, is not having Anand formally commit to either side. While the neutral ground is fertile and covered with thought provoking moments, combined they are not enough to ignite a core conviction. Anand’s “punishment” —him being removed from his respected post—turns on a mere misunderstanding in the media. With a slightly more judicious treatment and forceful point of view, Jha could have turned Aarakshan into a powerful measuring stick on a charged subject.

EQ: B

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