All Smoke, No Fire
DIRECTOR: Prakash Jha
CAST: Amitabh Bachchan, Manoj Bajpayee, Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone
After Rajneeti, where Prakash Jha showed he could glam up politics and make it box-office worthy, comes Aarakshan, on caste and reservation in the higher education system in the country, and the ills that beset it.
Prabhakar Anand (Bachchan), the idealistic principal of a Bhopal college, has spent a lifetime spreading his knowledge amongst the young people he loves. This is not a man who asks what your surname is. Nor does he want to know what your father does. And he is the least interested in your parents' income. He's the kind of educator who is now becoming increasingly rare, being replaced by canny, shrewd Mithilesh Singh (Bajpayee), who doesn't have the time to take his classes because he's so busy trying to push expensive private coaching shops instead.
And that's precisely the problem with Aarakshan. It starts off by vigorously flying the Dalit flag in the shape of Deepak (Khan), who is shown struggling to find a job on merit, rather than caste and sifarish. It's the kind of struggle we've seen several times, but not really framed in this those-that-carry-night-soil vs the rest of India way. This is the story the film sets out to tell. What we get is the descent of the film into the easier conflict of good, purely-for-the-love-of-it education vs bad cash-fuelled coaching-led cramming, and an even easier resolution involving craven politicians and strong, spiritually-connected trustees. In the second half, Khan and the whole Dalit thread he represents practically vanish, surfacing in only the most facile manner, leaving the field to a thundering Bachchan-Bajpayee face-off.
In between are a couple of characters who seem to be there only because you can't have a hero without a girl and a pal by his side, can you? There's not much that the Hindi-challenged Padukone does, other than looking nicely unglamourous except for her parlour-ready curls. And I really couldn't figure out what Prateik Babbar is about here: how does a student become friends enough with a teacher to march off to his home with mithai when a job comes through, without even the hint of a back story? You could dismiss that as just an overlooked plot-point, but overall Prateik manages to come off less than impressive. Weak acting or ineffectual characterisation? Or both?
Which leaves Bachchan and Bajpayee, both consummate actors, both orators of skill. We can see that the film makes them more cipher than character, Bajpayee more than Bachchan, but they hold us, these two. After Viruddh, a role Bachchan filled out beautifully, this was another which had similar potential: Principal Prabhakar Anand is given grand speeches, but not enough heft. Ditto for Bajpyee, who stays with us after the movie is over.
Aarakshan could have been a well-marshalled case of caste-and-conscience, but it turns out to be more light-weight cash-and-carry.