Remember how Jerry Maguire typed out a Mission Statement in the middle of the night when he couldn't sleep because of bad pizza or an epiphany. He makes a case against commercialisation of sport, loses his job and has nothing to hold on to but just his ideals.
Cameron Crowe was lucky to embark on a rather simple issue there. Replace Sport with Education. In India. Add the extremely flammable issue of reservation. Then, caste politics. How do you make a film that is treading into a volatile territory rigged with landmines?
Writers Prakash Jha and Anjum Rajabali set up the debate through the key players in a private university called Shakuntala Thakral Mahavishvavidyalaya managed by an idealistic disciplinarian Anand Prabhakar (Amitabh Bachchan may just win every Best Actor award for this role next year). Anand teaches underprivileged students irrespective of their caste free of cost at home and regularly considers deserving cases for admission on the basis of economic background.
It's a nice touch that the University clerk's second-class scoring son is not a Dalit but a Pandit and it is a Dalit (Saif Ali Khan is convincing as Deepak Kumar) who happens to be the University topper. Anand's daughter Poorbi (Deepika Padukone, surprisingly effective) represents the love and friendship between the hardworking Deepak and the carefree, rich, upper caste kid Sushanth (Prateik Babbar in a career-worst).
The ‘Us versus Them' divide surfaces with the Supreme Court's judgment on reservation as opportunists (led by the Vice Principal Mithilesh slyly played by Manoj Bajpai) turn friends into enemies.
For Deepak, his identity is a sensitive issue. It's a story that dates back thousands of years, one he is reminded of every day. He has made it through hard work fighting the odds. He is pro-reservation.
When Sushanth realises he will not get admission in a government college to do the mass communication course he wanted to because of the quota system, he's bitter. He is anti-reservation.
“Earn it through hard work,” is Sushanth's first argument. Deepak reminds him of the hard work his people have done over centuries.
“You people are too scared to compete,” Sushanth responds. Deepak tells him there are no avenues open to them to compete.
“Why don't you earn it through merit,” asks Sushanth. Deepak tells him they would love to but… “In a race, the starting line should be the same. If you started from the same place as we did, it would have been a fair race.”
When the Principal pulls them both up for indulging in politics inside the campus, Deepak wants him to make his stand clear. “You are either with us or against us,” he says. Deepak suspects that the Principal is helping the underprivileged as charity. He does not want charity.
Anand represents the conscientious Indian teacher. To him, all students are equal. He would rather leave politics out of it and stick to teaching. Yet, he is forced to take a stand by every other character in the film, including his own wife. Even here, there's a fine sense of balance. While he says personally he does not see anything wrong about the Supreme Court judgment, his wife (Tanvi Azmi) says any law that plays with the future of children is bad.
That comment straight from the heart becomes what the Mission Statement was to Jerry Maguire. Sticking to his ideals, Anand prefers to quit than be part of the dirty politics only to realise there is no escaping it. Now, here's where Jerry Maguire becomes a Rajnikant film as the protagonist goes from zero to hero, fills the film with unbelievably fairytale idealism, manufactures instant cheesy change of hearts and mobilises thousands of extras, only not as fast as it happens in a Rajnikant film.
Due credit must be given to the makers for reminding us that, reservation or no reservation, it is the duty of every teacher to empower the underprivileged, irrespective of caste, whether it's inside a classroom or a cow shed. Forget caste, think economic strata. Education is a great leveller. When you provide quality education, the rich will have no choice but to sit with the poor.
The point is made when a rich father asks if the teacher can conduct private tuitions separately for the rich. “You know, they don't bathe. They stink,” he says, rather stupidly only to be sternly told by the protagonist: “It's your thought that stinks.”
Despite the sloppy second half that is long-winded, Aarakshan deserves to be watched for it advocates inclusion as a solution. It's a complex truth. The easily provoked activists need to be shown that leaders representing them may not always be looking out for them. Case in point, the objections raised to this film. Some times, bad leaders make all activism look silly.
As the villain of this film describes activism: “Azaadi hai. Jo chahe nautanki kar le.” (There's freedom. Anyone can do any drama.)
Director: Prakash Jha
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Manoj Bajpai, Deepika Padukone, Prateik Babbar
Storyline: A principled Principal gets sucked into a political debate he does not want to be part of and gets his focus back
Bottomline: A brilliant socio-political debate halfway becomes a Rajnikant film without Rajnikant