Jha’s Aarakshan gets lost in translation, but there are important takeaways

I saw Aarakshan on the day of its release and the very next day read the film’s review in Times of India, DNA and Mumbai Mirror. Disclaimer: I am not a qualified film critic and my views get published nowhere except this blog and I do not get paid for this. The critics said that the film has a good first half but in the second half it loses track by falling into the usual trap of hero versus villain drama. All three critics panned the film blaming it to be highlighting too many issues simultaneously and getting meddled in unnecessary drama of ‘Tabela classes’ run by a virtuous and heroic Amitabh Bacchan versus a vicious Manoj Bajpayee’s ‘KK Coaching Classes’.

I fail to understand how the film critics of all three newspapers failed to interpret the symbolism used by the makers of Aarakshan. It is well documented that Prakash Jha is an issue-based filmmaker, from Damul to his most recent one, Jha has been known to raise issues. From days where he only made documenatries, Jha has championed his technique of presenting an issue in an entertaining manner.

The critics said that Aarakshan has a confused plot which baffles audiences. Though I believe the film could have been made better, I want to dwell upon the symbolism that the makers of the film seem to have employed to drive their point home.

In his earlier films, Jha has chronicled on screen his perception of issues. In movies like Mrityudand, Gangaajal and Raajneeti, Jha did not have to think too hard to bring the film to a logical conclusion. The protagonists in these films took precedence over the issue and brought the films to an end. Such was not the case with Aarakshan as he dealt with a very sensitive issue. To bring a movie of such nature to a logical end is not possible without the use of symbols as he had the task of making an entertaining film without hurting the sentiments of people who are either pro or against reservation.

Those who have seen the film or read one of its reviews will agree that Jha has brilliantly dealt with the issue of additional 27 per cent reservation in educational institutions in the first half. He has tactfully portrayed the angst of the youth who felt threatened by this new reservation system as well as of those who felt left out hinting the balance to be tilted in favour of the privileged ones. That was part one of the film where the director highlighted the issue and its perceived consequences. In the second half of the film, the director had the mammoth task of providing a solution to the problem. Film critics believe that this is where Jha has floundered, however, in my opinion that would be a simplistic way of looking at a film which deals with a complex issue.

Jha has built his film on the premise that if we talk of competition and merit then the basic tenet of equal opportunities should be followed. Digressing a bit, I remember the days when student communities proclaiming to fight for equality took to streets across the country protesting against reservation. I was staying in the AIIMS hostel in 2005-06 in New Delhi, with a friend when the doctors went on protest and the country’s premier medical institution almost faced a breakdown. I wonder if it would have been the case if there was sufficient representation of the largest section of India’s population, namely the backward classes, amongst these doctors. There was some Census statistics made available by various media houses saying that over 70 per cent of Indians belonged to the backward classes and reservation could pave a path for equal opportunities in the medium term. There have been debates on reservation based on economic status and perhaps that is the next way forward but caste system in India is a reality and the Government needed to do something for an equitable system.

In the film Aarakshan, Jha and his team of writers led by Anjum Rajabali, had the task of providing a permanent solution of equal opportunities to students in educational institutions, which has been presently dealt with an ad-hoc solution of reservation. Jha has chosen to say that the solution lies in drastically improving our primary education system, thereby, he has employed the symbols of ‘tabela classes’ and ‘KK coaching centre’ which represent government schools and elite private schools respectively. Had he used real names like DPS, St. Xaviers, Dhirubhai Ambani International School etc. against Bachhan’s ‘tabela classes,’ audiences and critics would have perhaps liked it better, but then Jha would have drowned himself in a sea of legal tangles.

Jha emphasises and tries to persuade the audiences and the Government that bolstering our primary education system can narrow the drift between student classes over the long term. According to him Aarakshan is not a permanent solution as the fundamental divide disrupting equality lies somewhere else. Perhaps he wanted to say Aarakshan se zyaada zaroori hai behtar shikshan.


10 Replies to “Jha’s Aarakshan gets lost in translation, but there are important takeaways”

  1. i think we understand history discrimination faced by particular caste that has been stopping these people to get education. so even if start very good primary education systems what will you do about attitude of upper caste (not all but most of them). this attitude pushed out the students from lower caste. unless if see reservation from dignity point of view rather than materialistic point of view i think these kind of solution will not change th actual scenario.

    1. I agree that caste-based prejudices in India are too deep-rooted to be eliminated so quickly. However, good education is a great equaliser and can play the biggest role in creating a level playing field. I think that is the message Mr. Jha wanted to give through his movie.

  2. Hi Swarup,

    Try to write with fewer words, reading long commentaries runs you out of patience.

    Just to inform you I have been a regular reader of your blogs and this is perhaps my first direct response, as such generally i send you direct emails.

    all the best.

    Rahul Singh

  3. Hi Swarup,
    Here to read ur blog after a reco from a friend to read ur point of view for I didn’t certainly like Arakshan. Here’s what I think of the movie and your views. Be prepared for a reply as long as your blog itself 😀 .

    1) It is nothing more than a melodrama. Too many protagonists come together -> fight -> cry -> patch up -> come together – all so conveniently and at opportune moments that one feels like wish life were that easy.

    2) Prabhakar “Mohabattein” Anand plays the ideal principal. Fine. But a person who managed to carry an institution to such stupendous heights of success couldn’t be so stupid that he leaves his house at the behest of 2 college goers, and so ridiculously powerless and pauper that he can’t snatch it back and has to stay in a “tabela”.

    3) Do you / the director really believe that the solution to remove disparity in a caste based society like ours is good primary education ? If good primary education is a solution to all evils that exist on our scty then we may really wish to look at what happened in England recently..There primary education is meant for all for free (in most cases). Has it removed disparity in society?

    4) The director willy-nilly neglects the issue of the character “pandit” . Isn’t the pandit bereft of the same resources that the director believes plagues the lower caste ppl. Why shouldn’t the pandit be able to take the benefit of reservation? Why are the concerns of “Pandit” not addressed properly. It’s so easy to dismiss the issue by donating a cheque of Rs5 Lakhs. But what about so many other Pandit’s who miss out on the merit list to non-deserving but economically better-off OBCs/SC/STs etc..

    5) Factual mistake in your blog. the 70% figure that you have quoted is not about ppl who belong to backward classes. Its the %age of ppl falling below a certain income level and thus in pure economic terms. And lest i may say the figure is extremely exaggerated. the 70% figure in fact includes u and me. Do u really think 70% of the city in which u stay is really that poor that they cant afford a living. W.ref to Mumbai, many of the slum dwellers are richer than ppl who stay in apartments. The correct figure hovers around 33% and not 70%. And even if I consider 70% to be true, then by that logic reservation should be in terms of ones economic capabilities and not ones class. Doesn’t out constitution say that we can’t differentiate between ppl based on “caste, creed and religion”. Reservation by that very logic is unconstitutional.

    6) Even if I consider reservation solves a lot of problems, for how long does a person deserve the benefit of reservation. Bachelor’s deg / Master’s degree / PhD / Job ???? And shouldn’t a person be allowed to take the benefit of reservation only for a single generation ? Or should it be a perpetual family affair ?? As Mr. Ambedkar had visualised, when the idea of caste based reservation was 1st floated, it was meant to be in existence only for a limited time frame so that a single generation can take the benefits of the same.It wasn’t meant to become a perenial source of the promotion of incompetence. Mind it, reservation today is beyond caste. It encashes on Vote bank politics.

    7) What about reserved category ppl like Lalu Prasad Yadav. Does he / his family deserve to take the benefit of reservation when he is amongst the wealthiest ppl in the country. And mind it most of the ppl who take the benefit of reservation dont deserve it as they are the ones who have access to the decent education. The ones who really need it never take the privillege. 8) Finally, the prevalence of coaching centers is a malaise not arising out of backwardness but poor schooling facilities. If I had to ever go to a coaching center then that is because I was devoid of good teachers. And the larger social prob in India is we believe in rote learning. How many of the guys who make it to IITs do u really think are deserving. I say beyond the top 500 none. This is something that the IIT faculties keep saying often.

    1. Dear Indranil, thanks for your very interesting response. I would refrain from reacting to your response point-wise as that would be a lengthy exercise. I appreciate your patience for drafting a long response.

      However, I would respond to the essential points raised by you. Firstly, you have termed reservation as unconstitutional and the figure quoted by me on caste-based demography being incorrect; secondly good primary education is not a solution to this problem.

      My clarifications: As per the media reports based on which I have made a statement of 70 per cent of India’s population belonging to the backward classes, the same can be attributed to census data. The census data said that around 52 per cent of India’s people belonged to the backward classes (here class and caste were used synonymously). For the sake of simplicity, I included another 23 per cent of SCs and STs to backward classes. If you consider that in totality, it actually works out to be more than 70 per cent. The makers of our Constitution also gave the Parliamentarians the freedom to amend the Constitution if there was ever a need, therefore, I would rather go with the spirit, not the letter, of the Constitution to support the move of reservation of extra seats for the backward classes.

      You are correct to say that if there is indeed a need for reservation in the society, it should be based on economic status rather than caste. That is a point I too have made in my blogpost as the next way forward. The Government needed to move in some direction and since there was a strong correlation between people from the backward castes belonging to the lower economic strata, it had to take a step. I would like to make a caveat here that the politics of doing this should also not be overlooked. But that is another discourse and is part and parcel of any evolving democracy.

      Good primary education is a great leveler. If similar kind of education is imparted to all, then in the long-term we can have competitions without seats being reserved for candidates. People may not be in favour of reservation as in the short and medium term it is perceived (by those who oppose it) to be against the spirit of fair competition. However, in the long-term it will serve a greater social purpose when the second generations of the beneficiaries of reservation, who have been pulled up to compete, will contribute towards an equitable society without any reservation (pun intended).

      Jha, as a filmmaker, had to resort to certain cinematic liberties, which you have depicted through your small flowchart. Perhaps there was a need to dwell a little more to etch out these characters and situations better. But that is how life is and it’s true for creativity and also the risky business of filmmaking where in retrospect, you feel that things could have been done better.

      1. Hmm !! interesting response.
        Let me put the riders in your response then. I shall make it point wise for easier grasping.
        1) Remains the issue of the figures you quoted. Let me make some corrections in the assumption.
        The figure of 70% has never been arrived from Census data, for the last time Census enumerated caste based data was way back in 1933. Even the SC of India considered the caste based data of 1933 inadmissible. 52% backward class and 23% SC/ST figure that you have used was presented by Mandal commission in 1979. Just to let you know the report presented by Mandal Commission had come in for scathing criticism and was deemed false because of the use of “fictitious data”. Also, the Mandal commission report was mired in elctoral politics as that was used as a weapon for polarising vote banks. Remember VP Singh in 1990 tried to use it as a weapon to become the PM of INdia.
        According to NSS data of 99-00 the estimates are much more moderate hovering around the 35% figure for OBCs. Even NSS believes that the population of OBCs is much lower than 35%. Similarly SC/ST is believed to be less than 28% figure as estimated by NSS. Putting 2 and 2 together we have a figure of 63% – which also has never been validated and only an estimate. And going by NSS’s belief the OBC+SC/ST figure should be lower than that.
        2) Caste based Census is being performed after a gap of 79 years in 2011. So we are yet to know how many OBCs and SC/STs we truly have in India.
        3) Education is a great leveler. Agreed. But how does it solve the disparities of competency? Since, you have neglected an important point I raised. How long should a person be able to benefit from reservation? Till his Bachelor’s degree or Master’s or PhD or Job or for how many generations. Or is it a perpetual gift they have inherited and passed on across generations? If I remember correctly then when the idea of reservation was floated in the 60s the idea was that it should have a time limit of 10/12 years(dont remember the exact details here). Do we have a limit to the number of years reservation shall exist in the society ?
        4) Finally, I present the liberty to Mr.Jha for his cinematic creativity with a request to him to kindly keep the focus on a single subject. So as u say let Mr.Jha may very well dwell a little more the next time around.

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