Caste reservation is the quintessential elephant in the room in Indian socio-politics. An abnormally large one at that. The caste issue is so ingrained in India's history and current realities yet it has rarely been addressed in Hindi cinema beyond the love stories that break caste boundaries. But director Prakash Jha, in his latest film Aarakshan (Reservation), doesn't waste any time bringing it up. Set in Bhopal, the film opens with a smart and educated Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan) facing ridicule at a job interview because of his caste. Surely enough, he gives the interview panel an earful and storms out, thus kicking off the magnum opus tackling the reservation issue that this film is projected to be. Unfortunately, Aarakshan doesn't stick to its core issue, getting distracted by tangents that don't relate to reservation. It becomes a schizophrenic film that wants to bring up every major issue regarding education in India but doesn't adequately deal with any of them.
The reservation system - a process that requires government-run offices, colleges and other institutions to block a certain percentage of positions for people from "Scheduled Castes," "Scheduled Tribes," and "Other Backward Classes" - presents one of the most complex debates facing 21st century India. Aarakshan primes itself for a head-on debate on the topic but then gets lost and muddled along the way. Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan), the god-like principal of the state's best private college, surrounds himself with those who firmly believe in the power of unadulterated and equal opportunity education. His loyal disciple, Deepak, is torn between a PhD opportunity at Cornell University and the chance to teach under his guru in Bhopal. Deepak's love interest is Poorbi (Deepika Paduokone), also the principal's daughter. Then there is Sushant (Prateik Babbar), the boisterous and hot-blooded common friend, and frankly unnecessary character. After a choppy beginning, incredibly distracting songs crammed almost back-to-back, and some rather awkward acting, the first half finally gathers itself.
As the Supreme Court rules on a major increase in the quota for caste-based reservation, the world of these characters is shaken by the upheaval around them. Prabhakar also begins to collide more with his menacing vice principal Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), who has his own agenda to dethrone the patriarch and run an education empire of his own. Jha, as in all his films, knows very well how to create tense situations with riveting confrontations. There is one dialogue-heavy showdown after another between various characters as they all respond to the developments around the reservation quota.
However, when Prabhakar makes a statement to a newspaper over the Supreme Court ruling that lands him in trouble and gives Mithilesh the upper hand, the film also skids off in a different direction and tumbles downhill. Fast.
The focus in the second half of the film shifts almost exclusively to the business of private coaching centers, a moneymaking enterprise piggybacking off the loopholes in the education system. Prabhakar's battle against Mithilesh thus becomes one of putting an end to the corporatisation of education. A noble cause for sure, but not what the film was meant to be about. The reservation issue is almost completely forgotten until the end. Also, the suppressed yet level-headed Deepak is sidelined in the second half, only to return towards the end as a mere supporting character.
Compared to the stellar casting of Jha's last film Raajneeti, Aarakshan suffers in this regard. Of the cast, Bachchan and Khan fit their roles well, adding gusto to the dynamic of a teacher and protégé relationship gone wrong. Sadly, Khan is wasted in the second half. Babbar simply looks uncomfortable in his part and swings uncontrollably between confusion and distress. Padukone is effective in parts - mostly when she's yelling - but doesn't get a substantial enough role to really make an impact. Bajpayee is for the most part convincing but often veers into becoming a caricatured villain, awkward grin and unflattering hairstyle included. Surprisingly, Hema Malini has a significant presence throughout the film, albeit through large portraits of her in the background in many scenes. Her guest appearance down the line is thus predictable and all too convenient.
It is difficult to pinpoint, through Aarakshan's bulky 2 hours 45 minutes runtime, where Jha wanted to take the story. It's touted as a film about reservation and the way it takes off you'd actually feel it's going somewhere. There are even some very charged statements that have drawn the ire of caste organizations trying to delay or ban the film's release. An incredibly potent graffitied sign at the college, for example, reads "Reservation is our birthright." Clearly, Jha doesn't shy away from making bold statements. However, he then dramatically changes course and opens up another pandora's box by shifting the plot to the business of education and the corrupt government (spillover from Raajneeti?).
In the end, Aarakshan becomes a rather simplistic battle between good and evil, disappointingly abandoning its core issue. The good professor (Prabhakar) is only interested in taking down the bad professor (Mithilesh), with all of their blindly loyal minions in support. Any discussions on the ramifications of caste-based reservation in educational institutions is quickly forgotten in favor of an audience-pleasing, dialogue-slinging, large-scale copout. At one point, Padukone's character Poorbi furiously talks about the reservation system creating two divergent Indias instead of uniting the classes. By the end of Aarakshan, you'll realize Jha has also created two films crammed into one. And the result is all too weak.