A Prakash Jha film is talked about for more reasons than one. It provides food for thought. It sets you thinking. Be it DAMUL, MRITYUDAND, GANGAAJAL, APAHARAN or RAAJNEETI, there was enough fodder in each of those films. Besides, each of those films left an indelible impression on the minds of the viewer. So, quite naturally, the expectations from his new release AARAKSHAN are enormous. This one also tackles a rather serious social issue - caste-based reservation. However, AARAKSHAN not only talks about reservation, but also about the commercialization of educational institutions.
Not many storytellers have repeatedly succeeded in creating pragmatic films on societal matters, but Jha holds the distinction of doing so in film after film. Be it DAMUL [on bonded labor], MRITYUDAND [on gender inequity], GANGAAJAL [also about the contentious blinding episode at Bhagalpur], APAHARAN [on the abduction situation in Bihar] or RAAJNEETI [on the political state of affairs], Jha's cinema has always illustrated harsh realism in a transfixing and riveting manner.
We believe in equal rights for all and yet, we continue to be a caste-based society. Through AARAKSHAN, Jha portrays the agony that the youth goes through. The film-maker wants the spectator to comprehend matters around one of the most controversial policies of caste-based reservations in government jobs and educational institutions, a hitherto untouched theme for Hindi cinema.
Like Jha's earlier attempts, AARAKSHAN is, without doubt, a high-voltage socio-political drama. But, most importantly, it takes on issues head-on, without mincing words. However, the storyteller ensures that the film, at no point, gets preachy or drifts into the sermonizing mode. Like Jha's films, AARAKSHAN has a story to tell and several super dramatic moments. Sure, it takes time to comprehend what's going on initially, due to the fact that the film has multiple characters and too much seems to be happening from the start itself, but things fall in place as the story moves forward and the tension starts escalating. While the first hour leaves a hammer-strong impact and is captivating in most parts, it's the second hour that comes across as a mixed bag. More on that later!
AARAKSHAN tells the story of Prabhakar Anand [Amitabh Bachchan], the idealistic principal of a college that he has single-handedly turned into the state's best. It is the story of his loyal disciple, Deepak Kumar [Saif Ali Khan], who will do anything for his Sir. Of Deepak's love for Prabhakar's daughter Poorbi [Deepika Padukone], of his friendship with Sushant [Prateik].
Centered on one of the most controversial issues of recent years, the story suddenly becomes a rollercoaster ride of high drama, conflict and rebellion, which tests their love and friendship for one another and their loyalty to Prabhakar Anand.
Gender bias and caste-based politics are two paramount problems plaguing our society and it's not easy to depict these two issues with accuracy on screen. I am no one to comment whether AARAKSHAN would be able to throw up any enduring solution to the problem, but I am sure that the film would seize your mind and make you deliberate on the issues facing the nation. And that, to me, is akin to accomplishing what Jha must've set out when he green-lit AARAKSHAN. One also relates to the subject instantly because it mirrors the thoughts of a common man, since every family is genuinely concerned about the education and job their child will get.
At the cost of repeating myself, I'd like to say that the dramatic moments in AARAKSHAN make it a riveting experience. The conflict between Amitabh and Manoj Bajpayee in particular and the turn of events during the post-interval portions leave a solid impression, but the narrative tends to get lengthy and a tad uninteresting and repetitive towards the second hour specifically. The conflict between Amitabh and Manoj is well presented and moves to the next level in the second hour, but the sequences thereafter, when Amitabh, Deepika, Saif and even Prateik start conducting classes and educating the students, dilute the impact generated by the first hour. Also, the culmination to the story, when a full-blown confrontation between the government officials and commoners takes place, though well executed, could've been more impactful. In short, the excessive length of the film, more specifically towards the second hour, acts as a deterrent.
An issue-based film rarely has scope for music [Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy] and AARAKSHAN is no different. Nonetheless, Jha weaves the songs smartly in the narrative, which doesn't really hamper the flow of the story. Like every Jha movie, AARAKSHAN is embellished with hard-hitting dialogue and Anjum Rajabali comes up with lines that are sure to be talked-about while thrashing out the merits of the film. Sachin Krishn's cinematography is top class.
The Principal's role is tailor-made for Amitabh Bachchan. Though the actor has portrayed an unsympathetic Principal of an educational institution in MOHABBATEIN earlier, his role is different this time around. In MOHABBATEIN, a delicate episode toughened his character. In AARAKSHAN, his persona begins to suffer when Manoj Bajpayee and the coterie begin to show aggression and debase him. He doesn't strike back initially, but retaliates later, when he starts teaching all over again. The actor gives a completely new dimension to this character.
It requires great courage to cast Saif Ali Khan in the role, but he comes across as very persuasive. In fact, the film offers him several difficult sequences, which the actor carries off with flourish. His diction, while delivering shudh Hindi, is perfect. This role must have been a challenge for Deepika Padukone as well and she surprises you with a confident portrayal. In fact, she has an equally challenging part to play in the story and it must be said that she handles her scenes, even when she's pitted against experienced actors, with complete understanding.
Manoj Bajpayee was remarkable in RAAJNEETI; he played a devious and manipulative politician with gusto. In AARAKSHAN, his character is negative as well; he treats education as a business. And Manoj is incredible this time as well. Prateik is impassive in a few scenes. Also, he needs to loosen up a bit.
Tanvi Azmi is first-rate. Mukesh Tiwari is, as always, top notch. Yashpal Sharma is exceptional. Darshan Jariwala is very good. Saurabh Shukla is wonderful. Chetan Pandit is adequate. Vinay Apte is perfect. Anita Kanwar and S.M. Zaheer are alright. Hema Malini appears towards the end of the film.
On the whole, AARAKSHAN communicates an engaging story with very relatable characters. It's a movie that is truly inspiring and thought-provoking, but at the same time, its running time [almost 2.45 hours] is a deterrent. The film is mired controversies ever since Prakash Jha announced the project, but the controversies will only enhance the curiosity-value for this film. AARAKSHAN not only works as a film, but also as a tool to drive home a forceful message. It's a daring, heroic, commanding and an engaging film that shouldn't be missed!