Friday, August 26, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Filmflam of Aarakshan (Opinion)

Filmflam of Aarakshan
Aug 26, 2011

Shiv Visvanathan

In a week of high drama, from the theatre of the Anna Hazare movement
to the temporary demise of Indian cricket in England, littler dramas
got sidelined.

One such now-forgotten episode centred around Prakash Jha's Aarakshan,
a much-touted film about reservation.
Today's film has trailers of two types. There is first the trailer
which provides an over-dramatised fragment of the film as an
introduction; the second comprises the debates, the anticipated
controversy around the film. This battle often creates an intellectual
or operatic prelude to the film. Aarakshan expectedly created more
than a storm in civil society's tea cup.
Dalits objected to it saying they were misrepresented. Filmmakers
struck back by talking about the freedom of expression. Dalits argued
that freedom of expression did not include the freedom to misrepresent
a social group. Critics hit back by emphasising the integrity of
cinema and the creativity of the artist. As stereotype battled
stereotype, artistic licence on both sides was heightened by the fact
that few had seen the film.
Key actors of the film were present in most of the TV debates. Jha
said that he would not waste `70 crore merely to misrepresent a group.
Meanwhile, bureaucracies entered the fray. What the Censor Board
passed, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes had to question,
summoning the Censor Board chairperson to appear before it as if it
were a vassal. The soap opera quality was exaggerated further by
protests in a few cities and the banning of the film in three states.
People in other states felt privileged that they were going to see
another Jha classic. What they witnessed was an insult to good cinema,
the debate on reservation and the quality of democratic discussion.
The publicity of the film was misleading. Reservation is only one of
the issues discussed; Jha's film is more a battle of tutorial
colleagues. The plot thickens in an interesting but a predictable way.
The story centres around the relationship between an idealistic old
teacher and his student. The old man, or should one say the angry old
man, is played by Amitabh Bachchan. If Bachchan's films in the
Seventies epitomising the angry young man created cinematic history,
Bachchan as the angry old man here in Aarakshan is boring and utterly
predictable. It is almost as if he's lost his cinematic touch.
Aarakshan, in fact, looks like a continuation of Mohabbatein with
Bachchan as headmaster. Only, instead of Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan
plays both the idealist dalit and angry teacher. Deepika Padukone as
Bachchan's daughter and Khan's friend waters down the plot even more
successfully. Bachchan, caught in the reservation battle, is dismissed
and his old school becomes part of a tutorial college chain. Bachchan,
never one to give up, sets up a tabela school opposite the tutorial
college and a battle of tutorial colleges ensues. The tutorial
college, which is the real villain of the show, charges exorbitant
fees for those who do not get admission in regular colleges because of
Bachchan, seeing the hypocrisy of reservation and its unintended
consequences, single-handedly teaches a school for poor students. The
battle warms up as the original tutorial college, jealous of his
success, tries to evict him. The conspiratorial link between
politicians who see in school an ideal business and educational
entrepreneurs is played up. Their collaboration represents investment
without responsibility. Khan, who had left for Cornell University,
returns to help Bachchan. The battle between good and evil develops
Bollywood-style. By that time, even if you do not have reservations
about reservation, you develop some about Jha and Bollywood. Aarakshan
is atrocious cinema where the whole issue of good and bad education,
reservation versus merit is trivialised. Bad cinema is no answer to
social injustice and devious publicity is no answer to the question of
freedom. Jha trivialises the movie twice, first by directing it, and
then by discussing it in public space. When bad acting combines with
bad sociology, even Bollywood should look embarrassed.
I remember somewhere during one TV discussion, a commentator added
that "sunlight is the answer to censorship". One can go a step
further. I think exposure is the answer to a bad film. The audience
realises that they have been conned. I am surprised there were no
protests after the film. It was terrible.
The film's ending is the last straw. The chairperson of the old
college, who had taken sanyas, returns to remedy the situation. She
requests Bachchan to return to his old college and head the centre for
remedial education. The choice before the Indian student is stark. It
is the tutorial college versus remedial education. The battle is
between a pedagogy that sees shortcuts to education as the solution
and a project that sees the poor and the backward as needing remedial
treatment rather than justice, empathy and fairness. Two pathologies
confront each other in the name of pedagogy, while the issue of
justice is quietly ignored. When Bollywood creates these forgettable
reconciliations, the audience feels cheated. A movie which was to
prove an act of courage turns out to be a con game. The social debate
becomes a cover to encourage fan attention.
There is another critical issue. It is the question of stereotypes. If
one looks at the TV debates one has to ask why are dalits always
presented in a restricted manner. They are always seen as being
obsessed with their social status. Why cannot one expect a dalit to
make an aesthetic point or raise an issue about the politics of the
imagination? I think liberal stereotypes combined with electoral
politics do greater injustice to the creativity of the dalit mind.
Dalit intellectuals are cosmopolitan creatures who can survive the
provincialism of caste elites.
The question is what makes the debate on justice so wretched in this
movie. I think it is the notion of sentimentality. To assume that
goodness is attuned to the demands of social justice is false.
Philanthropy and fairness live in different worlds. Goodness can be
socially blind and politically witless. Jha's movie does not allow for
real struggle or genuine ambiguity. It creates surrogate villains in
the tutorial college, it disempowers history and creates an impotent
politics. There is a dishonesty here, which he must account for.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad


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