Wednesday, August 24, 2011

[ZESTCaste] Flawed perceptions


Flawed perceptions


The way in which the director Prakash Jha highlights certain social
issues makes his film "Aarakshan" controversial.


Prakash Jha flanked by Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone at a
press conference to promote their film "Aarakshan", in Bangalore on
August 1.

A NEARLY two-and-a-half-hour Hindi film made by the director Prakash
Jha – known for his critically acclaimed works such as Damul,
Parinati, Mrityudand, Apaharan, Gangajal and Rajneeti – ran into
trouble, not with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) but
with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) and some
State governments for its allegedly insensitive portrayal of Dalits.
Titled Aarakshan, loosely translated as reservation, the film, with
Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Manoj Bajpai and Deepika Padukone in
the lead roles, cleverly juxtaposes the need for reservation in
educational institutions and the need for a clampdown on
commercialised educational institutions.

The film was vetted by the CBFC and its new Chairperson, Leela Samson,
who justifiably could not understand the brouhaha over the film as it
had been cleared by a board that now has nine more members, including
members of the Dalit community. The NCSC objected to some dialogues
that it had been told denigrated Dalits and were not countered
properly by the lead protagonist, Bachchan.

Even as NCSC Chairperson P.L. Punia, a Lok Sabha member from
Barabanki, insisted that the NCSC be shown the film and that the CBFC
delete any parts the NCSC found objectionable, the governments of
Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh banned the screening of the
film on August 12, the date of its release. The Government of Uttar
Pradesh banned the release of the film in the State for two months,
stating that it would create a law and order problem. Punjab followed
suit on similar grounds on the basis that it had the largest S.C.
population in the country in terms of percentage of the population.
But it, along with Andhra Pradesh, revoked the ban a few days later.
The film has not been released in Uttar Pradesh.

The film is unique in that it addresses these issues, in as head-on a
manner as possible. However, the problem with it is that the director
and the scriptwriter (Anjum Rajabali, who is also a member of the
CBFC) rely on the idea that individual messiahs, in this case
Bachchan, can deliver social justice. That democratically elected
governments have a larger responsibility towards guaranteeing
education for all, more so when there already are deep economic and
social divisions among the people, does not emerge from the narrative.
Neither the director nor the scriptwriter seems to imply that more
opportunities and jobs have to be created or that more investment in
education by the government is needed in order to get rid of the
multiple systems of access prevalent in the country at present. Apart
from showing a corrupt education Minister who runs his own private
colleges, a trend that is not far from reality, Jha could have delved
a little deeper into the "two Indias" that his protagonist talks about
by showing how the neglect of education in the public sector has been
deliberate and pushed by a certain kind of political thinking,
coinciding with the neoliberal agenda of mainstream political parties.

The story is about a principal, played by Bachchan, of a private
college run by a trust that has certain opportunistic characters who
are willing to barter away the lofty ideals of the institution in
order to make more money. The principal is a person who believes in
equal access to education; he does not discriminate against anyone but
does not push actively for affirmative action either. He holds
remedial classes, free of charge, for students who presumably cannot
afford expensive tuitions and who belong to the weaker and socially
backward sections of society.

Interestingly, the film opens with a heavily caricatured portrayal of
interviewers (all upper caste and upper class) who are casteist and
scoff openly at a prospective candidate the viewer learns soon enough
is a Dalit. The opening is verbose and preachy as Saif Ali Khan
delivers a salvo of moralising on social justice to the panel and
leaves without getting a job. The confrontations between a privileged
youth of the college, played by Prateik Babbar, and Saif Ali Khan on
the issues of merit and hard work are gripping. In any debate on
reservation, those against it use the argument of merit and hard work.
"Why don't you work hard and come up like everyone else," says the
privileged youngster, and this is countered by a powerful dialogue
delivered by Saif, who, referring to his character's community, says
that all that "we've known and done is work hard all our lives...
we've tilled your land, grazed your cows and even lifted your night

What begins as a bold film slowly loses its sharpness as the focus
shifts to the might of that one honest man, the principal of the
college. The problem with Jha and some of his films, such as Gangajal
or Apaharan, is that he succumbs to the solo-messiah formula, oft
repeated in Indian cinema, without addressing the more systemic and
structural issues behind the very tendencies that he sets out to
attack in his films.


PROTESTERS BURNING an effigy of Prakash Jha in New Delhi on August 12,
the day of the film's release.

Jha is known for his intelligent and sensitive approach to social
issues as evinced in films such as Damul, which was about bonded
labour; Parinati, on human greed and helplessness (based on the famous
Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha's short story); and Mrityudand, which
gave Indian cinema one of its strongest female characters through
Madhuri Dixit and which trod boldly into the realm of forbidden
inter-caste liaisons and exposed the hypocrisy of patriarchy and
religious custodians.

Rajneeti is nothing in comparison with his earlier works. Even though
it has a star cast, it is a meaningless caricature of politics and
politicians. It did well in the box office, pandering as it did to the
apolitical character of the middle classes.

But Aarakshan could have scored more substantively had it also
addressed the systemic factors that make affirmative action so
necessary today in a country like India. Jha could have, with a little
bit of research, dug out the figures of the various reserved posts
that are lying vacant because of the lack of push from below and the
high drop-out rates of children from socially and economically
backward communities. These and other indicators only strengthen the
conviction that affirmative action needs to be pushed even more
vigorously with steps such as land reforms, the importance of which
Jha should be able to understand as his antecedents are in Bihar and

With a "neither here nor there" approach, Aarakshan was bound to
attract controversy one way or the other. At a press conference in
Mumbai a day before the release, Jha apparently told reporters that
reservation was not a necessity but a constitutional truth and that
film-makers had been very careful about how they depicted it. He also
clarified that his film was not about reservation alone but about the
commercialisation of education. He did not explain how the two things
were related.

Punia told Frontline that his office had no intention of functioning
like a "policeman". "We conveyed the sensitivities of the Dalit
community to them [the CBFC]. We stand by what we have done," he said,
adding that a lot of support had come in from the States. He added
that Jha had agreed to omit those sections the NCSC found
objectionable. He felt that the film was about commercialisation of
education and not about reservation at all and wondered whether the
producer had deliberately created a pro- and anti-reservation theme in
the film.

Regarding the dialogues the NCSC found objectionable, he said: "I can
understand if a villain is making statements against reservation, but
if it is made by some responsible sections in society, like a
businessman, for instance, and if it is left undisputed properly, then
there is a problem." Punia was referring to derisive comments made by
affluent parents in the film who tell Bachchan's character that they
felt uncomfortable seeing their children sit along with poorer
students who "smelt bad". The script provides a response here for the
protagonist who refuses to do so but without explaining why he felt
that way.

Punia also felt that it was irresponsible of the CBFC to have issued
the certificate without showing the film to the NCSC despite a request
from the latter. He said: "We made a request much before the release
of the film. I am responsible and mandated to look into the interests
of the S.C. community. What crime have I committed by asking the
censor board to show the film to the NCSC?"

The film had become controversial much before the NCSC's intervention.
First, a section representing Dalits in Maharashtra protested on the
grounds that the film was anti-reservation. Then a section in Madhya
Pradesh objected to the scion of a nawab playing the role of a Dalit,
and then the Lucknow administration declined permission for an
interactive talk show with the makers of the film. The Information and
Broadcasting Ministry, on the other hand, defended the CBFC's
decision, while the Congress appealed to everyone to observe
"restraint", whatever that meant.

Interestingly, the Punjab government, which had banned the film
initially, appointed a committee to view the film and lifted the ban,
saying that the overall message of the film was "positive" and that it
had depicted the educational backwardness of Dalits and reflected on
the bane of the commercialisation of education.

Jha is an accomplished film-maker, winner of several national awards,
and is not known to choose a subject on a whim. The treatment of the
issues that he picks up as leit motifs sometimes can be problematic.
He has been conscious of the fact that he has to show a
"multiple-layered" India, and it goes to his credit that he introduced
the concept of "two Indias" in cinema, at least, in recent times. His
dialogues are very powerful, often delivered in the colloquial and
true to the dialect of the regions his films have broadly represented,
that is, the Hindi belt. The deeply feudal nature of relationships,
including interpersonal ones, is something that almost all his films
bring out. He explores this often through his female protagonists,
which makes it interesting.

Memorable song

The most memorable song in Aarakshan – there are not too many songs,
which is a noteworthy dimension to the film – is "Mauka", which means
opportunity. Written by Prasoon Joshi, it is a powerful song. The
lines "Jiska hai balla, aur ball jiski, uske hi niyam, aur har baat
uski, ho yeh khel kab tak chalaoge bolo, ummeed ka ek stadium to
kholo" (the one who owns the ball and the bat makes the rules of the
game. How long are you going to conduct the game like this; open a
stadium of hope) and "Uttarne to do, phir maidan dekhna, ho
phadphadate huye armaan dekhna: barabar ki line kheecho zara, himmat
badi ya bhagwaan dekhna" (give us a chance to enter the competition,
then you will see how the field changes; at least draw an equal line
of opportunity and then watch what happens) are among the many
powerful moments and lines in the film.

In all likelihood the film will do well despite the controversy as it
has generated a lot of curiosity.


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