New Bollywood film stokes caste controversy
11 August 2011
MUMBAI - A new Bollywood film tackling the thorny issue of caste
quotas in Indian government jobs and education is released this week
in the face of vocal protests from minorities.
Politicians and interest groups championing the low-caste Hindus and
other marginalised groups that the system is designed to help have
come out in force against "Aarakshan" (Reservation), despite it not
hitting screens until Friday.
The head of India's National Commission for Scheduled Castes has even
said that director Prakash Jha's film was "anti-Dalit and
anti-reservation", referring to the community previously known as
In Mumbai, publicity material was vandalised and more than a dozen
activists arrested for protesting outside Jha's office, prompting
police to give him and the film's leading actors extra security.
Elsewhere, the government of Uttar Pradesh state banned any promotion
of the film on security grounds, protests have been held in Rajasthan
and Punjab and a court case has been brought against a decision to
pass the film uncut.
Jha, whose films have previously tackled social issues such as
corruption and power politics, denies taking a position on the issue.
"'Aarakshan' is not anti-reservation and/or anti-Dalit," the
59-year-old told reporters last week.
"In India there are people who benefit from this policy and there are
those who have missed an opportunity because of the policy.
Reservation and the quota system is a hard-hitting reality.
"It is almost an India versus India situation and by showing this in
my movie, I am trying to bridge the gap."
Reservation refers to the policy of guaranteeing jobs for socially
disadvantaged groups, officially referred to as "scheduled tribes,
scheduled castes and other backward classes".
The affirmative action aims to provide equal opportunities for the
poorest and most marginalised in India's complex and deeply entrenched
India's 160 million Dalits, many of whom live in rural areas, still
face prejudice despite anti-discrimination laws, while harsh
retribution is often meted out for flouting caste and sub-caste lines.
The quota system itself is the subject of frequent challenges, with
the number of places allocated to disadvantaged groups changing from
state to state and sometimes exceeding the legal maximum of 50
Those who miss out on public sector jobs or education places as a
result say the system fails to reward talent or ability.
Some sociologists have suggested that traditional caste notions have
been eroded in any case due to India's economic boom, improving wealth
and social mobility.
Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a political scientist at Jawaharlal
Nehru University in New Delhi, said that phenomenon was more
noticeable in fast-growing cities.
But the pace of change is slow, he said, and discrimination still rife
in areas from housing to marriage.
"It's still a major issue," he said.
As a result, he added that it was clear why passions could be inflamed
over pre-release clips from the drama, showing actor Amitabh Bachchan,
playing an idealistic school principal, railing against the imposition
But with chronic under-investment in state education, there was "no
alternative" to the quotas — other than a concerted government drive
to lift millions out of poverty, he added.
Directors would be well aware of the risks of tackling such a subject,
said Ashish Rajyadakshya, from the Centre for the Study of Culture and
Society in Bangalore and a co-editor of the Encyclopaedia of Indian
"It (protests) is not only limited to cinema. People make this kind of
complaint through the legal system on religious, linguistic or
caste-based feelings," he added.
Other Bollywood films have faced protests in recent years, most
notably Deepa Mehta's "Fire" (1996), for its portrayal of lesbianism,
and "Water" (2005), about the treatment of widows in Indian society.
Critics of actor Shah Rukh Khan's support for Pakistani cricketers
threatened to disrupt showings of his film "My Name Is Khan" in 2010.
But more often than not, opposition comes from conservative Hindu
nationalist groups that see themselves as the guardians of Indian
culture and values than from those hoping to change social norms.
For now, Jha is digging in his heels, accusing politicians of trying
to win more votes by playing communal politics.
"I am just trying to show how it (reservation) has created two Indias," he said.
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