A highly volatile issue that unfortunately peters out into a routine and prolonged drama.
The plot: After 35 years of dedicated, diligent and honest service to education, the Principal of Shakuntala Thukral Mahavidyalay, Dr Prabhakar Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) finds himself hemmed in from all quarters as he tries to implement his idealistic views for the underprivileged. In the process of trying to change the system he makes formidable enemies. His wife Shanti (Tanvi Azmi) and daughter Purbi Anand (Deepika Padukone), who is romancing Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan) a Dalit professor, are the only two who unwaveringly support his stand. Opposing his values is a world full of people, including some of the trustees of his college, for whom commercial and political gains are paramount. Dr Anand’s firm stand on maintaining calm and sanity on the campus while the reservation issue rages outside, brings him to a point where his Dalit protégé Deepak and his privileged, well-connected student Sushant Seth (Prateik Babbar) bitterly lock horns with each other. The antagonism spills over into both of them charging Dr Anand with casteism and favouritism as they distance themselves from him.It’s a lonely crusade for the Principal as he takes on the politically-backed Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and his band of powerful, wealthy godfathers.
The good: Reservation grabbed the attention of the Indian nation, especially the youth, several years ago and is an issue that still ignites much debate. This complex topic has been simplified to suit the understanding of Indian audiences and it touches every aspect of the issue. Jha gets the details right by adding the right accents, attire and even a moustache (on Saif) to make it all convincing and add a touch of verisimilitude.The shots taken in Madhya Pradesh by Sachin Kumar Krishan bring out the picturesque splendour of rural India and show how the reservation tremors have spread even to the remote corners of India.Amitabh Bachchan gives a towering performance as the strong-minded, principled Principal. Saif Ali Khan and Manoj Bajpayee also pack a punch in their performances.
The bad: The film meanders on for far too long, losing sight of the main issue as it is watered down into a Bachchan vs Bajpayee battle with no surprises in the content. Unpardonably, the endearing Dalit (Saif) and the enigmatic privileged student (Prateik) vanish post-interval.
Overall: A powerful theme, it sadly fails to match expectations despite the high-calibre ensemble cast.
Saving grace: The performances make Aarakshan worth a watch.
– Pooja Thakkar