In Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan, Amitabh Bachchan plays Prabhakar Anand, the principal of an educational institution and the kind of man you don’t see on screen anymore, a good-hearted and intelligent soul who’s also alarmingly naïve about the world around him. Prabhakar’s face is lined with the passage of years and his hair is streaked with silver, but he is, in some ways, like Vicky, the privileged (and somewhat spoilt) youth Bachchan portrayed in Namak Haraam who existed in a bubble that kept the world at bay. Saif Ali Khan, as Deepak, plays the Rajesh Khanna character Somu, who basks in his benefactor’s bubble for a while and then breaks out of it because he sees things that Vicky/Prabhakar doesn’t. As in Namak Haraam, two forces begin to tug at each other – the personal and the political, the former because of the sense of betrayal engendered by Deepak/Somu walking out of the shadow of Prabhakar/Vicky, the latter because Prabhakar/Vicky refuses to see what Deepak/Somu does, that the world outside the bubble is complex and cannot be bettered by a good heart or through charity. Something’s gotta give.
In an excellent scene that rewards those with the patience for serve-and-volley rhetoric, Deepak, a Dalit, is pulled up by Prabhakar for causing a scene, siding with Dalits celebrating the Mandal Commission’s recommendations for reservation, and Deepak argues that he’s only fighting for “hamaari pehchaan,” their identity. You sense his frustration, his Michael Corleone-like embrace of his “people,” reluctant yet required, and you shake your head that Prabhakar cannot see this. All he can see is that this student from within his fold, from within his bubble, is suddenly spouting “political bhasha.” This is why the title is a grave mistake. This isn’t a movie about reservation so much as around it – it could have been about a good-hearted banker or a good-hearted lawyer or a good-hearted minister who finds that the world around is surrounded by bad people rooting for his downfall. It’s really the near-mythical story of a principled man (however bull-headed or wrongly intentioned these principles are) who is burnt by forces of evil and who rises again from his ashes. The film should have been titled Prabhakar Anand – it’s about him.
And it’s about the Old Bollywood narrative, which – apart from Namak Haraam – is seen in such contrivances as the rains that arrive as sadness envelops the characters, the loyal servant from Avtaar (played by Yashpal Sharma) who aids the resurgence of his master (after the latter is betrayed by his own “children,” the sons of a dear friend), and the egregious evilness of Manoj Bajpai (as Prabhakar’s nemesis Mithilesh Singh), who raises a glass of red wine, cackling madly at Prabhakar’s impending doom. (I was surprised there wasn’t a bottle of VAT 69 in that shot, held by a vamp with a gem in her navel and ostrich feathers in her hair.) The story itself is a synthesis of Raj Kapoor and Rajinikanth (whose latter-day films, if not Old Bollywood, are certainly from an older narrative tradition of pure protagonists rising from the ashes) – the Nehruvian innocent in the city of the corrupt who betters himself through can-do resilience and resourcefulness and without compromising his principles.
These are not automatically good things – a film does not become worthwhile just because it does not invoke Hollywood and Hollywoodian rhythms and instead harks back to a home-grown past that is present today only in its action-soaked avatar in films like Singham. It’s messy when songs (however well-worded, by Prasoon Joshi) burst into the narrative or when scenes are staged, sometimes, with all the delicacy of a tree falling in the forest. (The scenes fall on our heads.) Early on, Deepak walks into an interview – Saif looks surprisingly young; perhaps not young enough to pass for someone just out of college (in Bhopal, in 2008), but young enough for the narrative’s purposes – and instead of being questioned about his knowledge of his subjects, he’s asked about his mother and how he can possibly fit in with the other, more privileged children. He delivers a superb retort, that his good breeding is manifest in the fact that he hasn’t smashed their faces in with the paperweight at hand and that they do not have the moral authority to speak about his mother – but the scene is too conveniently set up, the villains too caricatured, too obvious. They could just as well be cackling and raising glasses of red wine.
Even later, Jha stages a small scene where upper-class (and also upper-caste) men visit Prabhakar after he succeeds in coaching children towards results better than his rival’s and ask him if he can conduct separate classes for their children, who will not sit with these Dalits – it’s that crude, and it belongs in a Madhur Bhandarkar movie, to whom the upper classes exist so that they can be stripped naked and flayed and his single-screen ticket buyers can vicariously enjoy their victory. Not a single scene with Prateik works (he plays Sushant, who drives a Pajero, and that’s all you need to know about his character) – he’s as crudely drawn as a rich kid from Bhandarkar’s films. He strays, and Jha makes no effort to explain his return to the path of righteousness. The change-of-heart of the widow and her sons is equally ridiculous, a bolt from the godforsaken blue. Having made the decision to make such a long film – it has about five mini-climaxes – it’s frustrating that Jha couldn’t find the time to flesh out these characters. Did anyone believe that Deepak (whose commitment to hamaari pehchaan mystifyingly takes a backseat when he flies abroad for higher studies) would barge into enemy territory and beat people up, or that a policeman would issue orders to fire on a silent gathering of students?
But what was good about Old Bollywood – and what’s missing in a lot of these well-made multiplex movies – is that the story unfolded on a moral battlefield where something was always at stake, and that Jha is alert to. (And unlike Bhandarkar, he’s not a sell-out cynic.) Poorbi (Deepika Padukone, who speaks with the studied earnestness of a little girl in a school play who’s spent a lot of time memorising her lines and is terrified of forgetting them) has to choose between loyalty and love, between her father and her boyfriend Deepak. Prabhakar has to choose between his principles and a job that gives him joy, not to mention financial security. Deepak has to choose between his own people and his own life. Prabhakar’s wife (Tanvi Azmi) has to choose between her long-derived understanding of her husband’s nature and her practical considerations for her daughter. It’s a beautiful touch that this conflict is exposed only in private. She says to her husband, “Main ek maa hoon, Bharat maa to nahin,” that she’s just a mother and not Mother India. But outside their bedroom, she’s his rock, and she won’t stand for anyone speaking against him, even their daughter.
And when we know something is at stake, when tough choices need to be made, have been made, we invest in characters and we feel for them – which is sometimes not the case with the multiplex movie, where life events usually occur at a cool and ironic distance. Jha is unafraid of naked emotion – that’s why Poorbi’s apology to her father rings true. She’s stood by him when she let go of Deepak, she raged against him when her future was in doubt, and now she sees him for what he really is – a brave man struggling to stay afloat in a sea of cowards – and it’s as if she knows what her mother has known all along. And Prabhakar’s realisation of his cocooned existence is pointedly brought out when he’s crushed by a man (now the manager of a bank) who rose to rank because of the quota system that he naïvely endorsed. He registers this reality with a mute pause – what can he really say? Bachchan, by now, can play these roles in his sleep, but it’s still terrific to see him in a part where he’s back in a moral struggle and where he’s given meaty lines (some of them involving Bernoulli’s Principle or mathematics formulae) to wrap his baritone around.
The choice for the audience, then, is finally this: whether to overlook the cinematic crudeness (but only by modern-day multiplex standards) and sink into a sturdily old-fashioned Hindi movie from the seventies or the fifties, when films still believed in being the change the filmmakers wanted to see, or to scoff at the rhetoric and the sentiment and the mirror held high in which we glimpse, shamefacedly, the warping of our society. I was frankly surprised by my engaged response to Aarakshan. I wished it had been better (in terms of the supporting characters, in terms of the writing) and shorter, but I could really identify with the girl who cannot concentrate on the sums on the blackboard, on the pleasures of learning, because she can only think about the marks she needs in order to sit for her exam. I wanted to see her win, if only within the mythical world of this movie. Jha, like his protagonist, may exist in a bubble, convinced about the efficacy of couching complex social issues within simplistic narratives – but it was nice to go into a movie theatre and go back in time.
Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.