Aarakshan: Shadow-Boxing With Caste

August 19, 2011 at 9:15 PMAug (Activism, Cinema, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

It would have been more apt if Prakash Jha had himself played Amitabh Bachan’s role (as Prabhakar Anand) in Arakshan. It would have been apt because Jha, like Prabhakar Anand in the film, has no stand personally about reservations but poses to be for it and, like Prabhakar Anand, who uses the talents of lower caste student Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan) for his own personal battle, Jha uses the name which suggests that the film speaks about reservation and caste oppression and tries to gain mileage.

Prabhakar Anand, when confronted by Deepak, in a personal space and personal conversation, demanding an answer on his position regarding reservation, gives an answer suggesting he doesn’t like to take any position. But while asked by the media he says he is for the reservation. Jha similarly poses before us like a pro-reservation man but is not, in his film.

Though the film begins quite promisingly with Deepak announcing “When we got a chance we wrote the constitution of this country,” as it progresses (the story line and nothing else) the audience are for a big disappointment and an agonizing treatment of the subject and a story which does not merely lose its focus but shifts its focus completely.

The film shifts from caste to class – from the battle of Deepak, a lower caste student in a casteist society, for equality – to the battle of the upper caste teacher against his personal enemy Mithiliesh Kumar (Manoj Bajpai) and his coaching centers, thus turning it into a film on the education mafia. With this shift in focus on class, the film completely wipes away the caste elements, except for some idealistic rhetoric with sweeping statements urging the conflation of caste with class, but emphasizing class more than caste. Following this shift in focus, the breaking up of Mithiliesh Kumar’s fortress becomes more important to the narrative, than the struggle of the dalit masses for equality, be it even in the form of struggles that result in producing one of the central characters, Deepak.

It is saddening and frustrating when the dalit boy, Deepak, is always made to stand under the umbrella of an upper caste teacher. This makes the upper caste character a hero and the lower caste character a beneficiary of the heroic and generous qualities of the upper caste hero. Why can’t we have a dalit character as a hero in Bollywood? (I say ‘hero’ in the real Bollywood sense and not as the central character of the story.) For this, one can’t blame the filmmaker alone. The audiences are equally responsible. Let alone being broad-minded, the audiences even lack the basic humanity to accept a lower caste person as a hero.

It is Prabhakar Anand who is the hero in the film. It is he who ‘uplifts’ the lower caste Deepak. When the dalit students try to come into the college campus they are stopped from entering. They do not break open the restricted space. Neither does Deepak succeed in letting them in. But it is the ‘generous’ upper caste teacher, the hero of the film, whoallows the dalit students to enter the campus. Why don’t the low caste students fight and win their rights and enter the public space? Why is it that they have to be allowed and uplifted by the upper caste? The film, unintentionally or intentionally, seems casteist at heart and in its subconscious.

It is more frustrating when Deepak is made to leave the opportunities he has got somewhere abroad to come back to India and toil as a soldier for the personal battle of his upper caste teacher. At this point Deepak forgets all the political speeches he once made to Mithiliesh Kumar and Sushanth Seth (Pratiek Babbar) about how all through history it is dalits who have labored and ploughed the fields with the upper castes merely enjoying it fruits, and dissolves into being a foot-soldier in the private battle between the upper caste Prabhakar Anand against another upper caste Mithilesh Kumar.

Prabhakar Anand coaching the students during late nights is just a passing reference in the film but it has extra background music to it with scenes of his shoulder being massaged by his daughter. Maybe the massaging scene is to establish Anand as an elderly person, but what about the screen space given to the efforts of Deepak compared to the screen space given to the efforts of Prabhakar Anand? The efforts of the lower castes certainly doesn’t get proper mention in history books, which Deepak points out in the film but the hard work of the lower castes do not get proper mention neither in this film.

What happened to Deepak’s struggle for equality? He (rather Jha) comfortably forgets it and brings the battle of Prabhakar Anand to the forefront, as if Deepak’s struggle was negligible and unimportant in comparison to the battle of the upper caste against the upper caste.

While the resignation and struggle of Prabhakar Anand is glorified as a great sacrifice and an exemplary act of heroism, not much is spoken about Deepak leaving behind his research in a reputed university, as though it was his duty to come back and serve his upper caste teacher. Worst, the upper caste teacher doesn’t even ask Deepak as to why he came back and, despite initial rejection, for personal reasons, accepts him as a teacher in his school to battle the mighty coaching classes run by Mithilesh. This makes it clear that Prabhakar Anand is more concerned about his battle than all the real struggle of dalit students who cannot lose on opportunities. Helping them out and speaking for them is a performance of generosity, a feel good factor for the self.

More disgusting is when the film gives space to the ‘damage’ caused to upper caste students as well as employees because of reservation but is almost silent about what has been the situation of the lower castes in the absence of reservation and the need for reservation, except for the political speech by Deepak in the canteen. This attempt by the filmmaker to act ‘balanced’ and ‘neutral’ is disgusting because only an apolitical artist can attempt to be neutral and not take a stand. An artist with political intent will show the other side but will surely know where he stands. More importantly as actor/director Utpal Dutt said, “Every fact is true and yet, unrelated to social conflict, it arrives at total falsehood… ‘Neutral’, ‘impartial’ reporting is ultimately a tissue of lies… Impartiality always serves the bourgeois.”

Jha, like Prabhakar Anand, only assumes a ‘progressive’ posture in his films without really being one himself. Not merely does he make a hero out of a pseudo low-caste-sympathizer, but ends up neglecting the dalit characters, once again reducing them to servants and pawns for the upper caste. It is astounding that he even manages to gain publicity for his film on the education mafia by making it appear like a film on reservations. Like Prabhakar Anand, he too uses the identity and story of a few to win his battle.

If Jha has any conscience, Deepak’s words spoken while being reminded of the generosity of Prabhakar Anand, “Iss sey tumhare mann ki gareebi hatt sakti hai, unki gareebi nahi,” should prick him.


  1. Inasu Thalak said,

    Having not seen the film, I abstain from any critical comment. Having said
    that, Jha is a victim of his social/caste environment. His real intention might
    have been to catapult the problematique of reservation into public debate
    which is heating up very well! And to play a dalit protagonist, he could not
    find a real dalit, that is the real joke of it all. Of course he made a feature
    film and he must have wanted to appeal to the cinegoing middleclass Indians who are mostly not dalits and are vociferous against reservation.
    In Indian cinema, we have yet to find a real dalit story told with empathy and cinematic excellence Not forgetting the film-essay CHHATRABHANG of Shivadasani and the documentaries of Rupeshkumar, I am still waiting
    to see an Indian filmaker treat the subject of untouchability, casteism and
    reservation with a boldness and historical perspective that such a subject
    Inasu Thalak/film critic/poetwriter living in Paris

  2. Ramchandra PN said,

    nice piece samvartha. It is quite possible that not taking a stand in the film be a business decision. Because if the film takes a stand, it would alienate that many people who buy a ticket and come to the theater. Maybe the mainstream cinema is always looking for the common denominating factor, willfully not taking a stand for if it does it would harm its own prospects. To look for a stand would in my opinion be a waste of time.

  3. Arron Menezes said,

    really well written, i too felt the same. it was a total dissappointment for me when i watched the film. had expected something solid but jha just used the words called reservation for the publicity of the film as if it was some kind of formula for success of film.

  4. Smita said,

    I have not seen the film. but I do want to comment on the subject of neutrality. Neutrality in our films is actually not neutrality. I think it is the choice of not standing up or choosing to not take a stand. If that is a filmmaker’s position, then so be it. But if it is because he/she fears a backlash, I think it is a waste. I have a personal opinion that people have always been itching for confrontation, your viewers want a real moment, a face off, for something that will expose the underpinning of the entire debate. And the brave are rewarded. When you stand, especially alone, and make an argument, shocking as it may be, people listen. Reason it out, argue it, engage with it and the audience will be gripped. You don’t take a stand, you dilute the conflict, even dramatically you lose the tension. It’s a no win situation. You might as well leave the whole thing alone.

  5. Smita said,

    I just saw the film, not from the beginning but it does cover most of the points of this post.

    I quite disagree with you. The protagonist very emphatically takes a pro reservation stand, not once but many many times over in the film. Not only to the press, but in personal sphere also. To his friends, colleagues, daughter, wife – practically 40 minutes of the film he is rallying about why the supreme court’s decision is hailed by him. He does not answer Deepak because he expects him to know by now.

    He loses his job, his home and his support because he refuses to take back his stance on reservation. I also don’t think he involves everyone for a personal battle but what that battle represents- his ideology of equal education for everyone. If he can do it out of a bhains ka tabela, so be it. He is not doing this for personal cause. When rich kids refuse to sit with poor backward ones in class, they are made to leave. The cause is very clearly stated in the film.

    Of course the film meanders and there are two issues with a tenuous link and it does not work for many reasons including the direction it chooses to take, but till the time it stays on reservation, the hero believes in affirmative action very firmly.

    I understand the rest of your points to some extent but surely not one that is pronounced clearly in a major part of the narrative.

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