16 August 2011

Cinemascope: Aarakshan; Phhir

Critical issue lost under Big B’s aura

Director: Prakash Jha 

Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Manoj Bajpayee, Deepika Padukone, Prateik


God knows we could do with a film about reservation; a film that explores the far-reaching impact of the policy of caste-based affirmative action in government-run educational institutions. Aarakshan, however, is not that film.

Prakash Jha sets the scene effectively enough, establishing the depth of caste-based bias with a couple of early scenes. A Dalit candidate called Deepak Kumar (an earnest but sorely unconvincing Saif Ali Khan) is interviewed for a teaching job by a smarmy panel that insists on asking him about his 'real' surname and his parents' occupations, implying that his lack of 'cultural background' made him unfit to teach mathematics at their university – which they declare, in a chuckleworthy aside typical of Jha, to be "like a finishing school". There is also Deepak's confrontation with villainous Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), who casts aspersions on the hard-workingness of Dalits and receives a hard-hitting speech about manual labour in return. So when the film announces the 2008 moment when the Supreme Court announced 27% reservation for OBCs (over and above the existing SC/ST reservation), one expects the battle to begin in earnest. After all, the characters are all there: the principled principal (Amitabh Bachchan) and the unscrupulous vice-principal (Bajpayee),the fiery young educated Dalit (Saif), the disgruntled upper caste boy who hasn't got his Jamia Mass Comm seat (Prateik).

But instead of pulling his characters into a full-blooded engagement with the politics of reservation, Jha cuts them loose to deal with arbitrary personal demons. And before we know it, the film has turned into another Amitabh Bachchan vehicle, where everyone else is a cardboard cutout, and the reservation debate has been muffled by a feel-good fable against the commercialisation of education.

Again, we could do with a film about the crisis of education: the ubiquitous 'coaching classes' that supersede regular school, the impossibility of getting a seat in a "good college" because the good colleges are so few, the mushrooming of fly-by-night private colleges. But Aarakshan is not that film either. All it gives us is a highly unlikely hero who wins a highly unlikely battle. It brings us no closer to understanding the war which continues to rage all around us.

Horror show that lacks thrill

Director: Girish Dhamija
Starring: Rajneesh Duggal, Adah Sharma, Roshni Chopra, Mohan Agashe 


The latest offering from the Vikram Bhatt stable is a fairly unscary film about reincarnation, with a few this-worldly theatrics thrown in. It opens, strangely, in a sepia-toned “Manchester, a long time ago…”, with a sadhu-like figure in white robes (veteran actor Mohan Agashe) pronouncing the mystifying opening words: “Chandramohan, tum jao.” Agashe then tells a man in dark clothing (whose face we can’t see) that he can’t atone for his sins in this life, and aforementioned man shoots himself, very quickly, so that we can be taken to “Newcastle, now”, in colour, where a young man with floppy hair is apologising ever-so-sweetly to his fetching young wife for being late again.

Musical interlude over, we learn that Floppy Hair (Rajneesh Duggal) is a doctor called Kabir Malhotra, much in love with his wife Sia (Roshni Chopra), who’s just finished her law degree. Sia gets a job, and the couple make a date for a celebratory dinner. But when Kabir gets to the restaurant, two hours after the appointed time, there’s no Sia in sight (Moral: Don’t be late for a date with the love of your life; she might get kidnapped).

The rest of the film deals with the investigation into Sia’s disappearance, conveniently conducted in Hindustani by a British Pakistani police officer called Sheikh, who seems largely useless except when being instructed by a guitar-playing psychic called Disha (yes, of course she’s Indian too). So the police team spends much time tearing around car parks, deserted farmhouses and echoing old mansions while our dreamy-eyed psychic (Adah Sharma) stands wraith-like in corners, her hair artfully dishevelled. Kabir doesn’t believe in Disha’s powers at first, but comes round soon enough, especially when accosted by evidence of his past life.

Like in Haunted, the Bhatts fall back on a handwritten letter and a photograph (discovered in the company of a skeleton that can apparently still make people hold their noses some 50 years after) to link past and present. But Phhir is a milder film than Haunted. There are no dramatic battles, no shapeshifting evil spirits, not even a time travelling rescue-operation: just a janam-janam ki accounting to make life’s misfortunes add up.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.

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