Blame it on Rakesh Omprakash Mehra. The distinctly talented filmmaker of Rang De Basanti gave Bollywood its latest ‘revolutionary’ technique of scriptwriting (pun intended). Pick a social issue, put in a hero versus villain battle and then populate the whole plot with crescendos brought on solely by media revelations and scandals; and your script is ready. It’s almost like the cinema of the ‘70s, but with reporters all around.
While certain films, like Prakash Jha’s previous Raajneeti, actually used this formula to some genuine dramatic effectiveness, others like My Name Is Khan might have ended up being much better products if they didn’t deem it necessary to force in the ‘revolution’. Every filmmaker seems obsessed with making at least one film that somehow pays a tribute to Rang De, and outstanding as that film may be have been, Bollywood filmmakers have got the recipe wrong. It is almost as if, without the inclusion of a media circus, you can’t push a social issue effectively at all.
And therein lies the first major issue with Jha’s Aarakshan, a wrongly-titled, overlong film that isn’t worthy of the national controversy that it seems to have created. Simply because, barring a handful of confrontations that dry up within the first hour of the film itself, Aarakshan really doesn’t have anything new to say. It starts off almost as if Jha decided to reshoot his previous film but with emphasis on the word Aarakshan this time. Yet the narrative has you hooked until the first hour or so because the pacing is actually crisp and there is a genuinely engaging dramatic confrontation that Saif Ali Khan completely nails.
But the first half and second half are almost two different films; the second one could have easily been titled Education (or whatever the Hindi for it is) since Jha not only uses it to endlessly lecture you but also parades it in an attempt to inspire some sympathy for the characters. In fact, the only sympathy that I have is for Jha himself, for believing that the-hero-decides-to-open-a-free-school climax will evoke any sort of emotion at all; except, of course, a big yawn, one almost as endless as the film itself.
On the positive side, I went in to see the film after hearing terrible reviews from critics on the other side of the border. This is why at least the first half of the film had me pleasantly surprised with some formulaic, yet seriously captivating, dramatic highs. This is not a bad film, at all. It is just not one that I would recommend you watch while Potter, Hrithik and Katrina are all still available in theatres.
The performances aren’t too bad either. Saif Ali Khan does really well with whatever he gets, but he gets very little. Amitabh Bachchan can do this role in his sleep; yet his turn as the moral compass of the film is clearly a sign that the old man is not falling prey to any artistic decay anytime soon. Prateik Babbar is, surprisingly, very unlikeable. Ditto for Manoj Bajpayee, who plays the Black Guy in the B&W world of Aarakshan! And the stunning Deepika Padukone should stop already with her attempts at serious roles that require any sort of acting at all. It isn’t April 1st, darling. And we aren’t fooled.
So, my final word of honest, fan-boy advice for Bollywood writers who are trying to force social relevance into a love story is this: Keep it simple, guys.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 21st, 2011.
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