"Aarakshan" (Reservation) is a splendid example of how Bollywood's skilled way with melodrama helps make entertaining a lengthy exploration of a very serious and complex issue that has universal resonance. Director Prakash Jha and co-writer Anjum Rajabali set their epic-scale story in the late 1990s, when India's supreme court decreed that 49.5% of college admissions to public institutions be reserved for students from the lower castes.
This stirring film boasts but a single song-and-dance number, well integrated early in the film, and several songs on the soundtrack that effectively express "Aarakshan's" concerns.
Veteran star Amitabh Bachchan, in a portrayal of understated power, plays the resolute president of a private Bhopal college who has led the institution to the very top rank while pursuing an admissions policy based on academic qualification regardless of caste. When a newspaper reporter interviews him, the resulting story ignores the president's careful contexting and headlines his support of the supreme court decision — although it does not apply to private institutions.
In an instant, Job-like trials rain down on Bachchan's dignified Prabhakar Anand, a man of unbending principle possessed of the gift of teaching math and inspiring his students much like "Stand and Deliver's" legendary Jaime Escalante. So divisive is the supreme court ruling that one of his prized teachers, the lower-caste Deepak Kumar (Saif Ali Khan), ends up turning against him — and therefore alienating his beautiful fiancée (Deepika Padukone), who is Anand's daughter.
Kumar's upper caste classmate (Prateik Babbar) feels threatened by the court decision and takes a stand for admission on merit alone.
The film's script is impressively inventive for stirring up so much fiery sturm und drang while illuminating every imaginable aspect of the consequences of the reservation decree. Any minority anywhere will be able to identify with Kumar and his hardships, and the film evokes America's civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the current plight of undocumented immigrants and the implications of the recent Dream Act.
As Anand observes, there is a price to be paid for change, no matter how worthwhile or overdue.
MPAA rating: Unrated. Some mob violence, adult themes.
Running time: 2 hours, 48 minutes. In Hindi with English subtitles.
Playing: At selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties.