Banned Bollywood film touches a social nerve
India’s culture police were working overtime this week as a furor erupted over the latest big Bollywood movie. But it wasn’t s*x or religion that’s the problem: Instead, this glitzy, action-packed drama is about – affirmative action.
While Aarakshan opened last night in some parts of the country, three of the largest states banned its release after protests that came from lobby groups representing people from the lowest groups of the Hindu caste system.
“Aarakshan” is a Hindi word meaning reservation, or what they call quotas in India. The film concerns itself with quotas held for low-caste students in schools, a policy mandated by the Supreme Court in 2008. The film has a bifurcated plotline; the sensitive half concerns an earnest college director (played by Bollywood giant Amitabh Bachchan), his devoted Dalit pupil, and an unscrupulous vice-principal who riles up the student body over whether seats should be set aside for low-caste students.
The filmmaker, Prakash Jha, went to the Supreme Court himself Friday afternoon in an eleventh-hour effort to get the bans overturned; the court adjourned without ruling. For now, the film can’t be shown in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh or Andra Pradesh, where the governments have said it could provoke communal violence.
Most of the attacks on Aarakshan allege that it is against affirmative-action quotas, although critics who have seen the film say both sides of the debate are presented in a painfully even-handed and didactic way. India’s state censor approved it, but after objections from leaders of low-caste communities, Mr. Jha agreed to delete some scenes perceived as “anti-reservation.”
The umbrage caused by a film not yet released speaks to the sensitivity of affirmative-action quotas here. India’s constitution, adopted in 1950, requires that 22.5 per cent of government jobs and seats in public education institutions must be reserved for people from “tribal” (aboriginal) groups and Dalit communities; few people take issue with this reservation.
But in 1980, a government inquiry concluded that historically oppressed communities had experienced little social mobility; the Mandal Commission recommended that an additional 27 per cent of seats be reserved for “other backward castes” – those above Dalits but still low in the caste hierarchy. The recommendation was met with widespread protests from higher caste groups and it was more than a decade before the additional quotas began to be set aside in government jobs. It took a further 16 years – and a series of Supreme Court challenges – before the educational reservations were put in place.
Yet despite the formal quotas, caste remains a severely limiting factor in Indian life. Aarakshan’s opening notes that 87 per cent of senior government posts are held by high-caste Hindus. Annie Namala, who heads the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, points out that students from low-caste communities are disadvantaged all the way through the education system – that their schools are the least-resourced, their teachers the least capable; if they make it to colleges or universities, and are able to take up a reserved seat, they face ostracism (such as higher-caste students refusing to share dormitories with them) that can drive them to drop out. In every institution, many of the seats set aside for tribal and low-caste students remain unfilled each year, and so are opened up to higher-caste students.
In the film, the student character, played by Saif Ali Khan (a controversial choice to play a Dalit, because he is from a Nawab, or princely, Muslim family) makes an impassioned speech when the vice-principal sneeringly suggests the low-caste students want the reservations so they don’t have to work. “How can you tell us about hard work?” Mr. Khan’s character asks. “We are the ones who plow your fields, we are the ones who clean your toilets … and you’re going to teach me about work?”
The reservation system was a crafty choice of topic for Mr. Jha, who has a reputation for setting Bollywood romances and family dramas against hot-button social issues, such as domestic violence and political corruption – a formula that has brought him considerable commercial success. The debate about Aarakshan has won him acres of free publicity.
And he will need it, according to Namrata Joshi, film critic for the news magazine Outlook. “It’s an extremely tedious, boring film – it’s bad in terms of scriptting, acting, directing,” she said. “It should have come and gone without a hullaballoo – we’re giving a very mediocre film larger-than-life status by banning it.”
But she objects to the ban. “So far as freedom of expression is concerned, that is completely non-negotiable – every filmmaker, no matter how bad a film he or she makes, has the right for it to be shown.”
Mr. Jha insisted to reporters last week that he is not opposed to the reservations policy, but argued that its impact needs to be evaluated, since most of those it was meant to help continue to live in extreme poverty. “When the number of seats [open to general candidates] was reduced, competition increased …,” he said. “There are so many colleges where you can simply pay and get a seat. This caste-based reservation policy has created another caste structure – those who have the money can get degrees.”