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Aarakshan has created a greater divide: Prakash Jha
Known for his meaningful mainstream films, Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti was one of the biggest hits last year. Now, the filmmaker from Bihar hopes to do an encore with his latest Aarakshan, which releases on August 12. The 59-year-old director, who has films such as Damuland Gangajal to his credit, talks to TOI-Crest about his latest movie, the concerns it raises and his political journey
Tell us about your forthcoming film Aakarshan.
My film Aarakshan is about reservation in higher education and government jobs. It's not a new phenomenon. We've had it since the Constitution gave 22. 5 per cent reservation to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Then the Mandal Commission followed in the 1990s. Currently, we are dealing with the policies and recommendations of the Mandal Commission. The issue of reservation is here to stay and it's important to understand what is next. This film tries to deal with the issue of education, the issue of opportunity for young India against the backdrop of aarakshan. There's no denying that whether it is a policy, politics, economic reforms or the dispersion of public funds - whatever you do, caste considerations are bound to be there.
I believe there's a real-life principal's story that prompted you to cast Amitabh Bachchan in the role. Is it true?
Mr Bachchan plays a principal of a prestigious private college for 30 years. It's the kind of college where every year 10, 000 students line up to take admission. He's erudite, principled and strong-headed, but also compassionate. He'd lend an ear in the middle of the night if he found any student struggling to get his course right. That sort of character cannot cope with the challenges that reservation throws at him. Here the challenge comes from the education mafia, which ironically mushroomed post-aarakshan. Greater competition resulted in numerous coaching centres encouraging capitation fee. You get 95-97 per cent and even then you're not sure whether you'll get admission or not. Or you go to private universities like Amity or IIPM and others like them, spread across the country, that charge a lakh plus.
Even if you get a seat because of aarakshan, at the end of the day, it's a race. You'll seldom have money to get that training, coaching or be competitive like the others. So in the name of creating an equitable society you're creating a greater divide. And my film says precisely that.
What made you cast Saif Ali Khan in the role of a dalit in your film?
I didn't require a stereotypical character where you have to look like a dalit to play a dalit. Saif is an amazing actor, most underrated and versatile. He maybe from a nawab family, sophisticated and educated in London. But put him on the street and you'll be amazed by the innocence and the honesty of his face.
What were the objections of the SC/ST commission to your film? They asked for a screening that you refused.
They had some issues and went to the media and said that the censor board should not give certification unless and until they approve the film. I was asked to show my film. I said that I would not show my film to anyone other than the censor board. If the SC/ST commission is a constitutional authority and the responsibility of the censor board is to them then it's a different matter. But the censor board takes all precautions, they had representatives from every caste with an expert panel of four people including a retired justice and they cleared the film without a single cut.
There was also a dalit group from Kanpur that protested against Saif.
They objected to the casting of a nawab like Saif as a dalit. I politely told them that by objecting in such a manner they were subjecting Saif to discrimination similar to what they had themselves endured for many centuries.
You've worked with Ajay Devgn in most of your recent films. Why not this one?
I would have worked with him this time too but the timing didn't work. By the time the schedule was worked out after Raajneeti, Ajay had already committed to other projects and couldn't fit in the dates for this one.
But it was rumoured that he was not happy with his role and the prominence given to Ranbir Kapoor in Raajneeti.
No, that's not true. They are all actors and everyone knows the projects they're doing. Can you make stars act if they're unhappy?
From your first film one notices the Bihar connection.
(Laughs) Bihar is like many Indias. It's an amazing society, very aware, very awake, very volatile and very political. Most of the big social and student movements started from Bihar. Then the lack of development, green revolution not reaching Bihar and the movement of labourers for centuries to countries like Mauritius etc is fascinating. I think Biharis have been very enterprising in all fields: social, political. Even the caste equations are profound there. Since I know the society well and one needs to locate your stories somewhere, hence Bihar.
How important are stars vis-a-vis content?
In today's market-driven society, they are very important. As it is, I choose difficult subjects so it always helps to have stars to market your films. The change started with Mrityudand. With the opening of a market economy and NFDC going defunct, we had no money to make movies. We could either make movies to make money or go back home. So I repackaged the story of Mrityudand, got Madhuri and Shabana to act in it along with Om Puri.
Is the industry looking at you differently after Raajneeti?
Not really. There's no denying that when you have a big hit, there's better acknowledgement and more acceptance. But the love, affection and recognition I've got from this industry are the same.
What's your next project, Satsang, about and when do you plan shooting?
Satsang is about the business of spiritualism. It's an interesting subject, but I can't divulge much as I haven't decided anything yet. I like to shoot in the months of January to March so whatever project I start, it'll definitely be around that time.
You contested two elections in 2004 and 2009. Is the political ambition still alive and what went wrong in earlier elections?
No more elections for me. 2004 was sort of symbolic. But 2009, I contested very seriously. Nothing went wrong. I applied for the job of Member of Parliament and my application got rejected despite it being a close contest with the margin of votes being very little. And this when I was not a politician. No more elections for me. I enjoy making movies and will continue to do so.
Finally, your ex-wife Deepti Naval is acting in a television serial. Have you had a chance to see it?
I saw it fleetingly the other day. Deepti's a phenomenal actor, there's no doubt about it. I've done films with her;we talk to each other and have been great friends. She's enjoying her television stint and that's important.
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