Writer-director Prakash Jha reflects the 'real India' at the 10th World Film Festival of Bangkok'Two Indias co-exist in this country," says Amitabh Bachchan sternly, his resonant voice reverberating through the theatre. "And if we want our country to genuinely progress, we shall have to eliminate the gap between the two."
The silence in the Esplanade Cineplex Ratchada is absolute, as the audience holds its collective breath. All eyes are glued to the drama unfolding on the screen, which is centred on one of India's most controversial issues of recent years - seat reservation for the lower castes.
"This parallel education system, which thrives on capitation and private coaching will destroy everything," says a resolute Bachchan, who plays Prabhakar Anand, the idealistic principal of an Indian college that he has single-handedly turned into the state's best.
The movie, "Aarakshan" ("Reservation"), ends on a happy note, a perfect example of Bollywood's aptitude for melodrama while dealing with very serious and complex issues. And it adds another feather to the cap of Prakash Jha, a filmmaker known for working on issues that bring about social change, no matter how sensitive they might be
In addition to "Aarakshan", this year's edition of the World Film Festival of Bangkok also screened another of this talented filmmaker's work, his latest movie "Chakravyuh", a social commentary on long-running Naxalite-Maoist insurgency.
In Bangkok to attend the film festival, the 60-year-old Jha says he has always been more attracted by "real human stories" than fantasies. "Our sub-continent is amazing. There are so many factors there - caste, class, region, language, colour and politics - to work with."
His second movie "Damul" ("Bonded Until Death"), released in 1985, tells the story of a bonded labourer who is forced to steal until death for his landlord. In 1997, he released "Mrityudand" ("Death Sentence") in which three women are sentenced to death for daring to speak out and thus threatening to break the status quo of a male dominated society. Six years later, "Gangaajal" ("Ganges Water") explored the relationship between society and the police through the dilemma of a police officer caught between social good and moral right. "Apaharan" ("Kidnap"), which came out in 2005, is the story of a tumultuous and complex relationship between a father and son set against the backdrop of a thriving kidnapping industry. Early this year, he released "Raajneeti" ("Politics"), a political thriller that demonstrates how a few people control the destiny of millions.
But no other film has earned as much resistance as "Aarakshan". Set in the context of an Indian Supreme Court decree that 49.5 per cent of admissions to public educational institutions be reserved for students from the lower castes, the 2011 film sheds light on the events in a college.
The court ruling is so divisive that Prabhakar Anand, principal of STM College, a non-government college exempt from this mandate, sees one of his prized teachers, lower-caste Deepak Kumar, turning against him and alienating his fiancee Poorbi, Anand’s daughter. Feeling threatened by the court order, Kumar's upper caste classmate Sushant takes a stand for admission on merit alone. During a newspaper interview, Anand speaks in favour of the reservation, earning ire from some of the trustees. Vice-Principal Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), who runs a US$217-million private coaching business in connivance with a state minister, uses this against Anand to push him into tendering his resignation. Mithilesh also takes over Anand's family home, forcing him to live near a cowshed. However, Anand starts teaching needy and backward students from the slum at the cowshed. The youngsters do well and Mithilesh’s coaching business suffers. Realising Anand's intent, Deepak and Sushant also join Anand's cowshed school. As Mithilesh is about to demolish the cowshed, reclusive magnate Shakuntala Thakral (Hema Malini) convinces Anand to head the new STM Remedial Centre to provide free coaching to needy and weak students.
Asked if anything other than the court ruling triggered the making of the film, Jha nods. "Another development has been taking place over the last 10 years. When we went into the commercialisation of education, almost everybody wanted to become a manager or an engineer. Suddenly, a new caste of people could buy opportunity. If you want to go to a good college, the fees you have to pay are prohibitive."
The film faced such strong resistance that it was banned in several states including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh. Jha was forced to go to the Supreme Court before his film could be released. He also faced protests from different groups including dalits and OBCs (other backward castes) in Mumbai.
"The resistance was a bit too much, but only in anticipation. They were apprehensive that I might favour reservationists or anti-reservationists. But once the film was released, everything was fine," he says.
Jha personally supports the reservation policy. "It's time for change. We're trying to transcend from a caste-based society to a more equal society. This is not a process that is going to be completed in 10, 20 or 50 years. It may take a couple of centuries for the whole mindset to change."
Yet in his film, he doesn't take a side. "For me making films is taking a look at a problem from every angle, so that people can see and get a better view."
But Jha, who has won eight national awards, denies feeling obligated to make films about socio-political issues. "I just like to face the reality. It's important to me that somebody tells the story of real people, real society, the real India."
But he also needs to mix fantasies with reality. "While trying to reach the masses, you have to have heroes, villains, the grey characters and a grand finale. While using that language, I discuss and personalise the issues through the characters so that the story becomes interesting and engaging."
Citing "Chakravyuh" as an example, he explains, "It was released in October, the same time as Karan Johor's 'Student of the Year', which is a complete fantasy on the lives of students. Let the young people go and have good time watching it. But let them also come and feel the toughness of life that is waiting out there through my films"
"Chakravyuh", a finely crafted thriller focusing on the lives of two friends, separated by caste, creed and ideology and torn apart by their irreconcilable socio-political differences, has already received, in Jha's words, "phenomenal critical reaction".
The acclaimed filmmaker from Bihar, who started his career with a documentary, "Under the Blue" in 1975, concentrates on the frustration of India's middle class in his next venture, "Satyagraha" (Passive Resistance). Shooting begins in January.
He also intends revisiting "Gangaajal" and "Raajneeti".