New Bollywood film stokes caste controversy

Nov 30, -0001
MUMBAI: A new Bollywood film tackling the thorny issue of caste quotas in Indian government jobs and education is released this week in the face of vocal protests from minorities.Politicians and interest groups championing the low-caste Hindus and other marginalised groups that the system is designed to help have come out in force against "Aarakshan" (Reservation), despite it not hitting screens until Friday.The head of India's National Commission for Scheduled Castes has even said that director Prakash Jha's film was "anti-Dalit and anti-reservation", referring to the community previously known as "untouchables".In Mumbai, publicity material was vandalised and more than a dozen activists arrested for protesting outside Jha's office, prompting police to give him and the film's leading actors extra security.Elsewhere, the government of Uttar Pradesh state banned any promotion of the film on security grounds, protests have been held in Rajasthan and Punjab and a court case has been brought against a decision to pass the film uncut.Jha, whose films have previously tackled social issues such as corruption and power politics, denies taking a position on the issue."'Aarakshan' is not anti-reservation and/or anti-Dalit," the 59-year-old told reporters last week."In India there are people who benefit from this policy and there are those who have missed an opportunity because of the policy. Reservation and the quota system is a hard-hitting reality."It is almost an India versus India situation and by showing this in my movie, I am trying to bridge the gap."Reservation refers to the policy of guaranteeing jobs for socially disadvantaged groups, officially referred to as "scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and other backward classes".The affirmative action aims to provide equal opportunities for the poorest and most marginalised in India's complex and deeply entrenched social hierarchy.India's 160 million Dalits, many of whom live in rural areas, still face prejudice despite anti-discrimination laws, while harsh retribution is often meted out for flouting caste and sub-caste lines.The quota system itself is the subject of frequent challenges, with the number of places allocated to disadvantaged groups changing from state to state and sometimes exceeding the legal maximum of 50 percent.Those who miss out on public sector jobs or education places as a result say the system fails to reward talent or ability.Some sociologists have suggested that traditional caste notions have been eroded in any case due to India's economic boom, improving wealth and social mobility.Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said that phenomenon was more noticeable in fast-growing cities.But the pace of change is slow, he said, and discrimination still rife in areas from housing to marriage."It's still a major issue," he said.As a result, he added that it was clear why passions could be inflamed over pre-release clips from the drama, showing actor Amitabh Bachchan, playing an idealistic school principal, railing against the imposition of quotas.But with chronic under-investment in state education, there was "no alternative" to the quotas -- other than a concerted government drive to lift millions out of poverty, he added.Directors would be well aware of the risks of tackling such a subject, said Ashish Rajyadakshya, from the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore and a co-editor of the Encyclopaedia of Indian Film."It (protests) is not only limited to cinema. People make this kind of complaint through the legal system on religious, linguistic or caste-based feelings," he added.Other Bollywood films have faced protests in recent years, most notably Deepa Mehta's "Fire" (1996), for its portrayal of lesbianism, and "Water" (2005), about the treatment of widows in Indian society.Critics of actor Shah Rukh Khan's support for Pakistani cricketers threatened to disrupt showings of his film "My Name Is Khan" in 2010.But more often than not, opposition comes from conservative Hindu nationalist groups that see themselves as the guardians of Indian culture and values than from those hoping to change social norms.For now, Jha is digging in his heels, accusing politicians of trying to win more votes by playing communal politics."I am just trying to show how it (reservation) has created two Indias," he said. AGENCIES






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