The film, “Aarakshan” or Reservation, starring Bollywood’s biggest star Amithabh Bachchan, has been accused of being “anti-Dalit” by groups which represent India’s estimated 500 million people of Untouchable and Backward castes.
Despite being approved by India’s censors for unrestricted release, it has been banned in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh. There have also been calls for the film to be banned in Bihar and Maharashtra.
The film touches a raw nerve among India’s higher caste middle classes whose children must reach pass rates higher than 90 per cent to win college places, while a 49 per cent quota means “backward caste” pupils can secure places on much lower grades.
In the film, a private college principal, played by Amithabh Bachchan, is forced to resign over his support for reservations and is replaced by his high-caste, anti-quota deputy. He establishes a free tuition centre for poor students opposite the college, and the debate on one of India’s most divisive issues rages between them.
Low-caste groups have protested at dialogue they regard as offensive and the casting of major Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan as a bright Dalit boy because he is the son of a nabob, an Indian aristocrat, the legendary former cricket captain Tiger Pataudi.
They objected to one scene where an upper caste vice principal tells Mr Khan’s character: “Our kids study day and night and you people get the maximum seats,” and another where an upper caste student complains: “Now we have to do their work, we have to polish shoes.”
Resentment among higher castes has increased since 2006 when the government increased reservations to 49.5 per cent to include the so-called “Other Backward Castes.” It has coincided with increasingly high pass requirements for India’s most sought-after universities. In June one Delhi University college demanded pass rates of 100 per cent for the first time.
The attempt to ban the film however has caused outrage throughout India’s film industry. Amitabh Bachchan, India’s most celebrated actor, said a ban on the film would undermine India’s democracy and mean its people were living in “a most unfortunate fascist conditioning.”
Leading Indian film director Jag Mundra said the film had been exploited for political reasons by those who oppose a debate on caste reservations.
“I would like to ask these people: ‘If you loved one was in a hospital and needed a life-saving operation, and you knew the surgeon came in on a reservation, would you want that person to operate? How long do we make people suffer now to right the wrongs of the past?” he asked.