Prakash Jha’s films generally revolve around geographical locations like Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, through which he often attempts to portray the socio-political and cultural environments.
Jha’s recent movie Pareeksha is an attempt to depict the high school educational realities in Jharkhand, which in general, is similar throughout India.
The movie’s title metaphorically represents the everyday struggles for jobs, education, dignity and self respect of the lower caste people.
Of Dalits & the Endless Caste Struggle
The story of Pareeksha is somewhat inspired from real-life experiences of Prakash Jha and IPS Officer Abhayanand. Speaking to The Indian Express, Jha revealed how the idea of Pareeksha arose from his childhood memories.
He used to travel to school in a rickshaw and many a times wondered about the kids of the rickshaw puller or of the school peon.
The character of the saviour SSP (Sanjay Suri) in the movie is inspired from IPS officer Abhayanand, co-founder of the Super 30 programme. He was once posted in Jahanabad, Bihar, where he taught children and helped them secure the right education.
In Pareeksha, we see that Buchchi is a rickshaw puller who takes elite students from home to an English medium school (Sapphire International School). By listening to them talking, Bucchi knows the meaning of certain English words but in a strange manner.
However, his own son Bulbul goes to a government school as Buchchi cannot afford the hefty fees of private schools. He desires that his son should learn in the international school, stating that “is narak se bahar nikal ne ka yahi ek rasta hai” (this is the only way to get out of this hell).”
Bucchi’s family live in an Ambedkar colony, and from his surname Paswan, one may understand that they belong to a Dalit community.
It becomes clear that the movie is about the aspiration of Dalits to get the best possible education. The parents work really hard to ensure that their only kid Bulbul can study and make his way out of this hell.
While this dedication is observed throughout Indian society, it is strongest amongst lower caste families because they do not have access to the privileges enjoyed by upper castes such as access to capital and powerful connections in politics and business.
The Preamble, Overlooked?
The film highlights the motto of French revolution, “liberty, equality and fraternity”, but misses the way these principles appear in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution: “Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity, these principle follows with the Social Justice which is social, economic and political”.
By overlooking the importance of the Preamble, and also the Constitution, Jha might have avoided upsetting the upper caste movie watcher, but has also missed an opportunity to connect with the audience on an important issue – that of dignity of the lower castes, and the struggles they endure to access opportunities in an unequal political economy.
In the film, the unethical behaviour of the teacher with Bulbul reminds us that the job of a teacher is not only to make the student learn new things, but also to ensure that every student is loved and accepted for who they are.
Moreover, the bullying faced by Bulbul on securing admission at the Sapphire International School manifests the insensitivity still prevalent among the upper caste children with regard to the struggles of downtrodden classes of the society.
At this point, it must be mentioned that discrimination is a learned behaviour, and children who show this behaviour are only imitating what has been taught to them by their parents and the social space they inhabit.
Private schools have glamourised education to the point of making it a commodity, excluding anyone who does not fit.
The Missing Ambedkar
When Bulbul shares his trauma with his mother, she has her own way of introducing him to the cruel reality by saying, “To kya aarti utarte tumhari, phool barsate (What do you expect? should I worship you with petals?)”
Then comes a moving song showing the motivated Bulbul working hard to excel in his studies. The song is a clever tool to showcase the hard work put in by Bulbul, which is a tried-and-tested formula in Indian cinema to highlight the transformative aspect of a character’s life on screen, while not requiring difficult conversations on the socio-political realities beyond a point.
Cinema is after all meant to satisfy the audience’s taste for a good story, and a song to show struggle adds to the emotional pull that viewers come to watch movies for.
Multiple scenes have been shot in the school in order to showcase intellectuals, social reformers and politicians, but Ambedkar’s image does not make the cut.
Perhaps the upper caste elites don’t want their children to learn about Ambedkar and don’t want him emerging out of Dalit bastis.
Ambedkar’s role as a nation-builder in school curriculum is only limited to his work on the Constitution, and his struggle as a Dalit. This “sad story” is what children grow up with, and do not learn to see Ambedkar as a dynamic personality who had to clear many pareekshas to be considered worthy, let alone equal.
(Prashant Ingole is a doctoral candidate in Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar and Ravneet Kaur is pursuing B.Com. LL.B. (Hons.), UILS, Panjab University, Chandigarh. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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