On Republic Day, revisiting Rang De Basanti — a political parable and conversation for today's masses

With Rang De Basanti, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra achieves a stirring synthesis of social relevance and mesmeric storytelling,

Subhash K Jha January 26, 2022 11:29:36 IST
On Republic Day, revisiting Rang De Basanti — a political parable and conversation for today's masses

When Rang De Basanti opened on 26 January 2006, I was in a theatre in Patna watching a very fidgety, very confused audience reacting as we all do to unfamiliar experiences, with embarrassment and heckling.

The film adopted a unique format to tell the story of a freedom that we all have taken for granted. The entire film unfolds through the eyes of a young British documentary maker Sue (Alice Patten) in India to shoot a documentary on the Freedom Struggle. The film is in two time zones. In the past, Aamir Khan is cast as Chandrashekar Azad, Siddharth as Bhagat Singh, Atul Kulkarni as Ramprasad Bismil, Kunal Kapoor as Ashfaqullah Khan and Sharman Joshi as Rajguru. The same actors were also seen in contemporary times grappling with the grammar of socio-political corruption.

On release, I was stunned by director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s audacity and creative energy. I knew I was watching a film that would create history. But I also felt, wrongly, that it would be a box office disaster. As usual, I underestimated the power of the Indian audience to absorb and assimilate unique cinematic experiences. I remember speaking to Rakeysh (now a dear friend) after watching this landmark of a motion picture. Rakeysh was confident of the impact his film would make on the audience.

In every sense of the word, Rang De Basanti is a winner. Its aesthetic values and characterisations fill you with amazement and elation. It’s a gloriously triumphant look at today’s lives. And yet it audaciously takes a sweeping arching look at history for answers to the Big Question. Where has today’s generation gone wrong? Why is the nation so inured in corruption? And why are we so enamoured of the stagnant status quo? Are we scared to sweep the garbage?

Lofty thoughts, often swept by popular art under a carpet of cynicism. Not this time! Rakeysh Mehra achieves a stirring and stunning synthesis of social relevance and mesmeric storytelling.

From the start we are led into a world where youthful aspirations are aligned to the socio-political reality of a country on the brink. Rang De Basanti is a film on the edge. It jumps and careens across lives prancing on the precipice of the contemporary and the historical. “Is desh ka kuch nahin hoga!” How many times have we said this to ourselves and to others. Mehra’s protagonists, an assorted bunch of collegians and post-college friends, are played with amazingly casual grace by Aamir Khan (DJ), Siddharth (Karan), Sharman Joshi (Sukhi), Kunal Kapoor (Aslam) and Soha Ali Khan (Sonia).

On Republic Day revisiting Rang De Basanti  a political parable and conversation for todays masses

Into their world of endless fun and aimless aspirations comes a pretty and brainy British girl named Sue (the lovely and graceful debutant Alice Patten). Prompted by her grandfather’s diary, Sue wants to make a film on the life of the legendary Indian freedom fighters—you know, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, the works. And guess what? Sue wants to cast DJ and gang as the revolutionaries! The guffaws and the giggles that follow Sue’s dreams fade away, as this youthful brigade of adrift dreamers gets down to the ritual of acquainting itself with Indian history. Rang De Basanti dares to point fingers and tells us where we’ve gone wrong.

It isn’t only a film about the education of a moorless generation, it’s also an outstandingly accomplished piece of cinema. Mehra proves himself an outstanding raconteur and technician. With the deft and diligent editor (PS Bharathi) tailoring the past to merge fluently into the present, and Binod Pradhan’s camera capturing Delhi and its surroundings as a character rather than cities, Mehra’s job of bringing the past into the same line of vision as contemporary India, is rendered inevitable and unforgettable.

Mani Ratnam attempted the same theme in a different less dramatic light in Yuva. Rakeysh Mehra goes many steps ahead. He blends historical events from the past (e.g the massacre by Britishers at Jallianwala Bagh) with today’s newspaper headlines (the MIG war- planes scam). The film-within-a-film format earlier attempted in films as diverse in language and intent as Karel Reisez’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane) gives the narrative the texture of a life lived in layered luminosity. Not for a second does Rakeysh Mehra falter in his vision. The story of today’s youth, their lack of connectivity with their past, and the prevalent moral degeneration of the nation could quite easily have lapsed into a holier-than-thou jingoistic exposition.

Rang De Basanti works wonderfully and exceptionally as both a political parable and a spanking story on the scars of the times. In the fusion of fact and fiction, style and content the film is both teasing and tempting. While you applaud the filmmaker’s immense stronghold over his storytelling the characters never seem dwarfed by their ambience. You come away, haunted and bewildered by the issues that Mehra raises without letting his story suffer in the process of linking the modern tale with history. You come away from Rang De Basanti enchanted by the natural verve of its songs and dances, its director’s flair creating fissures and feeling from within the characters rather than imposing creative authority from outside. There’re interludes and visuals in Rang De Basanti which shall remain alive forever. There may be better films. But there will never be another one quite like this one.

Rakeysh was determined to make the film. He explains, “It’s a collection of many circumstances. In school, I wanted to join the air force. It didn’t work out for me. In college in Delhi, I was predominantly a sportsman. It didn’t work out because I was from a lower-middle-class family. And the first priority was to bring money back into the family….As kids in Delhi on 15 August when we flew kites, we could hear India Gandhi speaking…On the other side, there were the patriotic songs on the loudspeaker….'Ae mere watan, Mere desh ki dharti'…We were looking at the idea of our country through a kite….Films like Mother India, Do Bigha Zameen, Naya Daur which came on TV, touched all of us. This was the era when escapism hadn’t seeped into the cinema or real life. That was the era I wanted to re-capture in RDB.”

Initially, Rakeysh wanted to make a film on the life of Bhagat Singh. Then the race for Bhagat Singh films started. Several of Bhagat Singh bio-pics hit theatres one after another.

“I sadly abandoned the original idea and hit on another idea of a British documentary filmmaker coming to India to make a film on the Indian armed revolution. She finds kids who are more western than her. Two lines… the past and present run together. They intersect. There are sparks. Then the rooftop scene where the line between past and present blurs when Soha Ali Khan asks her friends to kill the rakshamantri….Suddenly the original idea was replaced by this new idea.”

The film controversial ending where our heroes gun down corrupt politicians has been perceived as fascist.

Rakeysh rationalises, “At the end, my heroes realise how futile it was to kill the home minister. Every story has to follow its own course. When heroes in mythology enter the caves to fight the demons, they’ve to perish. Mani Rathnam’s Yuva didn’t work for me after the heroes went into the parliament….What jolted the audience is, they love my heroes and they don’t want them to die. Too bad. You love and lose the best people in your lives. It isn’t a heroic but a poetic ending. But they become heroes because they die. What I’m trying to say is, we got independence from the goras. But we have got enslaved by our own. Now we’re killing each other. You’re from Bihar. You know what I mean. There can be no neat solution to the problems we face. Rang De Basanti is a conversation with the masses.”

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