The making of a contemporary classic Rang De Basanti set a trend in filmmaking with its unconventional narrative style

The making of a contemporary classic Rang De Basanti set a trend in filmmaking with its unconventional narrative style

In one of Rang De Basanti’s (RDB) many moments of frank criticisms, Aamir Khan’s character, Daljeet, comes up with a dehati (rustic) logic to sum up the complexities of today’s India. He says: “With one leg in the past and one in the future… it’s no wonder we’re peeing on the present.” Incidentally, the film’s narrative style, with the past and the present running parallelly, did create a convincing and challenging storyboard for future filmmakers.

Rang De Basanti was a truly daring film — its success, connect, influence and referencing (cinematic and academic) is a testament to that fact. For those interested in studying people’s movements of the early 21st century India, like Anna Hazare’s ‘andolan against corruption’ (2011) , it would be worth researching the role of new millennium celluloid social critiques like Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006).

The film’s idea of peaceful candle light protests to voice the common man’s angst against a corrupt system, found itself replicated by those campaigning for justice in the Jessica Lal murder case, a fact acknowledged by the makers of No One Killed Jessica (2011), a film based on the trial.

The plot

Rang De Basanti begins with British filmmaker Sue McKinley’s (Alice Patten) desire to make a documentary film on the five young freedom fighters — Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad, Rajguru, Ramprasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan — who never lived to see an independent India.

The trigger happens to be her grandfather James McKinley’s accounts in his personal diary as a jailer in pre-independent India. Sue’s decoding of her grandfather’s ‘silent’ interactions with those revolutionaries on death row, inspire and urge her to a point of creative obsession to voice those silences through a popular, visual medium like cinema.

On reaching India, Sue however, has to first contend with the frustration of not finding good actors, who can understand and emote the essence of those young revolutionary heroes, until her host, friend and a Delhi University student, Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) introduces her to an eclectic and talented, yet seemingly aimless college gang of DJ (Aamir Khan), Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), Aslam (Kunal Kapoor) and Karan Singhania (Siddharth) apart from Sonia’s fiancé Ajay Rathod (Madhavan), and a Hindutva foot soldier Laxman Pandey (Atul Kulkarni). They are not only representatives of the modern Indian youth in its varied aspirations, but also in a clever twist of social context setting, represent the religious, social and economic diversity of India. So, you have a rich boy, a working-class boy, a middle-class boy, and a man employed with the defence services — between them hailing from Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities.

Interestingly, when Sue recruits DJ and his pals to play the roles of the young freedom fighters, she’s surprised by their lack of interest in these Indian heroes she’s been idolising all along. Their disregard for history and an attitude of uprootedness, is, however, abruptly transformed when Ajay dies in a plane crash because of the faulty parts in the old MIG fighter plane he was flying. To deflect the media’s probing questions on corruption in defence sector purchases, the defence minister defames Ajay’s sacrifice on TV. DJ and his gang, meanwhile, to honour Ajay’s memory and reputation, plan a peaceful candlelight vigil at India Gate. Police crackdown follows, in which Ajay’s mother is critically wounded and goes into a coma. That’s when DJ and his friends, inspired by their recent date with revolutionary history, feel impelled to kill the defence minister.

But when the dead minister is honoured as a martyr, DJ and his friends plan to hijack the All India Radio station to put forth their side of the story. Karan admits on radio that they killed the defence minister and argues how Ajay was a true hero. But their plan to surrender themselves backfires and they are all killed under orders that no one should survive to tell their story any further.

A global Indian film

So, what is it about Rang De Basanti that makes it such a special film? Is it just the fact that it has contemporary youth characters and relatable images of male bonding not often seen in Hindi cinema (notable exceptions being Dil Chahta Hai, Rock On, 3 Idiots, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara). Well, this is a truly global film coming out of Bollywood, where East meets West sharing unusual, common concerns. A British citizen comes to India to awaken in its youth respect for some of the nation’s real heroes but the educated Indian youth may see it cool to be disconnected with its history. But then history repeats itself and how.

More importantly, the film seeks to celebrate patriotism in mundane acts.

The film also seeks to explore empathetic alternate viewpoints to the British rule, in the moral dilemmas of jailor McKinley. Can one essentialise all rulers as unfeeling tyrants? McKinley’s questioning of the torturous methods employed by the British officers to elicit information from captive Indian revolutionaries highlight well the dilemmas of a righteous soul in the line of a tough duty.

Director Rakeysh OmPrakash Mehra presents a new, youthful and exciting take on the trauma of colonial history, blending well his commercial advertisement background with A.R. Rahman’s pulsating modern rhythms to make meaningful cinema at its entertaining and enlightening best. And this, in it, is enough to celebrate Rang De Basanti as contemporary classic cinema.

The critic, author, filmmaker is Dean, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, R.V. University, Bengaluru.

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By Dipak

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