From A World to Win News Service

Film review: Rang de Basanti

Revolution #040, March 26, 2006, posted at

From time to time, Revolution will run tips from our correspondents and readers on movies, art exhibits, books, plays, and other cultural events that readers should know about. No endorsement implied, but worth checking out.

13 March 2006. A World to Win News Service. Seventy-five years ago this month, on 23 March 1931, the British colonial authorities hung Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries for taking armed action to win India’s independence. Celebrations are expected to mark the centenary of his birth next year, 28 September 2007.

Millions of Indians raged and wept at the execution of the brave youth who chanted anti-British slogans and “Inquilab Zindabad” (“Long live revolution”) as they climbed to the gallows. The revolutionary aspirations and atheist convictions of these members of the Hindustani Socialist Republican Organization contrasted sharply with the religious mysticism and pacifist path preached by M. K. Gandhi and the Congress Party at that time. Since then, for many decades the Congress Party has run India as a neo-colonial state, politically independent but dependent in every way on imperialist countries—as recently illustrated by the slavish reception that government gave George W. Bush despite huge protests. Meanwhile, Singh and his comrades have become popular revolutionary icons in today’s India. A new Indian film drawing large crowds in many countries focuses on today’s Indian middle class youth, for whom Bhagat Singh is a symbol not of the past but of a possible future. A reader sent us the following unsolicited film review. We encourage others to follow her example.

I am writing to tell you about Rang de Basanti, a new, politically charged Bollywood film with rebel music (by A.R. Rahman) and superb cinematography and action aimed in particular at today’s youth. It is the story of a group of university students who have spent their lives just having a good time—dancing, drinking, listening to music and hanging out with their friends. The arrival of Sue (Alice Patten), a young UK filmmaker, sets in motion a series of events that wind up changing their world-view and their lives—hence the film’s full title of Rang de Basanti A Generation Awakens. Sue has come to India without the backing of her film company, which had insisted she make a film about Ghandi. Instead, she wants to make one about the revolutionaries led by Bhagat Singh during the 1920s-1930s, the period before India’s independence. Her working title: Young Guns of India.

Sue recruits these fun-loving students (Aamir Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Siddharth and Sharman Joshi) to act in her film, playing the parts of the revolutionaries. Later, they are joined by Laxman (Atul Kulkarni), a strict Hindu and an activist with a mainstream Hindu nationalist BJP-type party. As they act out the roles of the revolutionaries, they learn more and more about the subjects of the film and their understanding begins to change. At just that moment, one of their closest friends, Ajay (Madhavan), a pilot for the Indian air force, is killed when his aeroplane crashes. It turns out that the Indian government has been buying defective spare parts for their planes on the cheap, enabling some compradors (foreign-connected businessmen) and government ministers to get rich. Ajay dies heroically as he refuses to eject from the plane and remains in it to ensure it doesn’t hit the town he is flying over.

The government tries to hide the real reason for the crash and publicly states that the cause is Ajay’s “rashness” and “incompetence.” The infuriated friends, led by DJ, who plays the part of Bhagat Singh, decide to expose these lies by organizing a peaceful protest. The police break it up violently, leaving Ajay’s mother in a coma. The friends now step into the roles of Bhagat Singh and his comrades in real life and decide to attack the Indian government to bring justice for their friend and his mother. There are excellent scenes where photos of the British Raj (colonial government) morph back and forth into scenes of the modern-day Indian government, to illustrate that ultimately there is no real difference between repression under the British Raj and repression under India’s modern-day rulers. The film culminates in a violent confrontation between the brutal Indian security forces and the youth calling on the Indian people to rise up.

This is obviously no typical Bollywood boy-meets-girl love story or mere action film. Rather the violence from the heroes is shown as purposeful and just, and it challenges its audience to think about how to change society. The director of Rang de Basanti, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, says, “There are two primary choices in life—to accept conditions as they exist or accept responsibility for changing them. Rang de Basanti is about changing them.” Rang de Basanti certainly shouts at the top of its voice that people must take action to bring about change. The film throbs with hatred of the corruption rotting the core of official India and contempt for the outlook of “look out for yourself” individualism that justifies and perpetuates this state of affairs. The director is not afraid to call on the youth for fearless self-sacrifice in the higher cause of an end to this putrid corruption.

But while the film seethes with anger at the corruption and rot in India’s official heart, and issues a fierce call to fight, it treats the problem as one of “corruption” and “bad people,” and winds up with a dramatic plea from one of the young heroes to enter the government and the establishment in order to “clean it up” from within. It does this even though the plot of the film tends to show that people need to take matters into their own hands, as there is no point in working through the government since the government works in the interests of those who rule society in general.

It is possible that this call for working through the government was intended to some extent to satisfy the Indian censors. The Censor Board, after viewing the film, told the filmmakers to refer the film to the Ministry of Defense for their approval—an outrageous move in itself, giving India’s generals veto over the arts. However, apparently, in the end neither asked for any cuts. Dialogue arguing for change to be made through government channels has been in seen in Bollywood films before, e.g. Swades—We the People. However, a strength of Swades over Rang de Basanti is that Swades is about the people working together to bring about change in their living conditions, whereas Rang de Basanti is very much about a lone group of five friends who take action separate from the masses of people. Scriptwriter Kamlesh Pandey argues, “The undercurrent of Rang de Basanti is what would Bhagat Singh have done if only he were alive today.” But one point that has to be made about Rang de Basanti is that the approach of Bhagat Singh and his comrades in the 1920-30s and those of the young friends in Rang in 2002, however courageous and inspiring, ultimately are not enough to make lasting change if they do not link up with a programme that can actually unleash the masses to make revolution. Indian history shows us that the British Raj did indeed go and the neo-colony of India was born, but the state still oppresses the people.

This film concentrates many of the contradictory trends sweeping India and much of the world today. At a time when everyone is told how India is joining Western consumer society and its youth care only about money and getting ahead, here is a film that passionately depicts the rage burning just below the surface among many middle class youth there. It is a striking portrayal of the difference a handful can make if they take a bold, just stand. Yet the film is also marked by a time when, to much too great an extent, disbelief in the power of the masses to change the world goes hand-in-hand with narrowing the problem down to one or another symptom—like “corruption” or “bad apples”—of what is in fact an entire system that needs to be taken on and overthrown. Nor will the emotional calls to Indian patriotism go down well with the millions of oppressed in neighboring countries who view India as a regional gendarme.

The star of the film is Aamir Khan, who early in his career decided “to do only a limited number of assignments with conviction.” He has certainly been involved in several films that challenge people’s thinking. He is probably most famous in India for his role as the hero in Legaan. His character was described by one film critic as “a simple but defiant villager who takes on the British Raj by accepting a challenge that looks impossible to deliver.” He first came to the attention of mainstream Western audiences for his role in The Rising—Ballad of Mangal Pandey,a film glorifying the first uprising in India against the British Raj, in 1857.

Another face in the film familiar to both South Asian and Western filmgoers is Om Puri, known to British audiences from his portrayal of the father in both East is East and My Son the Fanatic (the latter being a film “ahead of its time,” with its sub-plot that today would be considered to be touching on the roots of “home grown terrorism”). In Rang de Basanti he again plays a father, this time the father of the young Aslam, the Muslim member of the group of friends, whose family tries fiercely to persuade him that Muslims should keep themselves separate from Hindus. One of the film’s strengths is the way that it challenges this, including by exposing the way that racist Hindu parties like BJP prey on the frustration of the nation’s youth and actually cooperate closely with India’s rulers. In fact, as the final confrontation looms, Laxman, the Hindu activist in the group who starts off as anti-Islamic, takes the hand of the Muslim Aslam. They face death together, as brothers. In today’s India, where powerful forces are whipping up tides of religious and racial distrust and hatred, this is a stirring message to the youth.

The film had a record-breaking first week in India. It has been on wide release outside India in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Fiji, Gulf countries, Canada, the U.S. and UK. During its first week in the UK, it reached the thirteenth spot at the box office, despite having only been shown on 38 screens, less than a tenth the number as the big blockbusters. Many young people have seen the film due to the music by Rahman and the somewhat misleading trailers (which suggested the film would be of regular Bollywood fare—good music, love and fun). But most who see it, regardless of their original motive for going, are moved by the saga of Bhagat Singh and his comrades and the bravery of today’s young friends.

The film shows how events can turn hedonistic youths into bold rebels, but the main question has to be what will the future hold. The film ends with a little boy named Bhagat in a field of what looks like rapeseed asking his father, who is planting a different crop (mangos) in just one small area of the field, what he is doing. The father replies that he is planting a mango tree, and that from one mango tree a hundred will grow. So the film presumably is posing the question as to whether from one revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, and his story being retold today in the 21st century through DJ, will a hundred more revolutionaries step forward? It is a question that is up to us to answer.

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