Pick Of The Week: Rang De Basanti
A brave take on patriotism, friendship, loss and justice, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra gave us a movie that makes more sense today than ever before.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti hit theatres almost 13 years ago but is more relevant today than ever before. This was neither a mainstream dance-drama, commercial film, nor was it an 'art' film. It was simply something we had never seen before. Rang de Basanti taught us that “zindagi jeene ke do hi tareeke hote hain: ek jo ho raha hain hone do, bardasht karte jao, ya phir zimmedari uthao usse badalne ki.”
The film unfolds through the eyes of a young British documentary maker Sue (Alice Patten) who comes to India to shoot a documentary on the Indian freedom struggle. The story of Rang De Basanti is told in two time periods. In the past, Aamir Khan was cast as Chandrashekar Azad, Tamil star Siddharth as Bhagat Singh, Atul Kulkarni as Ramprasad Bismil, Kunal Kapoor as Ashfaqullah Khan and Sharman Joshi as Rajguru. The same actors also appear as characters in contemporary times grappling with the deeply entrenched grammar of India’s socio-political corruption. Starting off as a bunch of college students dilly dallying around campus, the group eventually finds itself at the crossroads of love, loss and justice when they lose one of their closest friends Ajay Rathod (R. Madhavan) to a plane crash and his death consequently gets politicised. At first, they start off with peaceful protests to grieve his death and seek justice, but to no avail. So they decide to take matters into their own hands.
Through its now iconic flashbacks scriptwriters Mehra, Kamlesh Pandey and Rensil D’ Silva created a very interesting, eye opening parallel between 2006 and the 1920s, when young freedom fighters like Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Ramprasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan and Durgawati Devi chose to write their own history by rejecting Gandhi’s non-violent stance on revolution and instead adopting a guerrilla, vigilante approach executing meticulously planned robberies and small scale attacks against British governance infrastructure. This movie hit India at a time when patriotism was passé, “pagdi sambhal jatta” was no longer relevant nor did many kids know who Chandrashekhar Azad was. At the time, the film’s controversial ending, where the protagonists gun down corrupt politicians, was even perceived as fascist. When asked about it Mehra rationalised, “Every story has to follow its own course. What jolted the audience (in RDB) is, they loved my heroes and they don’t want them to die. But that’s too bad. You love and lose the best people in your lives. It isn’t a fascist or a heroic but a poetic ending.” We agree! The ending was not about being undemocratic or propagating violence, it was about taking what is rightfully yours. Colonisation might have ended in 1947 but it left its deadly roots in systemic corruption, infringement of justice and today, casual erosion of secularism by its new rulers in a young country that still carries the baggage of partition.
Sitting in your neighbourhood cafe, sharing a cup of iced tea or two, it’s almost routine to switch from discussions on politics to how overrated Cardi-B is. ‘Politics is not my thing’; ‘I don’t do politics’ nudges your closest friend and you are left wondering how futile that statement is today. Politics is not a choice. The shirt you wear, the phone you use, the national anthem you stand up for before every movie - willingly or not - is all dictated by politics. The 1974 Jayaprakash Narayan-led Bihar Movement was largely a student march against Indira Gandhi’s government. What came to be known as the ‘JP Movement’ was at its heart a group of students who decided that education goes beyond the university gates and when the constitution is being taken for granted, you take democracy into your hands and scream freedom as loudly as you can.
With Kashmir still dumped in the shadows without internet or phone connections and Assam witnessing gunshots running through 16 year olds, we are standing in the same chakravyuh. You know your constitution is in danger when global publications feature your leader as ‘India’s divider in chief.’ It’s time we stand up for our democracy and protect what not just Ambedkar and Nehru but also Azad and Bhagat Singh fought for. Rang De Basanti taught us “ab bhi jiska khoon na khaula, khoon nahi woh paani hai, jo desh ke kaam naa aaye, woh bekaar jawaani hai.”
Featuring songs like Luka Chuppi and Khoon Chala with rousing lyrics and music that pulls at your heartstrings by A.R Rahman, Rang de Basanti is a single drop of tear, a hug and at its heart, a scream. It is all shades of brilliance Bollywood has so conveniently failed to achieve.
Words by Bidhi Bhagawati