I was seven when “Rang De Basanti” was released. Unaware of the status it would attain in the context of my life in the years to come, I had watched the film in a cineplex with my parents and my sister. While the film was well received, for the most part, it left the audience perplexed. But it is one of those films that people have gradually, in a process that has been very profound, learned to love. It’s the same as “Tamasha” – whose impact was not felt instantly and like “Lakshya” which was unsuccessful on the silver screen, not because it was a terrible film but because Farhan Akhtar had a fairytale directorial debut with “Dil Chahta Hai”. While “Lakshya” stalled miserably at the theatres, it has been acknowledged as a good film, as people, especially the young minds, have watched and re-watched it in search of inspiration.
Sue McKinley, played by Alice Patten has a nine to five job that requires her to make documentaries for a living at ‘World Vision’. But one day she finds the diary of her grandfather James McKinley, an officer in the British army, only to become emotionally affected by the stories of the revolutionaries in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. She makes up her mind to pack her bags and fly to India, depending on the only friend she has in the country, Sonia (Soha Ali Khan). She arrives in the national capital territory, to make a film, without any funds. She’s a little zealot in her own ways.
“Rang De Basanti” is undoubtedly a youth-film. Zestful at every step, it captures the spirit of the nation, which is young. Strictly going by the demographics, India has more than 50% of its population below the age of 25 and more than 65% below the age of 35. India is a young nation, which is why this film continues to appeal. While the movie deals with a number of themes, the primary plotlines are the making of the documentary and the MiG fighter plane scam. There are times where the first one hour and forty-six minutes feel like a film on their own, which gives the movie the feel of a fragmented whole.
“Rang De Basanti” is a testament of university culture and the fact that the coolest film of the last decade highlights the existential angst of the postmodern times. Deejay (Aamir Khan) has sudden bouts of existential angst. In one such sequence in the film, Deejay explains to Sue that while he had acquired his degree some fives years ago, he could not convince himself to leave the campus for fear of obscurity. This is a sad reality for many students across the various campuses in India. Many students, while pursuing their post-graduation, settle for the comfort that the campus culture offers. Their university becomes a haven for them, which they find tough to leave for the outer world. It is the same existential angst that had occupied Shahid Kapoor’s character in “Kismat Konnection”. While there were many who’ve claimed that Aamir Khan was a miscast because he was way past the age acceptable for playing a varsity student, the director actually portrays ingenuity by casting Aamir and doing so by successfully weaving a storyline for him, in a film that otherwise had actors who do not work in the mainstream.
We see the film unfold through the eyes of Sue, who keeps thinking about the six friends on a cinematic plane and by the time we’ve arrived at the end of the first half, the actors have become their characters and the characters in the film have become their historical counterparts. We see the character of Aslam (Kunal Kapoor), who plays Ashfaqulla Khan in Sue’s documentary, facing the same conflict that his historical counterpart did. Aslam is not in agreement with the idea of not intermingling with the Hindu majority of the country, which was being propounded by his father and brother. Ashfaq too, right until his death in 1927, worked for Hindu-Muslim unity, the Independence of India and against the partisan forces in his own community. Aslam is shown to be the ideal Muslim. The treatment that the minority finds in this film tells us about the director’s idea of a minority, while the film is not fascist, certain elements in the film imply that the director also believes that there was a section within the minorities, that can be held responsible for the partition of India.
Sue, the outsider, has been used as a mouthpiece for important social commentary. For instance, she is quoted saying “I was so stupid to pack my bags and come to a place where people are looking for an excuse to kill each other”. While Sue speaks Hindi, during one of the scenes, the screenplay demands that she say “tumhara jawaab nahin, Sonia”. The proverbs in a language, lose their essence in translation. “Tumhara jawaab nahin”, is an expression and not a direct translation and there is no way that someone who is just learning to speak in a different tongue, would pick up its proverbs easily, this flaw is a result of poor writing. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is a fine director when he has been given a good screenplay and is not involved in the writing process himself. “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” is a brilliant piece of work whereas “Delhi 6” is a result of weak writing and so is “Aks”, which if I may state, very controversially is one of Amitabh Bachchan’s best work, acting-wise.
“Rang De Basanti” has the ability to move back and forth in time. The boys fight against the ruling party that is shown to be involved in high-level corruption just like their historical counterparts were engaged in a struggle against the British, which makes this film a huge allegory for the Indian Independence movement. A brilliant scene in the film, for instance, would be that of Scott’s assassination and how the film immediately cuts to present day and time after his murder and has the ensemble riding in a jeep as they smile mischievously. While the camera techniques could be old, this does not prevent “Rang De Basanti” from being visually appealing. The movie is said to be set in Delhi, but the Director’s and the Director of Photography’s eye for aesthetic has taken the film to various locations. This visual gem allowed Binod Pradhan, who was also the Director of Photography for “Devdas”, to win the Filmfare for best cinematography that year.
The music is an integral part of this film, the visuals in the songs are stunning and do not take away from the film’s storyline. The songs cannot be skipped because they’ve important sequences that advance the storyline, whether it be ‘tu bin bataye’, ‘luka chuppi’ or ‘khoon chala’. The film’s music cannot be seen separately from the movie itself. Serenity in ‘tu bin bataye’ and chaos in ‘khalbali’, is successfully conveyed through camera work, tension is conveyed through A.R. Rahman’s background score in flashback scenes.
The only song that did not have anything new to add to the film, would be the title track ‘rang de basanti’, this song sequence could be edited out without the audience being able to tell that something has gone missing from the film. Because unlike other songs, this song does not blend into the storyline of the film and looks like it has been edited in to showcase the village Olympics. So, for me, those five minutes of the title track are the most discountable, in the entire movie. As far as I can call to memory, the computer-generated aircrafts in ‘tu bin bataye’, did not exist in the theatrical release but were later added, when the movie was released on DVD.
The poem, Sarfaroshi Ki Tamannah, has been incorporated into the song ‘lalkaar’ but the movie wrongly ends up attributing the war cry, Sarfaroshi Ki Tamannah, penned by Bismil Azimabadi, a poet from Patna to the poet-revolutionary Ram Prasad Bismil. Though Ram Prasad Bismil immortalised this poem, it is not his creation. Also, in a scene that takes place between Ashfaqulla Khan and Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaq is advised by Bismil to flee to Afghanistan, where he could remain safe with those who shared his religious identity. One can doubt the historicity of such events because Shamsul Haq had discussed a similar incident in his book, “Muslims against partition”, where Frontier Gandhi was faced by embarrassment and dejection when Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had asked him to join the Muslim League, once the partition of India was announced. One wonders, whether such events in history were actually frequent or was this scene added to convey a sentiment but in the end distorts facts by shaping history in the public context.
While “Rang De Basanti” leaves us with several questions, looking back one can’t help, but wonder would the film still be as well-received had it been scheduled to release in today’s date and time, even with the country’s present political atmosphere?