Rakesh Mehra’s cult movie left me in two minds. I certainly appreciated the fact that for Indians in today’s society, something urgent and drastic has to be done if the democracy must move away from the scourge of corruption and nepotism. We’ll come back to that. But somehow I was a little annoyed by the systematic parallel made between the young Delhi students and the XXth century Freedom fighters. I don’t criticise it in principle, but I thought that the nail was hammered down too far. To the point that the modern corruption fighters were deprived of some of their freedom, perhaps, and the film became somewhat a demonstration.
Anyway, I liked the film’s pretext, the arrival of fair-haired Sue (Alice Peyton), that young idealistic (well not so idealistic, she’s very down to earth too!) descendant of a former British officer involved in Freedom fighter executions. She really makes the story sound true, she’s very good. As are all its actors, led by a powerful Aamir Khan. I also enjoyed the fact that the film makes no compromise, and runs headlong into that wall of conventions that so many Indian films satisfy themselves with. The end is the logical end, and the film makes its point thanks to it. Had the hero been spared, the tragic tension would not have operated in the same way. So when I read somewhere that Rang de Basanti is a “sad” film, it’s true, but it’s also false. First because its mood is a light one throughout, a purposefully superficial mood which is linked to the theme of sacrifice
(cf. DJ and Karan laughing just before being killed) and victory, but also because describing Rang de Basanti as sad runs the risk of presenting it with the categories of normal conventional Bollywood. The film isn’t a sad film in the sense that Devdas, or Kal ho na ho are. It’s a political film, a war film. You should first use these categories before you call it sad. Because then of course it’s true that war is sad.
I understand that the title means Paint it Yellow, or Orange, and that this colour is the one of sacrifice in the Hindu religion. So that it could be paraphrased “The colour of sacrifice”. What’s good about the way the film deals with this theme is the realistic background used for the “martyrs”. None of them are die-hard dogmatists or ideologists. On the contrary, if you knew that they would be the ones who would display so much courage in the end, you would wonder where it came from. They’re just a bunch of college bums, some of whom (like DJ) are immature enough to actually have stayed on at university because “at least he’s someone there”. We never see them follow classes. They’re just parasites, enjoying their youth and despising any loftier commitment. Their country means nothing for them. They don’t belong, they just waste time. They are slaves to their empty present. The contrast with Ajay is a little too stark, but after all, it’s not unrealistic. He’s the committed one, the serious one. He’s made his choice: the army, his country, in spite of all the ambiguities, all the impurity of side-taking. But if he’s first seen as having chosen the wrong side of collaborating with an undemocratic system, all that vanishes when his plane crashes because of government greed and corruption. He becomes a symbol of responsibility. And it is this symbol that will light up the torches of rebellion which Sue had so painstakingly managed to instil in them.
Thus there are two sources of inspiration for sacrifice described in the film, and the interesting thing about it is that they are connected. It is because the young students had started thinking about their situation in a free country for which some forgotten martyrs of the past had died, and realising what these fellow-countrymen had done for them, the future generation, that they can now feel so deeply about a political modernity which so blatantly flies in the face of what these martyrs died for. Sacrifice is possible now because they have taken root in their history, in the history of their nation, and this sacrifice makes them finally belong. The sacrifice would not have taken such a collective and meaningful dimension had they only been exposed to Ajay’s death. Sue wanted to stir them into feeling their roles with their guts: in fact what she did was, through them, pushing a mountain back on its balance. The victorious work of democrats had raised the mountain of Freedom for all the world to see when India was set free in 1947; but much of that climbing had been forgotten, and one could say that fifty years later the mountain was crumbling, sliding on its base. A cure of sacrifice was needed.
An element which might pass unnoticed but shouldn’t is the role played by the mothers in the film. There are two: Ajay’s (Waheeda Rehman) and DJ’s (Kiron Kher). Ajay the committed and martyr, and DJ the committed and martyr. Mothers of course guarantee Permanence, they are the human equivalent of the soil, that earth where children grow and become men and women. This film is a story of permanence and rooting. For men to grow, you need a permanent soil, and you need roots. And this allegorical earth needs to be fertilised regularly by the blood of birth and by the blood of death. If some men don’t die for their country, then no seed of belonging there can grow. But if one seed of sacrifice falls in this earth, in the earth of that land, then thousands of men, thousands of mothers will feel they belong there, will want to grow and live there, where men have sacrificed their lives, and where mothers have given birth to sons and daughters. (Interesting also that, to parallel Sue’s grandfather, who is at the origin of the story, we have the character of DJ’s grandfather ).
Rang de Basanti has 268 reviews in Imdb! Obviously it has appealed to many Indian and non-Indian people throughout the world. The question I would like to examine now is: what can the cinema do against political evil? At the end of the movie, we see all these young crowds interviewed by imaginary journalists, saying that corruption and tyranny won’t be allowed to continue, that a strong public response will ensue… OK. The problem has already been asked by one of those reviewers on Imdb, infinityToHeaven. This is what he writes:
But my point is:
"What do we do now. Do you have a solution?"
When will we see a movie which could bring us hope, which addresses the Issues and brings out the execution in reality? Opinions like these will come and go but the Problem still remains.
Of course one of the sensitive/criticised questions is that what is advocated in the film is self-justice, including a murder. But the movie is aware of the difficulty, since one of the participants to the radio talk at the end with Karan (justly acclaimed Siddharth) mentions this problem to him. His justification is that this wasn’t an innocent victim… But I’d say that this isn’t the problem. The subtitle “A generation awakens” is what is really at stake: can such films indeed awaken the young (and the old) and change the way politics is done in the Indian society? Not being familiar with Indian current events this past decade, I don’t know, and I can’t say whether the film itself has spawn anything since it came out last year. Hopefully not, perhaps, because if sparks spurt out too fast, then the real underground movement might not root very deep. I think that all democracies are in danger of losing their dedication to the People, and falling prey to factions and power-greedy minorities. The message contained in Rang de Basanti is not only sacrifice, but reaction from the grassroots. And of course, insemination of the minds of the voters… But my limited experience as a citizen tells me this isn’t enough. Action IS necessary. And the dilemma is to know whether, like all terrorist movements wanting to draw attention on themselves, one needs violence to make this action possible. Rang de Basanti seems to say, yes, we need some violence. Gandhi (and Christianity) would say no, only sacrifice is indispensable. And violence only begets violence. The film chooses in fact a middle road since it puts forward the value of sacrifice, but somehow justifies violence too.
To finish, I’d like to praise once again Aamir Khan and his gang, along with A.R. Rahman for the great music. I still feel that repressed uneasiness about the way the parallelism between the two rebellions is handled in the film. But that’s probably because Rakesh Mehra is still a young director. After what has been said of the necessity for young blood, we’ll say that it’s the price to pay for originality and creativity.
PS: Surfing through Indian blogs, I've found one by Tarana Khan who looks at one of the urgent questions this post addresses, ie, solutions for a better democracy in India: it's here.