Rang De Basanti! So brilliant! So complicated! So different! I could write a post just on why Madhavan was cast. But I am going to start with this post, and not worry about putting in all my thoughts, and then leave the door open to write more later if I feel like it.
Rang De Basanti is a surprisingly divisive film. “Surprising” because everyone agrees that the songs are brilliant, the acting is tremendous, and the technical experimentation of the filmmaking is on a whole other level. And yet, my friend who was in the same masters program as me, and looooooooooves Aamir, wasn’t even able to get past the first hour. And another friend reported that she had to force herself to finish it. And it wasn’t because of the technical quality or any of the usual reasons that non-Indian audience have a hard time with Indian films, it was because they found the message and characters so difficult.
I understand where they are coming from, because I also have a hard time with the characters, both as they are first introduced and their ultimate actions. For me, the early scenes with the college students makes them almost too casual, too selfish and youthful and unconcerned and unserious. But it has to be like that, right? So you can see how such youthful carelessness can be trained and changed by circumstances. They can’t be serious or sincere at the beginning, that would ruin the impact of the ending.
It’s not just the modern day characters, I have a hard time with the actions of the historical figures. Like, the real life historical figures. Especially since what they really skimmed past in this is that the historic figures killed the wrong guy. They had planned to assassinate the general when he went for his morning ride, but the general sent his assistant out first, and they ended up killing him instead. I mean, he wasn’t an innocent either, he had been involved in the same atrocities as his boss, but it’s a pretty plain lesson in why violence may not be the right answer, because if it goes wrong, there’s no take-backs.
For me, that actually makes the movie more powerful. Or I guess proves its power? That I can morally object to the characters, and yet still be completely caught up in their story and understand their point of view. And that it made me a lot more curious about Bhagat Singh and his group.
I looked up the murder/assassination right away, since that is the part Rang De focuses on the most, but when I finally was able to find a book that gives more of an overview of the group, I learned that the assassination was the least of what they did. And the only thing they did which I can find myself really objecting to.
For one thing, unlike the Indian National Congress (INC) group, Bhaghat Singh and Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) were run mostly by minorities. There was no Nehruvian Pandit in charge. Singh was a Jat Sikh, of course. And the group also had women, Muslims, and a whole cross-section of regions and castes represented. And their stated goal was universal suffrage, meaning women as well,(this is before England offered suffrage to women, and only a few years after it had given it to non-landowning men).
While Gandhi was encouraging a total rejection of all outside influences, including trains, medical procedures, and other “Western” elements, the HRA was promoting a form of Marxist socialism that accepted some ideologies from the West which it found useful. Setting aside the details of their contrasting theories, I just like the idea that you can embrace something as useful, no matter where it came from, versus Gandhi’s seeming insistence that only Indian based ideas are worthwhile.
But it’s their actions after the assassination that really make me like the HRA boys (I say “boys”, because they were all so, so young). After going on the run for a while, they decided that it would be better to sacrifice themselves and have the opportunity to let their voices be heard, than to perform further acts of violence. So they came up with a plan to reveal themselves in the most spectacular manner possible (throwing a bomb into the Congress chambers), and then peacefully give themselves up.
I love this plan, because it is both self-sacrificing, and intelligent. They didn’t just walk into a police station, they cold-bloodedly decided to submit to torture and death, and then worked out how to make their sacrifice mean the most it could. And it worked! All of India followed their trial and Bhagat’s writings from jail. And in those writings, Bhagat came around to rejecting violence, calling on his followers to find a different way. On the one hand, I am sad he was cut down so young before we had a chance to see what more he would do. But on the other hand, his short life meant so much primarily BECAUSE it was so short, the sacrifice of such a shining star at such a young age grabbed the attention of the world and meant that his voice was heard. I mean, this is why he is now “Shaheed Bhagat Singh”. His status as “Shaheed” (martyr) is the most important thing he did.
(I find this film as a whole uneven, but that montage at the beginning is so powerful. And tells you everything you need to know about Bhagat)
And that’s what Rang De is trying to convey, that the death only has meaning if you understand the value of the life lost. These boys needed to have romances and plans and joy and hope, or else their willingness to give all that up wouldn’t be a sacrifice. And it had to be a knowing sacrifice, they had to walk to their own death knowing what was coming for them. Which is horrible to watch, of course, which is why I re-watch Rang De so rarely, but it is also beautiful.
I would have liked it if the film could have gotten that message across without using violence, but I don’t know that it could have. As it is, it definitely succeeded in firing up India’s youth. It directly inspired the protests of the Jessica Lal murder case, and the Nirbhaya rape case, plus a bunch of other stuff that wikipedia lays out.
The first time I watched this movie, and consistently the first time one of my American friends sees it, they find the violence towards the protesters which initially sets our heroes on their extra-legal path unbelievable. Because it would be just so politically stupid to send in a violent police brigade against old women and children and students, why would even corrupt politicians order it? Just let them protest and wait for it to die down.
I don’t know why we find it so unbelievable, America has certainly had plenty of its own violence against protesters lately. But then if I think about the Nirbhaya protest in India, it makes a lot more sense. That protest quickly descended into police brutality against the protesters, even with the media there recording the whole thing. The other thing that Americans find unbelievable is that there is no other recourse besides vigilante justice against the corrupt politicians. Why not go to the media or a congressional committee or the police? But, look at the Jessica Lal case. Protests, media, calls to elected officials, they tried all of that, and it only resulted in qualified success.
But, all of that I just talked about, how I love this movie and others don’t, how hard it can be to grasp and understand the characters’ actions, how it sends you down a rabbit hole of Indian revolutionary history, all of that is what makes this not just a good movie, but a Great movie.
Lagaan is a good movie. It is well-made, it is fun to watch, it makes you feel good when you leave the theater. It’s the Aamir Khan historical film we WANT. Especially “we” in the West, who don’t like to be confronted by ugly truths about what we allowed to happen as recently as a 100 years ago. But it is not the Aamir Khan historical film we need, because it is not a Great movie.
Rang De Basanti is a Great movie. It makes you question your morals and ethics, ask yourself how far you would go, how far you SHOULD go, to do what is right. It makes you wonder if it is better to burn out your life too soon than to let it go on, without meaning. I mean, that’s what the whole ending sequence was about, that the youth of the country should take this story and learn from it. It used to be even more powerful, there was an alternate ending that was cut as being too dark.
(If it doesn’t start at the right place, go to 4:18)