Rang De Basanti: This is Probably not the Only Post I Will Write on This Film

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)

 

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26 thoughts on “Rang De Basanti: This is Probably not the Only Post I Will Write on This Film

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  20. I don’t think it’s really surprising that Americans didn’t understand the film. You have a different kind of relationship with power there. Your politicians are dumped by their parties because of scandals and ours get elected because of them. It’s difficult to understand HOW we live over here. It’s difficult for us to understand too.

    A little sidenote on Bhagat now and this is the version of events as passed down from my great-grandparents and their extended families to my grandparents and parents. My grandparents were teens during the time. Here’s what’s the grassroots opinion was of Bhagat and Co.

    So the public’s general opinion of the Gandhiwadis was that they were the smart educated lawyers and they knew what they were talking about thanks to their expertise in British law. The masses just went with them because they didn’t know any better. (The maternal side of my family was affiliated with the judiciary pre- and post-independence so they knew what points the masses were missing). The plan, as the sort of educated people understood, was to have power transferred to an all-Indian government with as little damage to the infrastructure built by the British as possible. Also, this educated middle class lawyers’ faction desperately feared the rise of kings and princely states wanting their lands and power back. So they needed the masses on their side. Hence their strict adherence to non-violence and the sort of noble ideas that the common man could be convinced with.

    The revolutionaries, the HRA, the INA and countless others, were also educated and well read folks. It is a matter of debate if we’d had gotten independence at all if the pressure from the revolutionaries wasn’t there. The revolutionaries weren’t guys that drew on ideologies that had no base amongst the public. Rather, these were people that the Gandhian system failed. Bhagat and Co were thrown under the bus by Gandhi and Co. Because they were an inconvenience. And the public’s emotional connect with the young revolutionaries, even if their plans weren’t always too well thought out, remains to this day BECAUSE they were seen as boys from the family who went out and did something. Which Gandhi and Nehru could never be. Bhagat and Azad and Bismil are the people’s heroes.

    To me, that’s why RDB works and maybe that’s why your friends couldn’t understand the film. You don’t have a culture of boys from the family assuming responsibilities for change in local society just because they must. It’s something I like to call mohalla mentality. The crowd of boys from a mohalla who drive our culture and sensibilities. The boys from the family, even today, are the ones making a change for the better or worse. The Govinda festival in Mumbai, the hero worship in the south, the Muharram mourning, even rioting and civil unrest, they’re all carried out by boys from the family. Not men, boys. The middle class protest culture is again the same mohalla mentality creeping up from the lower classes to the middle and upper classes.

    RDB takes that and sets it within the college crowd which we all understand and have been a part of and uses the mohalla mentality in an upper middle class metropolitan setting so the film’s intended audience, the upper middle class crowd who’s the most reluctant to make or even think about change is made to think abut change. That’s why it’s the rich brat who loses it the most, that’s why they needed the perfect fighter pilot son-in-law to die. Not son but son-in-law because the fear they’re playing on is that your daughter’s perfect life will come crashing down if you don’t act– that’s the single biggest threat to the existence of Delhi people in particular!)

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    • Fascinating! This kind of coalesces a lot of things that I’ve struggled with. I’ve heard similar issues with Yuva and that whole sort of genre of young rebels. And partly it’s what you say, that in other cultures you really do just ring doorbells and sign petitions and stuff, you don’t have to have an armed gang in order to create change.

      But yes to the young boys sacrificing! There is a fascinating academic book I read that helped explain Bhagat to me better than any biography would called “Martyr as Bridegroom”. It went through a whole string of myths and legends that all lead up to Bhagat, the idea of that young unmarried (and therefore not yet adult) man going out and dying, that the death somehow becomes his “bride”/coming of age moment. Which is a very particular kind of narrative that i don’t think is in other cultures. At least, none that I know of.

      But, on another level, there is something everyone can relate to, because there is a particular tragedy when a young man dies, right? I think that’s the level that Bhagat’s story, and RDB, and the other stories like it work for me. Just because young men are full of a particular kind of promise and bravery and it is heartbreaking to see that cut down.

      does that make sense?

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      • It does. Young men are the promise of life in our culture. If you don’t have them, or if you lose them, you sort of miss out on so many of our celebrations. Like rakhi, bhaiya dooj, your diwali is a little less celebratory because you don’t have young man in your house getting all excited about fireworks, your holi is a little less enthusiastic because it your young husband or brother in law or brother and cousins that tease you the most. In a way, our culture is designed to be brightened up by young men and we feed off their youthfulness. Even with a marriage, it is the young man that brings new life to your house and family with his bride.

        the martyrdom as bride concept is perhaps unparalleled in another culture. So i don’t even know if i can explain exactly what that means for us.

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        • And once again, thank goodness my family isn’t in India, we would be the most depressed people ever. No boys born in my entire generation up to second cousins on both sides of the family. But in America, it just means we all got to share really cute baby clothes.

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          • Trust me your family would have had plenty of boy had they been Indians. We don’t stop having babies till a boy is born!! LOL Even today, if you’re happy with two daughters, everyone just assumes the son-in-law would take on the role of the son in the family. Which they do! There are always cousins. Even if you only see them when they’re required in a ceremony! PS, we got to share cute baby clothes too and across genders!! hehe

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