Friday Classics: Happy Independence Day! Rang De Basanti

Oh boy, I really do not want to write this post!  But it was a special request, and it really feels like something I HAVE to do the Friday before Independence Day.  But I refuse to watch this movie one more time (ha!) because it makes me way way too sad.  So be aware, this will all be based on memories from like 4 years ago, the last time I felt masochistic enough to watch it. (I’ve written on this film before, and promised then that it wouldn’t be the last post. You can read it here)

11 years ago, I’m in my dorm room in college getting ready for bed and my phone rings, and it’s my sister on the other end, sobbing hysterically.  And then I spend about 3 hours pacing back and forth in my room while she tells me moment by moment about this amazing movie she has just seen and now she can’t stop crying.  So, that’s how I first heard about Rang De Basanti (and also Bombay, but that’s another post for another day.  My poor sister has had a lot of traumatic movie experiences).

The thing about Rang De is that it doesn’t feel like a patriotic film, or a historical film.  It feels like it is about real people, you know?  And when bad things happen to them, it hurts.  It feels “present” in a way these films don’t usually.  Like this wasn’t fate, like maybe there could have been a happy ending for everybody.

And we spend so long getting to know these people while “nothing” happens!  That is one complaint I have heard from people who just couldn’t get into this film.  They couldn’t relate to the characters, the whole opening half just didn’t work for them.  And didn’t feel connected to the second half.

But it is connected, because it’s the same people!  That’s how life is, you are happy and carefree when your life is happy and carefree, and then bad things happen and you are suddenly in the middle of bad things.  But you are still the same person.

And the people/actors are amazing!  Okay, not White Lady, she’s just fine.  But everyone else, Waheedaji on down to Soha, is heart breakingly magnificently perfect.  And so fresh!  Besides Aamir (I’ll get to him later), this isn’t a cast of famous faces.  This is Soha just starting out, Kunal Kapoor coming over from art films, and Siddharth and Madhavan coming up from the south.  And Sharman Joshi after a bunch of second lead and character type roles.  They burst off the screen and feel fully formed after the first minute of seeing them.

Oh, and then there’s Atul Kulkarni.  Already a two-time National Award winner, burning through the screen with his intensity and taking over the film.  As he is supposed to do, as his character is supposed to do.

What makes this film not just good, but brilliant, is the way it takes these people and removes them from time.  At some point in the past, there were young and hopeful people who fought for a better India.  And at some point in the present, there are those same people.  Are they reborn?  Are they inspired?  Are they just connected in the same way all Indians are connected with their past?  The film refuses to firmly answer that question.  There is a spirit of something that goes through all of India and all of Indian history and all Indian people and it is invading these boys now, today, just like it invaded another group of boys in 1930.

And the film refuses to answer this question through technical brilliance.  There are 3 layers to the film, the “present day” story.  The documentary the “present day” people are making.  And the “?” segment.  It isn’t quite the documentary, but it isn’t clear if this is the actual past, or just the characters dreams and visions as they see themselves connected to that past.  This section is filmed similarly to the documentary, in kind of faded black and white.  But the color tone is just slightly off.  And so are the performances of the actors, not like amateurs acting, as the “real” documentary seems, but somehow natural.  But it’s also not like the present day sections, it’s not in color, it’s not as vivid and crowded as the modern scenes.  It’s real-but-not-real in some indefinable way which allows the viewer to choose their own interpretation for what it is representing.

And then of course there is the element that ties this whole film together, all the character emotions and time periods and that indefinable spirit it is reaching for, AR Rahman’s music.  I thought at the time, and still think, that this might be his greatest album.  Not necessarily the individual songs, but listening to them all together, the way it weaves in Bhangra and modern remix sound and a traditional love song, plus whatever we would call “Luka Chuppi” and “Rubaroo”.  This is India, this is Bhagat Singh, this is these characters.  Punjabi, patriotic, young, in love, brave, sad, Sikh, everything.  And most of all, Indian.  It’s all in the music.

If you haven’t seen the film, watch it.  With an open mind and close attention (ignore Aamir’s terribly styling chooses, pay attention to his performance).  If you have seen the film, you can read on to my SPOILERS section.







There’s not that much to the plot, if you look at what happens.  A young woman arrives in India wanting to make a documentary based on her grandfather’s diary from when he was the jailer of Bhagat (spellcheck suggests that I meant “Bharat” instead, and now I am crying.  This movie turns me into a mess!) Singh.  She meets up with the local woman whose been helping her coordinate, Soha Ali Khan.  Soha introduces her to her “gang”, a group of friends and college students who goof off and drink and are generally young and crazy together, Aamir Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Sharman Joshi, and Siddharth.  Later, Soha introduces her to her older boyfriend, Madhavan, a fighter pilot, and his mother, Waheeda Rahman.  They are looking for a cast for their documentary and eventually decide to just use the college friends, because they are the same young fresh spirit that was in Bhagat and his friends.  But there is still one missing cast member, Ramprasad Bismil, who is supposed to be slightly older and even more inspired than the rest.  Until, finally, the pick Atul Kulkarni, a nemesis of the others who is a member of an RSS-like Hindu fundamentalist group.  The friends film, the white girl falls in love with Aamir, Madhavan proposes to Soha.  And then Madhavan dies, suddenly, due to mechanical failure in his airplane because it was a shoddy plane purchased thanks to graft and kickbacks.  And Madhavan is blamed for it.  The friends, devastated, plan a protest march.  Which is interrupted by the police and they are beaten.  Driven to extremes and inspired by the revolutionaries they have been studying, they decide to assasinate the defense minister who caused their friends death.  And then take over a radio station in order to explain their actions and why they were necessary.  And in the end, they are martyred, just like Bhagat before them.

So, that’s the movie.  Documentary-Madhavan death-protest-assassination-martyrdom.  And it feels disconnected if you look at it like a young college kind of funny joking film that suddenly turns serious.  But, that’s the point.  These martyrs aren’t born martyrs.  They are young and joking and funny and happy.  And then something happens and they are set on a different path.

But, the young joking funny happy life isn’t somehow magically erased just because something happened.  This film is so brilliant in how it builds these characters and their relationships before anything happens so that we can appreciate the depth of the tragedies, and the bravery, when things do happen.

Each one of these college friends has their own distinct personalities, but more than that, they have their own distinct relationships to each other.  They are already closer than friends normally would be, drawn together as fellow outcasts.  Which is where their strength comes in the end, they are ready to die so long as they can die together because nothing else matters in their life quite as much.  Like Bhagat and his friends, surviving the tortures of jail together for months on end.

Aamir, we learn over the course of this opening section, is the only son of a widowed mother.  And he has failed and stayed in college long past when he should have graduated.  He admits that is because he feels pressure to do something great, to be something.  But in college, he is somebody, everyone looks up to him.  He is the big brother/father of their group, the one who sets the tone and takes care of everyone.

Siddharth is the second in command.  He’s quiet, stays by himself, doesn’t ask for anything for himself.  We see early on that he is the “rich kid” on campus, and people tend to take advantage of that.  Which is why he clings so hard to his “real” friends, the ones who love him even without the money.  And when his friends need him, he will step out from the shadows and be there for them.

Kunal is the one who needs them most, the troubled middle child of the group.  He is the only one with a large family nearby, but he doesn’t feel a part of that family.  He’s a poet, sensitive, and his father and older brother are practical types.  And so he drifted away from them, towards this group on campus who accept him for who he is.  Which just created a further problem at home, as his Muslim family tries to understand the relationship he has outside of their community with an entirely Hindu group of friends.  And that’s what sets their group apart, from the start.  The first time we meet them, Kunal is threatened by Atul Kulkarni’s fundamentalist group, and they come together instantly to protect him.  With Aamir taking the lead, Siddharth providing support, and Kunal quietly accepting their protection, aware that he needs it.

And then there’s Sharman.  The baby of the group.  No family that we see, seems to be alone in college and needs someone to take care of him.  And so this little group of outcasts natural takes him on and adds him to the group to protect.  It isn’t a “brothers” movie, but it really is.  This is a group of 4 brothers, not a group of friends.

Plus Soha.  Who isn’t quite their sister and also isn’t quite not their sister.  It’s never said, but somehow you know Siddharth is in love with her.  And you know that they all know it too.  But he will never say anything or act on it, because he loves Madhavan almost as much as he loves her.  They all love Madhavan.  It’s such a great role for him, he only has a few scenes, but he has to come on and convince you that he is the hero of these 4 different kids.  The man they secretly hope they can grow up to become.  And when they look at Soha, although they have known her longer, their first thought is “Bhabhi”, chosen wife of their beloved eldest brother.

That’s what the death of Madhavan means.  It’s heartbreaking, in every way.  His mother left alone, Soha cheated of her marriage, and these 4 boys left orphaned and lost.  But mostly it’s about the boys.  Madhavan gave them their direction, he was challenging them to be better people to think about the larger picture to be, well, Indian.  And now he is gone.  And they have to take those lessons he gave them and find a way to move forward in his memory.

The funeral scene, the “Luka Chuppi” scene, it’s mostly about Waheeda.  Which is as it should be, Waheeda is an amazing resource, they should be using her to convey to the audience the immensity of this lose.  But in the background, after she has brought us in and made us feel the grief, you start to notice how it is affecting everyone else.  The boys are standing there like they don’t know what to do with their arms any more, like they don’t know how to live any more without Madhavan.  But at the same time, at the funeral, it is Aamir who lights the pyre without even a discussion about it.  Atul, who was a stranger and an enemy just a little bit ago, is there with them.  And Kunal is giving a Muslim blessing.  They may still feel lost, but they are beginning to move into a new position.  Aamir in front, Siddharth in support, Kunal and Atul and Sharman lined up behind.

That is why the second half is heartbreaking.  Not because of everything that happens after Madhavan dies, but because of what happened before.  We love these boys, we know these boys.  And we know how much they love each other.


And they know what they are facing.  Because they know the pattern, they know what is happening.  After Madhavan’s death, and the government cover up, they are talking together and Soha starts it, starts reciting the lines they learned from the past, saying that they have to do their own justice.  And one by one, they line up behind her, repeating the same lines they know were said before, and they know how it ended then.

Bhagat knew he would die too.  That’s what makes me cry about him, and I think that’s what makes everyone cry.  He knew his own death was the only thing that would give meaning to his life, that the months of trial, of hunger strike, of writings from the jail, they would only linger and cause change of they ended in his death.  And he accepted it, planned it, decided that leaving his family (don’t read his letters to his little brother with advice about how to take care of their parents) and his friends and his country was worth it if it would change people’s hearts, give them a better future.

This film is a Bhagat Singh story because it takes that most important element.  It’s not about gathering the dirt at Jallianwala Bagh or running away from home or the assassination that leads to the bomb that leads to the trial.  It’s about cold-bloodedly walking into a situation where you know you will die, because you have faith that your death can make something better, your sacrifice will not be in vain.

(Alternative ending was a lot more blunt about it.  Go 4:20 into this video)

And that’s why “Rubaroo”, I think, is AR Rahman’s greatest song.  Because it’s about going to the gallows (the modern day version) with love, looking at the faces beside you, and believing in the faces you can’t see that will take up your mantel and make sure your death has purpose.


And that’s why Rang De Basanti is a classic.  Because they did take up this mantel.  Rang De Basanti lead to the Jessica Lal protests led to the Nirbhaya protests led to a movement trying for a better India that, so far, has only had qualified success.  But it’s there!  In the world!  There is something in this story that could jump from screen to audience and create change.  The spirit of young India is there, in this film, from Bhagat to our modern characters to the audience watching it.

32 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Happy Independence Day! Rang De Basanti

  1. I need to rewatch this one myself. I watched it early on in my exploration of Indian cinema and I really didn’t have enough context to really get how this film had such a social impact (I hadn’t read a lot of non-fiction about modern India yet either). Plus (and this sounds so superficial) I was initially only watching it for Kunal Kapoor and for some reason I can’t really name this film was one of the reasons I determined early on that I wasn’t an Aamir fan.


    • Kunal Kapoor is a beautiful man, no judgement. And Aamir looks perhaps the worst ever in this film. But yeah, you might want to rewatch it with a little more background, might work better for you. Aamir looks terrible, but hands in a great performance. And you can’t beat Kunal, Siddharth, and Madhavan.

      On Fri, Aug 11, 2017 at 8:47 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  2. Love your post, as always. RDB is another one of those films that just didn’t work for me. Couldn’t relate to any of the characters except maybe Soha. Her pain felt so real. I really didn’t get what this film was trying to do at all. No matter how “out of the box” and “non mainstream” you want to be, perhaps a good start is getting the audience to CARE about your characters.


      • I didn’t realize Luka Chuppi was a Lata song until I was writing this. It might also be one of her last great songs. One that really used the slight aging cracks in her voice, it felt like a better match for Waheeda’s elderly mother character to have this slightly older sounding voice.


    • that’s the complaint I’ve heard a lot, and I just don’t get it! I loved these characters from the start. But clearly they didn’t work for everybody.


  3. I loved the film… And the picturised ion of songs is pitch perfect. They have got this earthy feeling to them. And I loved Kunal Kapoor, Siddharth and Madhavan. Brilliant. Infact the entire cast were so completely merged with the characters. And Kunal is so beautiful. The ultimate Shayar. Wish his movies had worked.


    • Kunal is so beautiful! In a way that takes a moment to notice, I describe him to my friends as “sneakily beautiful”. You will start the film going “oh yeah, the tall guy in the back”. And then by the end of the movie, you won’t be able to look away from him.

      On Fri, Aug 11, 2017 at 12:02 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • And that shy smile that lights up the very mood was ufff…Killer!! I really have no words to describe his beauty.

        The friendship of the group was so endearing.. one always wishes to have such amazing friends. And you have wonderfully detailed the reasons of their comaraderie.

        They remind me of another group of friends… Have you read the Harry Potter series? I am going off-topic, but their dynamics remind me of Marauders.. Harry’s parents generation. Those selfish, immature, loyal teenagers who grew up and went to war… Torn by betrayals and death and grief. Sigh!

        The movie was so brilliant. Especially the part of the past being open to interpretation. Glad that they decided to let go off spoon-feeding the audience.

        The story sends chills down my spine. Madhavan’s death was so devastating. How the man went to dedicate his life to the country and lost it due to beaurocracy’s corruption.
        Wahida’s fate still brings tears to my eyes. First she lost a son and then 5 more sons.
        Yes Soha is there but it was so sad!
        And the hope that the imagery of boys trying to touch the sky, left such a bittersweet feeling.


        • Yes, all of that!

          I absolutely get what you mean about the Harry Potter books. They always reminded me of WWI and WWII actually. This first generation of bright shining boys who were sent off and killed. Just to have their children struggle with the same thing, only in a darker world that never really let them have that much hope.

          I love your point about Waheeda losing 5 more sons. That’s one of the most heartbreaking parts, seeing the parents and lovers waking up in the morning not knowing what is about to happen, but somehow sensing it. And for Waheeda, in a way they are dying for her, but would she rather Madhavan be vindicated and future Madhavan’s be saved, or would she rather have kept her sons at home and forgotten about the rest of the world? And Soha, that little hint of Siddharth, leaves it open that maybe she would have rather moved on with someone else who she could love almost as much and be happy, rather than live a lonely life with her memories. But they never got to make that choice, because the boys decided what they had to do on their own.

          On Fri, Aug 11, 2017 at 12:37 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Pal you should totally do a Harry Potter post sometime. It would be a gem. I always wanted faces for the young Marauders… And voila! here they are:
            Sidharth as Sirius
            Kunal as Remus
            These two are based on characters but I can totally interchange them as Kunal for Sirius has that perfect beart-aching beauty and Kunal as brooding Remus.
            Atul as Severus
            Soha- obviously Lily
            Still haven’t found the perfect James but Maddy would do.
            And Sharman as Peter had he not been the traitor.
            It was a lost generation. The entire generation lost in war. They died in hopes of leaving their children in a better world but alas!!

            Back to topic… Waheeda would be so torn between grief and pride for her 5 sons. I love your question of the mother’s and lover’s dilemma.
            Is it not the question between what is easy and what is correct? Having the sons at home, could it have ever eased their conscience? Yes, life would have gradually moved on but they would have lost their spark.
            And I feel Soha would have ever moved on with Sid. Yes their bond over the shared loss would have brought them even closer… but somehow I can’t picture them together. Sid always loved her and even Maddy was aware of it but their was never any baser feelings like jealousy involved.
            As you said, she was the unofficial ‘bhabhi’,even when they knew her longer.(amazingly articulated btw!)
            Some years later, they might have moved on but with different people.
            But once the boys died, I doubt that Soha ever moved on. She would have done great professionally, fighting for causes, trying to say e the future, but personally she would always be stopped in that moment. The most.ent she lost her buddies, her love, her life.


          • A Harry Potter post would be fun! Only I don’t know if I really really know it well enough, I’ve read the books, but I haven’t like loved the books the way I did Austen or some others. It’s tempting though, especially with all the possibilities opened up with the two generations.

            I wonder what would have happened if Soha and Siddharth had been the only ones left? Because you’re right, even with Madhavan sort of giving his blessing from the grave (I could have believed him even leaving an “in case of my death” letter for them both telling them he wanted them to be married, it seems like the kind of thing he would do), it would still be hard for Soha to move on and for Siddharth to not feel like he was being disloyal. But maybe if the whole group had been fractured, so only Soha and Siddharth were left, it would have felt more “okay” for them to cling to each other. If nothing else, so they could have a bunch of sons and name them for the ones who died. And I just realized what I am picturing! Jaya in Silsila. Who had a similar great love that burned out but slowly grew to have a different kind of love for the nice guy who took responsibility and married her. The rest of the plot is totally different, but that idea of a woman who really feels like she will never love again after her lover dies and the guy who is kind of there, willing to take her on anyway.

            Also, notice how neither of us has any interest in what White Lady will do now? I kind of like that final image of her and Soha together, joined in grief. But on the whole, I just don’t find her character conflicts as interesting.

            On Fri, Aug 11, 2017 at 1:23 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  4. I love Harry Potter because of the rich backstories and generation parallels and human fallacies. Do it sometime. I am sure you will do an amazing job.
    And I don’t know even if Soha and Sid are the only one remaining, I still picture them as too intricately involved friends, so much so that their won’t be any so leave for another person. Yet it would be platonic. For I believe they could move on fromadhavan’s loss but losing the gang in one fell sweep would be too much to ever be able to restructure their lives.
    But maybe your scenario would also work out. Maybe if Waheeda pushes them into it. But they would be broken forever. And naming the kids…They would have to have 5 of them. OMG!
    And Madhavan was one of those innately decent guys to have done something like that. But a letter would be to dramatic, maybe a wish like Rani expressed to her dad in Kuch kuch hota hai.
    Silsila was like 40 years ago and Jaya had the onus of Shashi’s kid so she had to go through it. Anyways, I hated Amitabh there. Nobody had told him to come forward, he did it on his own produce and then did not have the gumption to carry out forward. Shashi would be so proud! (*Rolls eyes*)
    The white lady was too bland. Her grief was kind of washed out in face of Soha n Waheeda. She was a spectator and a catalyst but not the… what’s the word… sufferer perhaps!


    • Yeah, Silsila Amitabh and Rekha are so horrible. And what kills me is the best moment of his marriage with Jaya is right before Rekha reappears. They are in the accident, she loses the baby, and he comes in and says that he promised to take care of her and he is ready to make this a real marriage and she is his wife and all the right things, and it looks like they are finally moving past their mutual grief to some connection that doesn’t involve Shashi. And then stupid Rekha shows up!

      But that’s totally unrelated to this movie.

      Waheeda was widowed too, right? When her husband died in service? In my parallel version of the film, where Madhavan dies in just a regular training accident and there’s no bigger political part of it, I could see him having left instructions for Soha to marry Siddharth, after having seen his mother life as a widow most of her life. Thinking it would be better for Soha to move on to something entirely different instead of living a half life. Especially since they weren’t even married, so she wouldn’t even have the status his mother had as the widow of an army officer. Also in this version of the film, Anupum wouldn’t be evil, so she would get to move into a wealthy family with a quiet self-effacing husband who loves her but doesn’t feel quite worthy of her and a father-in-law who dotes on her. I could see that working out, Soha slowly coming to appreciate this new life and her nice husband. Especially if all the other boys actively gave their blessing and worked to convince the couple that this is what Madhavan wanted and they should try to be happy for him.

      Again, that’s a completely different movie that is more about friend dynamics after a death and stuff like that, but with the same characters. I could see that working out!

      On Fri, Aug 11, 2017 at 2:31 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Yup, they were so so horrible. They should have ended the movie before Rekha’s reappearance. I don’t hate Rekha as much I hate Amitabh in the movie. She seems to have been pushed into the marriage with Sanjeev and yet living a fairly content life. But Amitabh entered into the marriage on his own decision and yet behaved like an almighty-favour-bestowing angel when he was a price jerk. That’s what he was! The grief should have bonded him with Jaya or if not that make him atleast respect her but he resents her. He was all about himself. His grief, his life, his love! Huh! Wish Jaya had kicked him to the curb. And another issue I had was what was the ending for Rekha-Sanjeev. The climax was lame.

        Back to RDB. Had Madhavan died in the line of duty, they wouldn’t be as devastated. It would be something they would learn to live with. And then I completely see Sid-Soha together. The parallel with Waheeda’s lonely life was really poignant. Yes Madhavan would do it with a letter.

        And the endearing group would bring them closer. In this option, Soha would even grow to love Sid romantically. It would be a lovely movie of friendship and love, grief and moving forward. And the little twist of Anupam being good would be lovely.

        It all depends on the way Madhavan died. The route the movie took was a sacrilege of life.


        • I think that’s what I was trying to get at with why they had Siddharth’s love there. Because if Madhavan had died, as he was ready to do for his country, and there was no “sacrilege” involved (great way to put it!), then it would have been a different kind of life for them all. Siddharth and Soha would have moved on together, as Madhavan surely expected them to do in the event of his death. The friends would be devastated but it would pull them ever closer together in his memory, probably inspire them to work harder in school, generally be better people. And all of them would have supported Soha and helped her process her grief in a healthy way. And of course Waheeda would always have her sons. It wasn’t the death itself that caused everything to go bad, it was how he died.

          On Fri, Aug 11, 2017 at 3:13 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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