Happy Independence Day! Rang De Basanti, Today and Always

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.

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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.

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9 thoughts on “Happy Independence Day! Rang De Basanti, Today and Always

    • *A couple of hours ago, and it’s still not out of my system, despite watching it for the millionth time. And to think it released in a time of melodramatic Yashraj films like Fanaa and really bad (sorry) masala films like Krrish. Everything in that year pales in comparison for me. And I think this is my favorite Rahman sound track in Hindi. And the placement of Roobaro, man, makes me cry. Glad to know I’m not the only one. Great write up!

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      • this is my favorite Rahman Hindi soundtrack too. i think it is amazing as a whole, the way each song is different from every other, and yet fit together and perfectly match the mood of the story.

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