WE COULDN’T AKS FOR MORE…
After a strangely dissatisfying debut, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra strikes back with three of the finest hours of commercial Hindi cinema.
JAN 29, 2006 – EVERY FILM – AT LEAST, EVERY FILM MADE WITH A VISION – has a moment, a blinding-flash moment, that hotwires you to its creator’s brain, making the various pieces fall instantly into place. That moment in the extraordinary Rang De Basanti occurs in pre-Independence India, when a British jailer informs the patriot Ram Prasad Bismil that he’s to be sent to the gallows. Just one scene earlier, we’ve seen this jailer at church, kneeling before Jesus, and now, after he delivers this news, Bismil consoles him that it’s not his fault, that he’s only following orders. Without that preceding reference to religion, you’d think Bismil is saying this, perhaps, to make an I’m-ready-to-face-death statement, but now it’s clear that he’s absolving his killer of sin – like Jesus did. (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”) In other words, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is all but lighting up neon signs that those who fought for our freedom are gods; and what he leaves unsaid is that, in not remembering them today, we’ve all become atheists.
That’s a madly audacious, madly ambitious conceit – and it’s only fitting for this audacious, ambitious movie that contends that our corrupt System today is every bit as enslaving as the British of that era, and that the only hope for freedom is for us to become believers again. But what’s even more startling is that Mehra doesn’t want us to kneel at the altar of Gandhi and Nehru. (If Ashutosh Gowarikar had made this film, perhaps that would have been the case.) Instead, Mehra makes his most subversive – and controversial – argument through Sue (Alice Patten), a filmmaker in London who wants to make a documentary on the lives of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ashfaqullah Khan, Durga Vohra and, yes, Bismil. (Sue’s grandfather was that British jailer; his diary is what inspires her.) Her bosses ask why she doesn’t do something on the Mahatma instead, because, “Gandhi sells.” But of course she rejects that idea because if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be espousing Mehra’s belief, that the need of the hour is not an apostle of non-violence but a committed group of rebels.
So Sue lands up in India to make her documentary, and she finds her cast in an unlikely group of Delhi University students (and ex-students) – Diljeet (Aamir Khan), Aslam (Kunal Kapoor), Karan (Siddharth), Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), Sonia (Soha Ali Khan), and Lakshman (Atul Kulkarni). (This is a completely agenda-based screenplay, so you can’t miss noticing that this motley bunch is a metaphor for a micro-India. There’s a Sikh and a Muslim, both middle-class; Karan is the son of a richie-rich businessman, and Lakshman, true to his name, is a saffron-brigade hardliner.) These are good guys – Diljeet signals Karan to stub out his cigarette when in the presence of Diljeet’s grandfather; so things like respect for elders are in them – but they, like most of us, display a shocking indifference to our history. (They probably think Bhagat Singh is the name of the hero in a Rajkumar Santoshi movie.) But as they participate in the filmmaking process, enacting their roles, mouthing their characters’ lines, they learn not only to appreciate their past, but also to anticipate their future. And just as the nation woke up when Bhagat Singh, Azad and others became martyrs, our heroes are galvanised into action when one of their own becomes a shaheed – thus justifying the film’s patriotic title and its passionate opening voiceover. (“Jo desh ke kaam na aaye, woh bekaar jawani hai.”)
Rang De Basanti moves seamlessly between the past and the present – that is, between the past being reenacted by those from the present and, well, the present – and there’s a terrific cue that alerts you early on to this structure. When we see what looks like archival footage of freedom fighters being hanged, AR Rahman – whose songs perfectly underscore the blistering youngness that is this film’s chief character – fills the soundtrack with heavy-metal electric-guitar blasts. I flinched at first at this disastrous anachronism, but I think this is part of the movie’s strategy to make the past a throbbing, dynamic entity that’s very much connected to the present. What Mehra is saying is that just reading history from textbooks may not be enough. You need to experience it, you need to live it! And then you’ll see that if the villains then were the British, the villains now are in our corrupt System – and it’s a supreme irony that this realisation comes through the efforts of Sue, a Brit! (Mercifully, the scenes involving corrupt politicians are kept to a minimum. Even if we didn’t read the newspapers, we’ve seen enough anti-establishment cinema to know that our netas are nothing but scavengers bleeding the nation dry.)
I know I’m making Rang De Basanti sound about as much fun as an after-school extra class in Indian History, but this is actually an extremely entertaining film. I mean, it’s fun! Sure, it’s inevitable that there’s a bit of preaching – but there’s only that much: a bit. Karan’s father remarks on the futility of trying to address the SMS generation, “Chaar line zyada kya bol di, lecture lagta hai,” and Mehra knows that it’s true. (That’s why we didn’t fully embrace Shikhar or Swades, which, for all their pluses, ended up less movies than mission statements of the men behind the camera.) There’s only one “lecture” here, and even that is handled with enough humour to make it sound more of a conversation between friends than anything else. And that strain of humour is present throughout, thanks to the superb dialogues by Prasoon Joshi and Rensil D Silva, who practically hold a master class on how to approach serious subject matter with the lightest of touches – as in a scene where the marvellous Kirron Kher simultaneously manages to extol the virtues of mothers in the Punjab (who typically have at least one son in the army) as well as makhkhan on parathas.
She’s just part of a huge cast that – with the exception of Soha Ali Khan, about whom the only nice thing that could be said is that from certain angles she reminds you of her mother – is brilliant. The characters are painted with enigmatic layers – that girl in the photograph in Karan’s drawer; is she an ex-girlfriend? – and whether it’s the grandstanding sequence (Atul Kulkarni’s fiery recitation of Bismil’s Sarfaroshi ki tamanna) or the throwaway mood shot (Siddharth smiling out of happiness for Soha and Madhavan, who plays her boyfriend), the actors make you believe in whatever they do. And Aamir does what is surely the most generous gesture of a mega-watt hero in ages, as he shares equal screen time – and sometimes lesser screen time – with the others. But expectedly, he steals the scenes he’s in, like when he realises Sue can speak Hindi, and keeps registering expressions that seem part-stunned, part-admiring, part-flirting. Much has been made of the fact that he’s too old to be hanging around a college campus, but a few laugh lines are a small price to pay for the sheer energy and conviction that have by now become standard-issue in his performances.
And after Lagaan, Rang De Basanti is something he should be very, very proud of – not just because it’s a great film, but because it’s a great film in the tradition of commercial Hindi cinema. Veteran screenwriter Kamlesh Pandey goes after some of our hoariest clichés – a woman receives news of her fiancé’s death when she’s wearing haré kaanch ki choodiyan; a Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai plot development is reminiscent of Shantaram’s Padosi, which practically wrote the template for this – and proves that they are clichés exactly because they are so durable, so eminently reusable. And the way the songs have been shot and used, they add a fourth dimension to the proceedings. In Khalbali, we witness the handing down of the cry “Inquilab Zindabad” from the youth of then to the youth of today, who spray it out as graffiti on walls. (That’s symbolic of rebels isn’t it, and what were Azad, Singh and Co. if not the ultimate rebels?) The mother-son exchange Lukka Chuppi is filmed so that when Rahman’s vocals begin to soar, you’re not entirely sure if the reference is just to any maa or to Bharat maa. In Roobaroo roshni, our heroes – hitherto buried in the darkness of their ignorance and inactivity – finally see the light, face-to-face. But the most evocative is Khoon chala. Badan se tapak kar / zameen se lipatkar / galiyon se raston se / ubharkar / umadkar / naye rang bharne ko khoon chala, writes Prasoon Joshi, and after the movie I wondered if that lyric – which underscores visuals of the youth spilling their blood – couldn’t just as easily apply to new-gen directors like Mehra. For all its global allure, for all its entertainment value, our once-glorious commercial cinema is as ailing today as our System, and you can’t help hoping that young blood such as Mehra’s will kick-start a transfusion.
Copyright ©2006 The New Sunday Express