“The Irishman” - Martin Scorsese (2019)

Martin Scorsese’s latest epic about gangland violence in America, The Irishman (2019), is one of his most ambitious works and has attracted widespread praise [1,2,3,].  With a massive production budget of $159 million and a running time of about 3½ hours, the film is seen by some as the capstone to Scorsese’s career, and a fitting final work that reflects on his famous earlier mobster masterpieces – Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995).  Indeed, viewers familiar with Scorsese will see more than just a thematic connection spanning those works, because The Irishman features two iconic Scorsese actors from those earlier films: Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.

The story of this film concerns the real-life experiences of a gangster hitman, Frank Sheeran (he is "The Irishman”), and it is based on the nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses (2004) by Charles Brandt, which is based on Sheeran’s account of his life.  Steven Zaillian adapted Brandt’s’ book for the screen, and the film features superb production values, notably the  cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and the film editing by Thelma Schoonmaker.  I also liked the moody background music, which featured many hit songs from the eras depicted.

However, a production technique used in the film that has particularly fascinated critics is Scorsese’s use of digital technology to touch-up the faces of some of his actors.  All three of Scorsese’s lead actors – the already-mentioned Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, as well as Al Pacino – were over 75 years of age at the time of the making of this film, but the characters they had to portray in some flashback sequences (the bulk of the film) were much younger.  In fact in the case of Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), some scenes even show him in his 20s and 30s.  So Scorsese employed digital technology to “de-age” some of his actors.  In my opinion, this doesn’t work very well, but you can decide for yourself, and in any case this is not a major drawback of the film.

The story of The Irishman is told by switching back and forth across three narrative threads. 
  1. The film begins in the outer thread showing Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro) about eighty years of age in a nursing home (Sheeran died in 2003 at the age of 83).  Sheeran directly addresses the viewer and commences giving his account of his life.
     
  2. The second narrative thread covers a long car trip that Sheeran took in 1975 from Philadelphia to Detroit with his Mafia “boss” and friend, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), along with their two wives.  The ostensible reason for their trip is so that they can attend the wedding ceremony of  the daughter of Russell’s cousin, union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano).  However, Frank and the viewer will learn that there is also another reason for making this drive and that a major event takes place at the end of the trip.
     
  3. The third narrative thread, and the one that constitutes the bulk of the film material, covers the events surrounding Frank’s life from sometime in the 1950s up to that fateful 1975 road trip, at which point threads 2 and 3 are merged. 
All of this material comes from the real Frank Sheeran’s first-hand testimony and will naturally be assumed by the viewer to be true.  However, since the publication of Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, there have been a number of revelations indicating that Sheeran fabricated key elements of this story [4].  So it is best for us to take this material as an interesting story, but one that does not necessarily constitute documentary truth.

The film begins in the first narrative thread with the elderly Frank Sheeran in a rest home and launching into the telling of his story.  He starts off by recalling his 1975 road trip to Detroit to attend the wedding of Bill Bufalino’s daughter, and the presentation of the beginning of this trip moves us into the second narrative thread.  Then, presumably in order to provide background on how Frank met Russell Bufalino, we move quickly into the third narrative thread.

Frank was a truck driver in Philadelphia in the 1950s, and he began illegally selling his loads to a local crime family.  He was eventually charged with criminal activity, but union lawyer Bill Bufalino manages to get him off.  Bill Bufalino then introduces Frank to local crime boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel, now aged 80 and also e-aged) and to his cousin Russell Bufalino, who is the Mafia head of Northeastern Pennsylvania region.  Soon Frank starts working for Russell.  In a discussion with Russell, Frank affirms his commitment to always following orders by recalling how he ruthlessly shot surrendered prisoners in World War II when  he was ordered to do so.  Gradually, Russell and Frank become friends.

There follows a series of episodes detailing how Frank served as a hitman for the Mob.  Although these tales don’t seem to advance the storyline much, they provide some of the essential atmosphere and color for the film.  All along the way, we see that Frank is a ruthless killer who will murder anyone, even acquaintances, who he has been told the Mob wants erased.  There are a lot of different characters introduced here, and the viewer almost needs a background document to keep track of them all [5].

Eventually, Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the important Teamsters Union and a person with close ties to the Mafia and Russell.  Hoffa takes a liking to Frank, and he ultimately hires Frank as his personal bodyguard.  This now sets up a potential conflict that will eventually prove crucial in this film.  Loyalty is a fundamental trait and posture in Frank’s world, and he now must be loyal to two different masters: Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa.  What will happen if those two masters come into conflict?

The film now traces some historical events likely to be familiar to many viewers.  After the election of John F. Kennedy as U. S. President, his younger brother Robert Kennedy, serving as U. S. Attorney General, carried out a campaign to root out corruption in labor unions and specifically targeted Jimmy Hoffa.  Hoffa is finally convicted of criminal activity and sent to prison in 1964.  

During the time Hoffa is in prison, other personages take over running the Teamsters Union, and the Mob families come to terms with the new union leaders.  However, in 1971 President Richard Nixon pardons Hoffa, and when he is released, Hoffa sets out to reclaim ownership of his union.  This makes the crime bosses unhappy, and Russell Bufalino urges Frank, who he knows is close to Hoffa, to get Hoffa to back off from reclaiming his union.  This Frank tries to do, but the headstrong Hoffa scoffs at such a suggestion and says he knows so much about his enemies’ nefarious activities that they will be afraid to touch him.

This brings the story to join up with the second narrative thread – the trip to Detroit, where, it is revealed, Hoffa happens to be.  On the way, Russell gives Frank instructions from the Mafia to kill Hoffa.  Why Sheeran was chosen for this job has been questioned by some, but perhaps the Mafia felt that Hoffa’s friendship with Sheeran would allow his assailant more freedom to carry out his attack surreptitiously. 

In any case, we are now confronted with the fundamental narrative conflict/issue in the film.  Frank Sheeran, for whom loyalty is his ultimate badge of honor, must choose between loyalty to Russell Bufalino and loyalty to Jimmy Hoffa.  They are each not only his direct superiors but also his two closest friends.  Oddly, Scorsese doesn’t spend much time showing Frank wrestling with this conflict.  Frank just goes ahead and follows Russell’s orders.  The sequence showing Sheeran’s murder of Jimmy Hoffa is abrupt and brutal.  And it shows to the viewer once more just how cold-hearted Frank Sheeran really is.
Hoffa’s corpse is quickly cremated, and the police never do determine who committed the murder.  However, Sheeran, Russell Bufalino, and various other gangsters shown in the film are later convicted of unrelated crimes and sent to prison to serve long sentences.  In the end Sheeran is released from prison and winds up in a nursing home.  The final sequences show Frank alone and seeking release from the final “legal case” against him – absolution from a Catholic priest for all the sins he has committed.  But even here, Frank admits that he feels no real remorse for what he has done.

This ending points to a fundamental problem with this story.  Our main character, Frank Shearen, on whom almost all of the focalization is devoted, is a cold and opaque black box.  He seems to lack any kind of compassion, and we never get much of a handle on what he may be feeling.  The other two principal characters, Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa, are selfish, it is true; but they are sensitive, they have passions, and they reach out to other people.  Of those two characters, we are more likely to prefer the Hoffa character, who is more straightforward and authentic than the more manipulative Russell Bufalino.  Both Joe Pesci and Al Pacino give outstandingly fervent performances in these respective roles of Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa, and they are the one we want to see more of, not Shearen.  Instead, we are left for much of the film to dwell on De Niro’s uncharacteristically wooden personality as Shearen.

Another weakness is the absence of women in this tale.  Even though mafia types are usually male chauvinists, they still usually have passions for women.  Here the women companions are  barely seen.  The one woman we do see, Frank’s daughter Peggy Sheeran (played by Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin at different stages in the girl’s life) is given almost no words to speak in the film, but we do at least see from her usually frowning glances that she is persistently put off by her father’s thuggish behavior.

Some people have seen The Irishman as a comedy [3].  Others have seen it as a further pursuance of the American fascination with Mafiosi family life [6].  But I would say the presence of either of these themes is very limited.  Instead, I would say that the predominant themes are loneliness and emptiness.  If this is Scorsese’s swan song, it’s an incredibly bleak and sad one.  The whole tenor of this film is one of hopelessness and of the ultimate futility of life.

Notes:
  1. Richard Brody, "Watching "The Irishman" on Netflix Is the Best Way to See It", The New Yorker, (2 December 2019).   
  2. A.O. Scott, “The Irishman’ Review: The Mob’s Greatest Hits, in a Somber Key”, The New York Times, (27 September 2019; updated 30 October 2019).   
  3. Matt Zoller Seitz, “The Irishman”, RogerEbert.com(1 November 2019).   
  4. Jack Goldsmith, "Jimmy Hoffa and The Irishman: A True Story?", The New York Review of Books, (26 September 2019).    
  5. Nick Allen, “Who’s Who in The Irishman: A Character Guide”, Vulture, (27 November 2019).   
  6. Richard Whittaker, “The Irishman”, The Austin Chronicle, (8 November 2019).   

Shoja Azari

Films of Shoja Azari:

Zheng Hua

Films of Zheng Hua:

Chris Smith

Films of Chris Smith:

Vahid Mousaian

Films of Vahid Mousaian:

Brett Gaylor

Films of Brett Gaylor:

Nati Baratz

Films of Nati Baratz:

Loveleen Tandan

Films of Loveleen Tandan:

Sarah Kernochan

Films of Sarah Kernochan:
  • Thoth - Sarah Kernochan (2002)

Daniel Ross

Films of Daniel Ross:
  • The Ister - David Barison and Daniel Ross (2004)

David Barison

Films of David Barison:
  • The Ister - David Barison and Daniel Ross (2004)

Havana Marking

Films of Havana Marking:

“The Game Changers” - Louie Psihoyos (2018)

The Game Changers (2018) is a documentary film dedicated to the idea that not only is a vegetarian diet generally good for overall health, but it is also, in particular, a key contributor to increased strength, endurance, and general athletic success [1].  This is intended to counter the conventional belief that in order to be a real he-man, you have to be a heavy-duty meat-eater.  The film is directed by past Oscar-winner Louie Psihoyos (The Cove, 2009 [2]), is written by Joseph Pace, and features a long list of celebrity cast members (more than forty) and  production contributors (more than sixty) that includes:
  • film producer/director James Cameron
  • actor and body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • actor Jackie Chan 
  • actress Pamela Anderson
  • racing car champion Lewis Hamilton
  • tennis champion Novak Djokovic
  • NBA basketball star Chris Paul
  • Martial arts and UFC star James Wilks
  • Patrik Baboumian, the “World’s Strongest Man”
I am not sure about the extent to which all these various producers contributed to the final product, but the film certainly has excellent production values and is very well paced.  So some credit for this must also be given to the film editors, Stephanie Mechura and Dan Swietlik.

Note that with regard to vegetarianism, I have earlier discussed some other films that promote the advantages of being vegetarian (Eating, 3rd Edition (2009) [3], Forks Over Knives (2011) [4], and Loving the Silent Tears (2012) [5]).  And in this connection, I have noted [4,5] that there are really four main spheres of increasingly more personal interactive compass that underlie why you should become a vegetarian:
  • World. It takes more than ten times both the land acreage and energy from fossil fuels to produce a calorie from animal food than from plant-based food.  We are currently facing a worldwide food crisis due to the use of land and water resources devoted to animal farming. The world’s cattle alone eat enough grain to feed 8.7 billion people. If humans consumed a plant-based diet, there would be no such crisis. In addition, animal farming contributes significantly to global-warming gas production . . . .
     
  • Community. Every year roughly 70 billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Yet animals are sentient beings like us that feel pain. They are existentially our brothers and sisters and do not deserve to be killed for our pleasure.
     
  • Body. . . . a diet with more than a tiny amount of animal-based food (meat and dairy) is harmful to human health.  Following a vegetarian will make you stronger and healthier.
     
  • Soul.  Most small children are instinctively alarmed when they first learn that they are eating flesh from dead animals, but adults persuade them to accept it. That initial alarm that you felt back then was the voice of your inner soul – the essential core being who you really are. When you resolve to give up eating animal-based food, you are responding to that inner voice and following the path of your true, compassionate nature. You are becoming the complete person that you have always wanted to be.
Different films may focus more specifically on one or two of those spheres (for example Loving the Silent Tears focuses on the Soul sphere).  Here in The Game Changers, the virtues of pursuing vegetarianism with respect to all spheres are discussed, but the real focus is definitely on the Body sphere.  The idea is to encourage the people who are most concerned about strength, stamina, and performance that following a vegetarian diet will give them the best results. 

In order to cover all the information and topics on this subject effectively, Psihoyos and Pace have to setup a narrative scheme to guide the presentation.  So the viewer is first introduced to James Wilks, a combatives and mixed martial arts (MMA) expert who describes his experiences in the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC).  This is one of the most macho of activities, and all the participants are shown to be ruthless competitors.  However during a practise session, Wilks suffers an injury that debilitates him for several months.  So during this downtime, he decides to investigate more thoroughly into the truth of the rumours he has heard that being a vegetarian is good for you, and this survey makes up the rest of the film.

To his surprise, Wilks first learns from recent archaeological studies that the ancient Roman gladiators, those symbols of classic manhood, were almost all vegetarians.  Later on we also learn that the real paleo diet – the diet on which our palaeolithic-period human ancestors lived – was a plant-based diet, too.

Wilks then goes on to talk to a number of high-level athletic practitioners, for whom maximal physical fitness is essential and who have decided for that very reason to commit themselves to vegetarian diets.  These athletes include
  • Nate Diaz, a famous MMA and UFC fighter;
     
  • Morgan Mitchell, a champion woman sprinter from Australia;
     
  • Dotsie Bausch, a famous women’s cycling champion;
     
  • Lucius Smith, a former National Football League cornerback, holder of four black belts, and now at the age of 60 still in perfect physical condition;
     
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger, the famous actor, body-builder and former governor of the state of California;
     
  • Many members of the Tennessee Titans National Football League team who have collectively converted to a vegetarian diet;
     
  • Scott Jurek, a renowned ultramarathoner, who recently set a speed record for completing the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail in the U.S. in less than 47 days; and
     
  • Patrik Baboumian, an Iranian-born Armenian, who has won many strongman competitions and is now known as the “World’s Strongest Man”.
Each of these athletes has had to rely on maximal physical conditioning in order to achieve their respective athletic successes, and each of them has an interesting story to tell about themselves and about how being a vegan or vegetarian has been a crucial ingredient in their lives, both in and out of the competition arena.

But Wilks covers some other interesting people, too.  One is Damien Mander, a former member of the Australian Royal Navy, who has since taken up the cause of endangered wild species whose continued existence is threatened by poachers.  In this connection Mander founded and heads the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (cf. https://www.iapf.org/).  In the course of his efforts out in the field to save the lives of rhinos and elephants, Mander came to reflect on the fact that all animals are sentient beings who do not deserve to be killed, and so he became a vegan.  So here the film’s arguments in support of vegetarianism are extended beyond the Body sphere listed above to those of the Community and Soul spheres, too.

Other topics covered include testimony from well-known heart doctors like Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn advocating vegetarianism and even evidence from other healthcare studies that a vegetarian diet can enhance masculine sexual prowess. 

In spite of all the evidence supporting the advantages of a vegetarian diet, though, the meat and dairy industry, through its lobbies like Exponent, Inc., has persistently funded misleading advertisements and questionable reports that claim animal products are essential for good health.  The film likens these activities to the earlier misleading claims on the part of the tobacco industry denying the damaging health effects of cigarette smoking.

The final part of the film briefly takes the viewer up to the World sphere regarding the reasons for vegetarianism, and it makes the following points concerning global issues: 
  • 3/4 of all the agricultural land in the world is used for meat-producing livestock;
     
  • Meat, dairy, eggs, and fish farming use up 83% of the world’s farmland, but provide only 18% of the world’s calories;
     
  • 70 billion animals are consumed globally each year;
     
  • The livestock sector is responsible for 15% of all the global manmade carbon emissions, which is about the same as that from all human-made transport in the world
In the end, Wilks convinces his own initially-sceptical father to join him in becoming a vegetarian.

Overall, The Game Changers makes an excellent case for the benefits of plant-based diets, particularly in connection with a vegetarian diet’s contribution to athletic success and overall physical prowess.  If you want to be physically fit, forget about meat and follow a vegetarian diet.
½

Notes:
  1. The Game Changers (Official website), (2019).  https://gamechangersmovie.com/ 
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘The Cove’ - Louie Psihoyos (2009)”, The Film Sufi, (26 July 2009).    
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Eating, 3rd Edition’ - Mike Anderson (2009)”, The Film Sufi, (19 September 2010).   
  4. The Film Sufi, “‘Forks Over Knives” - Lee Fulkerson (2011)”, The Film Sufi, (16 November 2012).   
  5. The Film Sufi, “‘Loving the Silent Tears’ - Vincent Paterson (2012)”, The Film Sufi, (13 May 2016).   

Louie Psihoyos

Films of Louie Psihoyos:

“Rang De Basanti” - Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (2006)

Rang De Basanti (literally “Color it Spring”, i.e color it with the hues of spring (saffron) – 2006) is an Indian comedy/drama that has achieved great popularity, due in part to its invocation of Indian patriotism via mainstream Bollywood cinematics [1].  Based on a story by Kamlesh Pandey, the film was directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and co-scripted by Mehra, Pandey, and Rensil D'Silva.  It featured a top cast of performers, headed by popular actor Aamir Khan.  Indeed there are some interesting features of this film that contribute to its popularity; but there are also some problematic issues, which I will discuss below. 

The story of the film is about a young English woman’s (Sue McKinley’s) efforts to shoot her own historical docudrama about heroic acts of patriotism on the part of some young Indian activists seeking Indian independence from Britain in the 1920s.  The woman was inspired to make this film after reading the diary of her grandfather, who was a British prison official in India and oversaw the executions of some of these freedom fighters.  However, since the woman is unable to secure commercial funding for her filmmaking efforts, she goes to India on her own to see if she can recruit some nonprofessional actors to act in her movie.  Ultimately she hires a ragtag collection of wiseacre college students to play in her film, and this is where the comedy elements enter into the picture.  But after awhile, an event takes place that causes these cynical goofballs to reassess their own responsibilities towards the furtherance of social justice.

With respect to this narrative, there are two interesting elements that stand out.  One is thematic and concerns the question of what issues may be worth dying for.  In particular, are there social issues in this regard that go beyond the immediate concerns of self-preservation and self-gratification (including just the concerns for family and close associates) and that encompass a much wider social scope?  And in this respect, how far should one go?  These are the kinds of questions that young college graduates might ask themselves in connection with what, if anything, they should dedicate the rests of their lives to.

The second narrative element of interest concerns the multilayered structure of narrative reality that exists in this film for the viewer.  (I have earlier discussed such multilayers of narrative structure in connection with my review of Wim Wenders’s The Salt of the Earth [2]).  Here in this film there are four levels of reality that the viewer may be semiconscious of:
  1. The external, “real world” of the viewer.  At this level, the viewer is aware that he or she is watching a film directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra.  The viewer, of course, may construct his or her own fabula as to how this film was made.   
     
  2. The “reality” of Sue McKinley’s filmmaking activities.  This is the immediate narrative level of the film.
     
  3. The world depicted in Sue McKinley’s docudrama.  This is the syuzhet of Sue McKinley’s story, which is always presented in sepia-toned images in this film. 
     
  4. The “objective” reality of what actually happened back in 1921-31 in India in connection with those doomed, heroic freedom fighters.  This is sometimes supported by old newsreel footage and photos.
Mehra sometimes blurs the boundaries of these levels by intermixing images from them, and this calls the viewer’s attention to these various narrative levels and makes for interesting viewing.  For example in the first scenes presumably showing what actually happened back in 1931  (narrative level 4), we are presented with shots that we will later infer are apparently drawn from Sue McKinley’s later-to-be-made docudrama (narrative level 3).

The story of Rang De Basanti (narrative level 3) plays out over approximately five segments. 
  
1.  Starting a Film Project
The movie opens with sepia-toned images in 1931 in British India, showing prison official James McKinley (played by Steven Mackintosh), describing his supervision of the executions of Indian activist Bhagat Singh and a couple of Singh’s revolutionary partners.  McKinley remarks, and records in his diary, that he had always thought there were just two kinds of people in the world – those who faced their own deaths silently and those who faced death with a scream.  But now with Singh he had encountered a rare third type – someone who joyfully embraced death with a smile.  This he found extraordinary.

Then the scene shifts to the present, with McKinley’s young granddaughter, filmmaker Sue McKinley (Alice Patten, who, as you might expect, is a blonde), reading from her grandfather’s diary and drawing inspiration from Singh’s evident steadfast adherence to his revolutionary principles.  She resolves to make a docudrama about these historic activities, but she is unable to persuade her TV studio superiors to fund her project.  So she travels to India on her own in the hopes of making a low-budget film on the subject.

On arrival, Sue is met by her friend Sonia (Soha Ali Khan), who is studying at university, and together they try to recruit amateur actors for the film project.  The young buffoons who tryout for her film are shown to be hopelessly inadequate, though, and this is where comedic elements first appear in the story.

2.  Recruiting Sonia’s Friends
Later Sue meets and socializes with Sonia’s university friends.  Although these boys are all cynical, self-indulgent pleasure-seekers, Sue feels they have “character” and decides to hire them to play in her film.  They are 
  • Karan Singhania (Siddharth Narayan) to play the role of Bhagat Singh
  • Daljit 'DJ' Singh (Aamir Khan) to play Chandrashekhar Azad
  • Atul Kulkarni (Laxman Pandey) to play Ramprasad Bismil
  • Aslam Khan (Kunal Kapoor) to play Ashfaqullah Khan
  • Sukhi Ram (Sharman Joshi) to play Shivaram Rajguru
  • and also Sonia will play Durgawati Devi
They are an eclectic lot.  Karan is the son of a high government official.  Aslam comes from a poor Muslim family.  And Atul is an active and fanatical member of a violently far-right Hindu nationalist party (incidentally, Atul’s political leader and boss reminds me of somebody).

This part of the film, which is also bent on being heavily jocular, is spent dwelling on these friends and is apparently intended to signify Mehra’s conception of carefree joy.  But it mostly just shows these people incessantly goofing off, exchanging high-fives, and engaging in narcissistic jigs of self-celebration.  Some viewers have apparently been charmed by these antics, but I found this over-the-top, nonstop ceremonial admiration of self (mostly on the part of Aamir Khan) to be tiresome and overwrought.

3.  Rehearsals 
Although the boys are all cynical, their self-absorption makes them each want to amount to something, and they begin taking their acting assignments seriously.  This section of the film shows some of the sepia-toned sequences that are produced, including a scene covering the famous Kakori train robbery undertaken by the revolutionary activists in 1925.  Reference is also made to the notorious Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, which made Bhagat Singh commit himself to revolution.

4.  Ajay Rathod  
Now more attention is paid to Sonia’s boyfriend, Ajay Rathod (R. Madhavan), who is a MIG-21 pilot for the Indian air force.  He proposes marriage to Sonia, and all the friends celebrate.  Also, Sue and DJ seem to be falling in love.

We are also shown further sepia-toned images of Sue’s docudrama production, including one sequence showing James McKinley’s supervising torture of his captured activists, all of whom fail to crack and give away their fellow conspirators.  Another sepia sequence shows the Indian activists planning and then carrying through with an assassination of British police officer J. P. Saunders.  Gradually, our carefree college boys are being asked to portray more and more desperate acts of revolution.

In the midst of all this production, they get the heartbreaking news that Ajay’s plane crashed and that Ajay had heroically refused to bail out when his plane was malfunctioning.  Instead, he had sacrificed his life in order to steer the falling plane to a safe location where there would be no civilian casualties.  Although we soon learn that the plane crash was actually due to faulty plane parts purchased by corrupt government officials, the Indian defence minister goes on TV and wrongfully blames the crash on what he claims was Ajay’s recklessness.

Later the people hold a peaceful candlelit march in honour of Ajay, which is brutally broken up by baton-wielding police.  In the course of their mayhem, the police beating puts Ajay’s mother in a coma.

5.  The Boys Are Angry 
So now the boys, who in their film work have been portraying dedicated activists fighting social injustice, are facing injustice in their own lives.  They are all fired up. 

Supposedly emulating the historical figures they have just been role-playing in their film work, the boys quickly decide to assassinate the Indian defence minister to avenge Ajay Rathod’s death.  This they carry out in a brutal shooting.  Then Karan, having learned of his father’s involvement in the corrupt purchase of faulty MIG-21 airplane parts, goes home and murders his dad. 

However, the media depict the defence minister as a heroic victim of terrorists, and the injustice he has committed is not publicly recognized.  So the frustrated boys go and violently takeover an All India Radio talk show so that they can report over the air the “truth” concerning the wrongs they have supposedly righted.  When they do so, Karan also confesses also that he has just killed his father.  But time is short; the police quickly storm the radio station building and kill all of our actor-boys.  Nevertheless, the boys did get their message out, and the final shots show people expressing their anger about the social injustice that the boys had complained about.


Rang De Basanti has achieved considerable popularity with the public, but from my perspective there are a number of problems with this film.  And these problems span several dimensions of the film’s storytelling.  Considering five of these issues, in order of increasing importance, we can start with some technical elements.

First, we might mention Binod Pradhan’s flashy cinematography, which I found to be mildly disturbing.   The film is littered throughout with swish-pans and rapid-fire montages that only distract the viewer.  These visual pyrotechnics lack motivation and just interfere with what is going on.

A second issue of concern is the already-mentioned overacting on the parts of the recruited college boys.  I accept that Bollywood movies can often feature strenuous histrionics, but here the exaggerated swaggering of these incessantly high-fiving, self-admiring clowns is just too much and counterproductive.  It reduces the viewer’s likelihood of empathising with these key characters.

Moving up to the narrative level, there are two further problems.  One concerns the disconnect between what appears to be Sue McKinley’s simplistic filmmaking means and the presumably sophisticated film production support that she would have needed to make her docudrama scenes that we see in sepia tone.  For example, what other people and equipment were available to help her shoot that complicated Kakori train-robbery sequence?

And another problem is associated with the all-too-sudden characterological shift on the part of the recruited college boys from good-for-nothing wiseguys to dedicated, selfless patriots.  The film needs to spend more time motivating this shift and showing how the boys were psychologically transformed.  As it is, it’s all just too quick.

But the biggest problem with the film, and the one that ultimately condemns it, is the film’s identification of justice with revenge.  I have commented earlier in connection with my review of Tangsir (1974) [3] on the wrongfulness of celebrating the visceral feelings of vengeance and advocating vengeance as a means to achieving social justice.  In fact, all that revenge does is answer one wrongful deed with another and thereby accentuate feelings of resentment.  When we see grave injustice being perpetrated around the world [4,5], the way to respond is not to go to war and somehow punish the evil-doers.  This will only perpetuate the continuation of injustice.  The best path to follow is to make a concerted effort to achieve harmony by following an altruistic path.  As Matthieu Ricard has observed [6]:
“If a patient suffering from mental disturbances strikes the doctor examining him, the latter won’t hit back but, on the contrary, seek the best ways to cure him from his madness.”
. . .
“True altruism consists of wishing that the harm-doer become aware of his deviance and thus stop harming his fellow beings.  This reaction, which is the opposite of the wish to avenge and punish by inflicting more suffering, is not a sign of weakness, but of wisdom.”
India ultimately achieved its freedom from Great Britain and its remarkable social harmony, not by means of terrorist acts of revenge, but by following the path of Mahatma Gandhi.

So despite Rang De Basanti’s other virtues, including its sometimes interesting mingling of multiple narrative levels, I cannot endorse this film.


Notes:
  1. G. Allen Johnson, 'Rang De Basanti', SFGATE, (5 May 2006).  
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘The Salt of the Earth’ - Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado (2014)”The Film Sufi, (12 October 2015).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Tangsir’ - Amir Naderi (1974)”, The Film Sufi, (1 April 2016).   
  4. Arundhati Roy, “India: Intimations of an Ending”, The Nation, (22 November 2019).
  5. Adrian Zenz and Bernhard Zand, “China's Oppression of the Uighurs: ‘The Equivalent of Cultural Genocide’”, Der Spiegel, (28 November 2019).   
  6. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015), pp. 34-35.

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

Films of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra: