“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.

  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.

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