It's been exactly fifteen years since Rang De Basanti released and blew our collective consciousness (at the time). To label it as just a patriotic film or a film about students discovering politics would be an injustice purely due to the various layers it peeled. Those were different times though. Only 2.4% of India's population was connected to the internet, the majority of whom had yet to experience it on a handheld device. Facebook was still something that we had only heard of from our American cousins, and it was still cool to profess zero interest in anything political. As for patriotism, well, that was just for the faujis (or so we thought).
RDB's lasting social impact, therefore, was to make patriotism 'cool' once again to the youth of the country. Ah, but the patriotism that was served up on a platter to us back then (dramatic as it was) was true to the definition of the word in its purest sense " love for one's country, the passion to drive change, to break a corrupt system that had nothing going for the common man, regardless of caste or religion. It was a landmark film, there's no doubt about it.
The film spoke of active participation in politics. In peak brain-drain era, it recommended taking up jobs in the government, the civil services and the military. It endorsed joining politics when most youngsters looked at politicians with suspicion. A few years later, MTV launched a campaign "Rock the Vote" but one could argue that the seeds to make voting cool were seeded right here, with RDB.
The premise of the Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra film is a coming-of-age for five young men (played by Aamir Khan, Siddharth, Sharman Joshi, Atul Kulkarni and Kunal Kapoor) when a friend of theirs, an Air Force pilot (played by R Madhavan), loses his life due to sub-standard parts in his plane. It starts with them organising peaceful protests and questioning the government, and subsequently being subjected to police brutality. The rage that follows sees them taking up arms and killing the corrupt politician who was responsible, only to make a 'martyr' out of him. What follows is a classic final stand as they take over a radio station and broadcast what they've done to the entire country. The eventual gunning down of the five youths sets off national outrage.
Some would argue that RDB was in part responsible for peaceful protests, candlelight marches and citizen demonstrations coming back in vogue. The common man suddenly wanted to participate more in the governance of the country. It's almost as if someone flicked on a switch saying, "Hey, we're a democracy. We're allowed to voice our displeasure." Most would agree that the awakening of the collective conscious towards a corrupt system was what eventually felled that last government. And yet today, all of this seems centuries ago and the idea of a bunch of students taking on the system just has no innocence about it anymore. In the 2010s and 20s, this very premise would and has taken on a completely divisive and hate-filled turn. Student politics isn't something relegated to a few choice universities around the country - it's everywhere. Politics itself isn't just something that the neighbourhood uncles debate over their evening cigarette at the chai tapri. Everybody today, has a view. And everybody takes a side. Self-professed centrists are just people with a heightened aversion to be offensive, while slowly and surely leaning towards one side or the other.
Over the past few years, we've had incidents where the police has stormed onto a campus and beaten up protesting students along with goons supporting the regime. We've had civilians across the country protesting a highly divisive act that threatens to strip an entire community of their citizenship. There are farmers sitting outdoors in the bitter cold of the capital, some of whom of have lost their lives over the past few months. What's common to all of this is a fundamental and democratic right to exercise one's right to dissent. What's also common to all of this is the use of brute force on unarmed citizens.
But do you see any national outrage?
You don't, because the very definition of patriotism has divided our populace. And the one big difference, today, is the equating of state and regime. Voices of dissent are quick to be called out as being anti-national while jingoistic media news anchors scream on blaring television sets across the country. Every wrong has half the population calling it right, and majoritarianism has taken over democracy. One can't help wonder how a film like RDB would go down with audiences if it was released now, even with it's story-within-story of long forgotten heroes.
Would Bhagat Singh be the focus of the trailer to bring in some national fervour for one section of the masses, only to have the other side quickly point out that he was a communist?
Would the inclusion of Ashfaqullah Khan's story be labelled as minority appeasement by one side, while the other frantically dug out names of every Muslim freedom fighter just to prove they were there?
Would Laxman Pandey's course correction from his deeply ingrained religious bigotry be termed as Hinduphobic by one side? Would the other side scream Islamophobia at the depiction of Aslam's family as ghettoised and insular?
Would DJ be called a loser for hanging around campus and would there be conspiracy theories about him consuming taxpayer money?
Would the taking up of arms as a solution, be seen as a terrorist move? Or would it be seen through the filmmaker's lens - as an act of desperation?
Would the filmmaker really have the luxury of keeping his story pure or would he have to choose a side? More importantly, would he be allowed to make a film that questions the morals of an existing government? And it's not just about the powers-that-be disallowing him. Would you, the majoritarian population of India, allow him to?
When I re-watched RDB today, I couldn't help feeling that some things are best preserved in glass cases, not to be subjected to the ravages of time. Technically, it's not the film that hasn't aged well; it's our country that hasn't.