Bollywood is infamous for films that do not pass the test of time. Even the most iconic ones, like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, have aged horribly. Most of the so-called classics we remember today are filled with problematic humour and over-the-top storylines, relevant only because of the nostalgia they elicit. However, a recent viewing of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti happened to prove the opposite.
I was pretty young when Rang De Basanti released - young enough to not have a single memory, not even a vague one, of actually watching the entire film in one sitting. Yet, its grandness has never been lost on me.
I have wept to AR Rahman's soulful compositions; that iconic low shot of four shirtless men reaching for the skies is etched in my brain as much as anyone else's.
I've even confidently nodded my way through Rang De Basanti discussions. Despite all this, I had never really given the film the chance it deserved. Little did I know what I was missing...
Rang De Basanti follows a British woman, Sue (Alice Patten), travelling to India, armed only with a dream to recreate India's freedom struggle involving freedom fighters Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqulla Khan, Ram Prasad Bismil, and Shivaram Rajguru. Through Soha Ali Khan's character, she meets a group of young men and decides to cast them in her film. As the men enact the fight for freedom, a different struggle emerges in modern India, forcing them to become freedom fighters of their own kind.
With an ensemble cast including Aamir Khan, Sharman Joshi, Kunal Kapoor, Atul Kulkarni, and Siddharth, Rang De Basanti created ripples in 2006. Somehow, 15 years later, the film echoes the angst of present-day India as well. In Kunal Kapoor's Aslam, we find an identity issue fuelled by communal tension - one that has only deepened over time. Atul Kulkarni plays a local politician driven by right-wing ideology; he eventually strikes common ground with the others in the group. In Siddharth's Karan we find a privileged youngster disillusioned by the dreams sold to him. Aamir Khan's character, on the other hand, represents the average youth of today.
On the surface of it, Rang De Basanti seems to be serving India's weaknesses on a plate but its real message goes much deeper than that.
The group of friends is diverse in their identity, ambitions, as well as struggles. What binds them is love and all things hopeful - much like real life.
The film doesn't focus too much on their individual battles, instead it harnesses their shortcomings to have a larger conversation about corruption. When Durga's fiance Ajay (R Madhavan) dies in an accident, the group unites to bring him justice. Bollywood has a long history of glorifying its armed forces; the attempt is sometimes subtle, sometimes not. In the recent past, most attempts haven't been subtle.
From the Vicky Kaushal-starrer Uri to the plethora of Akshay Kumar films, the armed forces are exalted beyond measure. They're presented as the ultimate heroes. Even a film like The Ghazi Attack, which felt embarrassingly comical to me, successfully makes heroes out of its men donning military uniforms.
In Rang De Basanti, that's not the case. As a defence pilot, Ajay's given the respect he deserves but he's never deified.
Even though the film revolves around his death, he's never the sole focus of it. When compared to Alia Bhatt's Raazi, Rang De Basanti's patriotism does not originate from the main character. Raazi is the story of one individual, while Rang De Basanti represents a whole nation.
Unlike the so-called patriotic films these days, Rang De Basanti does not shy away from acknowledging the country's deficiencies. It embraces them.
Having said that, not everything in the movie sat right with me. There are several instances where the British filmmaker's pep talks sound extremely preachy. I'm not a big fan of any white person romanticizing anything about India, especially not a British one. Even the violence carried out by the gang on multiple occasions is unnecessarily glorified. However, these elements, for me, are overshadowed by a broader message. One that creates a dilapidated bridge between pre and post-independence India with the intention of mapping out the country's real progress.
Unlike the singular nationalistic patriotism of today's mainstream Hindi cinema, Rang De Basanti has depth and that's probably why it'll never lose its charm.
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