Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Against Rang De Basanti
On Saturday I went to watch Rang De Basanti with some friends at Paras Cinema in Nehru Place. Aamir Khan's latest foray into Indian history is without question a cinematic venture of remarkable daring - it left me completely stunned. In almost two decades of watching Bollywood productions I have never come across such preposterous drivel as that served up in the second half of this film (one reason for this, of course, is that Rang De Basanti takes itself so seriously).
Rang De Basanti is about a group of youths, pleasure-loving, individualistic, largely ignorant of their country's history and cynical about its future (this much of the film is by and large well done; the characters are true to life and the dialogue is witty). Under the direction of a young British filmmaker keen to recreate some of the episodes of the Indian independence movement, particularly from the lives of Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, they begin to gain a sense of a past that is now remote to many young Indians, and are forced to rethink many of the beliefs and attitudes towards life that they previously took as given. Although the sudden metamorphosis into sepia-tinted drama, in which the characters play out episodes from the lives of Indian revolutionaries, is clumsy, one accepts it because Hindi cinema is rarely perfect - at least it is an attempt to do something inventive.
But what follows not only stretches the boundaries of logic, it also sends out a dangerous and incendiary message that, if anything, works against what the film seems to be trying to convey to us: that we should stand up to be counted, attempt to honestly do what we can to improve our situation.
Halfway through the film there appears a young army pilot Ajay Rathore (played by the actor Madhavan) who baits the other youths about their cynical attitude towards their country - he voices, as it were, the message of the film. Later, Rathore is killed when his plane, one of the MIG-21s which have earned such notoriety in our country, suddenly crashes. At first his friends are only griefstruck, but later they become outraged when it appears that official negligence, especially corruption at the highest levels of government, has been to a great extent responsible for the tragic loss not only of Ajay's life but those of other young pilots. They take out a demonstration against the Defence Minister (Mohan Agashe), who organises a police lathi charge to deal with them, in which Ajay's mother is seriously injured.
At this point our heroes suddenly begin to hear the whispers of history in their brains. What did Bhagat Singh and Azad do in a similar situation (the lathi charge is likened to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre)? They took matters into their own hands. Thus, inspired by their newfound idols, they decide arbitrarily that no other recourse exists than to assassinate the Defence Minister. They carry out the assassination in a cold-blooded manner - and this is where the film is most dishonest, showing us a reconstruction of the revolutionaries lying in wait for Dyer, and then cutting to the youths waiting outside the minister's house in the same pose.
Also, the father of one of the youths is a henchman of the minister's, and also has blood on his hands in the matter of the defective MIG planes. The solution here again is to kill him in cold blood - his son does this himself. Clearly, when it comes to sounding the drum rolls of justice, family ties are of no importance. Indeed, there is something chilling and repulsive about a young man so willing to play judge, jury and executioner to his own father for the crime of corruption. Rakeysh Mehra may believe there is something tragic-romantic about the character's behaviour, but in truth it is nothing other than barbaric.
Even worse things are to come. The country is shocked by the minister's assassination, and with a bit of help from his party's propaganda machinery (the bright saffron worn by the functionaries leave no doubt as to which party is intended) he becomes a martyr. Our heroes are once again in the throes of despair. What is to be done now?
Another bright idea: the revolutionaries of old actually furthered the cause, the spread of the truth, by giving themselves up to the police, thereby enlisting the country's sympathies. So our young men make haste for the All-India Radio office, take it hostage (again they feel no qualms about drawing guns), and broadcast the truth about the minister's evil deeds over national radio. Hundreds of people around the country are shown listening to the broadcasts, and being persuaded by their message that the steps they took were the only ones they could have possibly taken. They phone in by the dozens to express their support. The building in which our bright young revolutionaries are holed up is surrounded by the police. In another of the film's many excruciatingly painful scenes, we see the young men celebrating the success of their mission, and embracing each other warmly in at least a dozen successive shots as victory music plays on the soundtrack. Never do they appear so self-involved, deluded, and plain daft as at the point when they have apparently made their greatest sacrifice. Right after that they are gunned down by the police, and become martyrs themselves.
Unholster your pistols then, O youth of India, and if you've been wronged in any way, think of who it is you want to eliminate. The worst thing about Rang De Basanti is that not only does it sloppily promote the idea that violence is fine as long as you are persuaded that the cause is right, it uses an absurd parallel from history to legitimise it, and at every stage superimposes the frame of history upon the action. Even as it seems to argue that the youth of the country should take responsibility for our shared predicament, it finds a convenient scapegoat for our problems in the figure of a politician, and makes the elimination of one or two people the object of the action. Attempting to stimulate us to greater awareness and maturity, it instead promotes an adolescent view of political action. It wildly mixes all kinds of things from all kinds of places, and rolls them up into one gigantic farrago of nonsense which it attempts to rush past the viewer and stun him or her into agreement.
It seems to me that it is high time that Aamir Khan got off his nationalism-patriotism-'wake-up, you-people' hobbyhorse. His last two attempts in the genre have produced two turkeys, and he appears to have forgotten that he after all an actor, someone who gets into the skin of different kinds of people with varying motives and preoccupations, not just someone who embodies the voice of the resistance in different accents and from different points in history.
We are often told that we should attend to the lessons of history, but if there was ever an argument against it, then that is Rang De Basanti.
Here are some older posts about other Hindi films: Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal, and Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday.