‘A beginning has to be made somewhere,’ exhorts Karan Singhania (Siddharth), one of the protagonists in the film Rang De Basanti to the youth of the country from All India Radio after he with his friends seize it in a guerilla style action. Before falling to the bullets of the police along with his four comrades- Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), DJ (Aamir Khan), Aslam (Kunal Kapoor), Pandey (Atul Kulkarni), he makes an impassioned and forceful appeal. However, their death is not an end, it is just a beginning. In their death, they illuminate the path of revolt and defiance that cut through the darkness of gloom, apathy and insensitivity.
Every movement in history demands its quota of commitment and sacrifice. Without the indomitable spirit and immense courage shown by a few outstanding individuals it cannot inspire the social conscience of the generation. The film seeks to do the same. The film is about the self-journey of the six college students who transform themselves through engagement with history from being fun seeking wayward youth to persons who raise the banner of revolt and sacrifice their lives in the process.
The film is built on the premise that today’s generation is grappling with their existentialist dilemmas trying to find a meaning and purpose in life. The old value system is in the process of either transformation or coming in conflict with the new one. There occurs a conflict between the instinctive rebellious nature of students and the stifling prescribed social norms.
The cultural explosion has brought new ideas from the West, which is understood to be dangerous and threatening by certain social and political forces. There is a merging of cross-cultural trends and the youth are embracing what is ‘radical’ and chic ? Fearful of this fact the authoritarian institutions like the state and family are trying to control the young deviant population from its influence. The scene when Hindutuva activist, Pandey disrupts the dance party of the students in the order to stop them from getting influenced from the culture of the west, reflects the dilemma of our time. Do the westernised youth have no sense of belonging to the nation as Pandey cries hoarsely in the film? When the saffronites debunk them as followers of an alien culture, they distort the very concept of what is our own. In the name of reclaiming the so-called golden past, they want to transport us back to old feudal times. Are the youth to be blamed for this? The film tells us the youth of today desires change but are caught in their own personal crisis and are unwilling to stake their career for it. They also do not find any worthy cause in fighting for a society fatalistic and unresponsive to change. The central protagonists of the film are the product of this time.
They want to live in an isolated world of the world of their own making. The isolation breeds apathy and apathy turns into cynicism and self-estrangement. All of them have their own set of problems. If Siddharth’s problems arise due to affluence, DJ is afraid to be absorbed and assimilated into the system, Sukhi does not want to die a virgin while Aslam is grappling with his identity which seems to be something larger than himself.
Even though there is an acute realisation in them of the signs of an all pervading decay and dehumanisation, they feel helpless and powerless to intervene and affect any change. For an individual is set against a corrupt system rotten to the core and which can easily crush and absorb any form of protest. Politics is seen to be manipulative and corruption-ridden. ‘Sacrifice for the corrupt system’, retorts Karan questioning the absurdity of the idea. Earlier in the film, the audition test taken by British the female protagonist, Sue, who comes to India to make documentary film on freedom fighters, unable to find actors who can enact the role of the revolutionaries with depth and conviction. The film suggests there is little awareness and appreciation by today’s youth for the glorious chapter of the armed struggle led by revolutionaries against British colonialism.
It is while enacting the lives of revolutionaries that the protagonists of the film undergo a gradual change in their outlook but the hour of reckoning comes when their peaceful movement demanding justice for their friend, an air force pilot who dies in the MIG plane crash, is crushed with ruthless ferocity by the state. Now they are exposed to the authoritarian side of the socio- political historical forces working against the interest of the country and the people. Disillusioned with the fact that the unjust system will never provide justice to their martyred friend, they seek justice themselves by annihilating the Defence Minister who is involved in corrupt deals in the purchase of faulty parts of MIG and so is directly responsible for the death of their friend. They finally seize AIR to publicise their viewpoints and to make the deaf hear.
If the protagonists are the personification of the revolutionaries, the question here arises is this what Bhagat Singh would have done if he had been alive today as the film attempts to argue. In all probability, no. Bhagat Singh became convinced towards the end of his life that only by relying on the masses can one bring about a revolutionary transformation in our society. For him, armed struggle must be accompanied with mass struggle in order to be popular and successful. While Rang de Basanti does not go beyond the official historiography when it comes to the portrayal of Bhagat Singh (as his contribution goes much beyond the image of a firebrand revolutionary who shot dead Saunders and threw bombs in the Assembly Hall).
It is despite these limitations that Rang De Basanti is infused with refreshing frankness rarely seen in Hindi cinema, a film that celebrates the death defying spirit and courage of the youth for a cause. Against leading a life of an isolated, disembodied individuals Rang De Basanti stresses the realisation of the critical faculty that questions the existing state of affairs. It seems that the message of the film has gone down well considering the huge number of people particularly the youth flocking the cinema hall. It not only has a breathtaking epic sweep of the history of our freedom struggle but it also makes it relevant for the present generation by connecting the past with the present. Its message appears quite authentic and convincing, why? Because the image of reality that Rang De Basanti offers mirrors the political reality of India, where corruption, communalisation and criminalisation have become part and parcel of the Indian political system.
It is, indeed, difficult to imagine that a film on such a politically engaging cinema that sees things from a socio-historical perspective coming out of the dream factory in Mumbai. One must not forget that within the genre of commercial cinema, which primarily operates under the dictates of market and the benevolent gaze of the state, Rakesh Mehra has made a thought-provoking, meaningful and compelling film. Why does it look so youthful and fresh? What makes its appeal so contemporary? Do the youth who sacrifice their lives in the film reflect the voices of conscience or those who have gone astray? Is it not due to Rang De Basanti that the youth are debating their own commitment to the country? Hindi cinema which of late has been portraying the super rich or the gangsters as the heroes and catering to the public with dispirited pastiche, Rang De Basanti goes against the established convention by creating a work of art which is truly original and most importantly portrays Bhagat Singh as a role model for today’s generation.
The film does not treat the issues superficially but raises thematic concerns and poses topical questions about the direction in which the country is moving. It compels us to think and debate.
The film talks about Bhagat Singh but not of his politics. Was it because Bhagat Singh talked about the reorganisation of the polity along Marxian lines? The film’s philosophy could be summed up in the lines of Karan when he addresses the youth of the country in the climax, ‘no country is perfect, it has to be made perfect… we will join the police force, army, will become IAS officers to change its course of direction...’ These ideas reflect a middle class perception and idealism of bringing out reforms in the country; it addresses the symptoms and effects not the diseases. As an individualist approach to social, moral and political questions of our times, it conflicts with the ideology of Bhagat Singh and his comrades.
In the brilliantly written pamphlet ‘The philosophy of bomb’, Bhagwati Charan and Chandra Shekhar Azad wrote in consultation with Bhagat Singh ‘… (This) revolution will not only express itself in the form of an armed conflict between the foreign government and its supporters and the people, it will also usher in a new social order. The revolution will ring the death knell of Capitalism and class distinctions and privileges. It will bring joy and prosperity to the starving millions who are seething under the terrible yoke of both foreign and Indian exploitation’.
Rang De Basanti, however, does what no other films based on the life of Bhagat Singh were able to achieve. At the time when youth of the country is, groping for answers in the dark it explodes at the centre stage to provide the link between the white colonial masters who bear similar class character with the present rule of brown sahibs who are enacting various traitorous policies in pursuit of their naked self-interest. With the history of India’s revolutionary movement told in background it does not crudely play up patriotic sentiments. Without sounding too pedantic and didactic, it managed successfully to reach the vast heterogeneous masses and the youth. The historical events interspersed in the film are used as a metaphor to highlight the uncompromising struggle of the revolutionaries against British imperialism. The director skillfully incorporates elements of documentary realism to narrate the historical events at the same time locating the protagonists in the present time. In doing so, it offloads the baggage of an historical film in the minds of the viewer to impart a contemporary ring. Thus, it transcends the limits of representation imposed by the genre of period films. Very few films in the recent time has reflected upon the prevailing mood in the country so effectively and poignantly and at the same time conveying a deep-rooted political message. Certainly the film has led to a renewed interested about the lives of revolutionaries heroes, particular Bhagat Singh whose 100th birth anniversary will be observed this year, among the youth. However, the film is not without its own high and low.
Though Rang De Basanti reflects youth frustration and total disenchantment with the present discredited system, in effect espousing the aspiration of the struggling masses, however, without any connection with the masses and subscribing to no political ideology and programme, the alternative could only be vague and utopian. The political objective of this group is not revolution but seeking retribution and justice, it remains at best an anarchist militant action of which Bhagat Singh himself noted, ‘let me announce with all the strength at my command, that I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot get anything through these methods ... I do not mean that bombs and pistols are useless, rather the contrary. But I mean to say that mere bomb-throwing is not only useless but sometimes harmful. The military department of the party should always keep ready all the war-material at its command for any emergency. It should back the political work of the party. It cannot and should not act independently...’ While it is true such type of armed action does inspire people and strengthen the morale of the oppressed fighting a brutal state. But without a political agenda and goal it can easily be dispersed and hence cannot provide any theoretical frame work for arriving at the correct strategy and tactics for revolution.
The film though it highlights the need to follow the path laid by Bhagat Singh and his comrades but it fails to connect it with the ideals and political vision of the revolutionaries. The film merely touches the political significance of the slogan-Inquilab Zindabad-(Long live revolution) popularised by Bhagat Singh, but does not elaborate it. Equally, a notable omission was another important slogan Samrajyawad Murdabad, Down with Imperialism. Shiv Verma, one of the co-accused along with Bhagat Singh in the Lahore Conspiracy Case has written: Inquilab Zindabad represented the outlook that - the revolutionary movement will not stop at the achievement of freedom; it will continue till the system which permits the exploitation of man by man and of a nation by nation, is abolished and a basic change in the socio-economic structure of the society is brought about. Samrajyawad Murdabad indicated the immediate task at hand. A slave nation cannot establish a classless society, abolish exploitation and bring about equality amongst men. For such a nation, the first and foremost task is to break the chains of imperialist domination that bind it. In other words, revolution in a slave country has to be anti-imperialist and anti-colonial. The credit however goes to the director for highlighting the contribution of Ashfaqullah Khan that was rendered invisible in earlier films like ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’, directed by Raj kumar Santoshi. Ashfaqullah Khan becomes a mascot for highlighting the secular character of the revolutionary movement and therefore apart of our common heritage. The Hindu right-wingers also stand exposed in the film, they are implicated in the corrupt defence deals and when are questioned, they crush the dissent with an iron hand. The film tries to establish the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary. Earlier in the film, Ram Prasad Bismil asks the British officer not to call them ‘Fasadies’ (troublemakers) because they are revolutionaries. Similarly, in the present context it is the state and their apologists who dub the fighting masses as terrorist. Karan in a reply to a question enunciates how a revolutionary is different from a terrorist, while a terrorist kills innocents, revolutionaries go for selective and targeted killing of a hated oppressor. They also believe in using diverse form of struggle like taking the fight to the court and turning it into a platform to propagate revolutionary ideas.
The images from history, distinguished by their sepia tone, acquire a new meaning and political connotation in the film. History becomes a reference point to develop strategies for the future. The legacy of revolution has to be carried forward to fight new forms of oppression and injustice. The transposition of the image of General Dwyer, the butcher of Jallianwala Bagh, with the Defence Minister symbolising today’s corrupt ministers. It articulates a viewpoint that the country-selling, traitorous political class is no different from the British colonialist. In essence, freedom is meant for the rich and powerful, although the film does not say this in clear terms. By juxtaposing the images of revolutionaries eliminating the British Police officer, Saunders, with the students carrying out a similar kind of militant action against the Defence minister, the film justifies it as a legitimate form of the struggle since the socio-political climate remains more or less the same even today.
The film explores the widespread malaise that has set in society and delivers its moral indictment against the value system that makes the youth withdraw into utter irrelevancy, passivity and social conformism. It seeks to break them away from their disengagement in taking up a social role and making a unique contribution towards society. As a notion of contributing to society cannot flow without conviction and commitment and that requires a vision, it rediscovers the relevance of revolutionaries, who lived and died to make India free. As DJ says,’ remain a mute witness or take up the responsibility to change the order of things’. What it meant here by being responsible and constructive? Karan supplies the answers, ‘We will join the police, army or become IAS…the political system to change the existing affairs of the society’. This does not mean rocking the boat. Therefore, the prescription is making the system better by infusing new blood. Change within the realm of individual consciousness in order to transform the objective reality. Does active engagement in society’s affairs mean perpetuating the status-quo? The students are fighting a repressive apparatus and at the same time giving sermons that ultimately sanctify it.
However, one must note that the film does manage successfully to weaken
and expose certain aspects of the dehumanising and repressive character
of the system. It teaches us resistance to tyranny. The final
confrontation, when the socially awakened youth meet a cruel end at the
hands of Indian state, marks a departure from the conventional ending
as prevalent in mainstream Hindi cinema. The film also attempts to
interrogate the nature of both revolutionary violence and state
violence. The state, which has a monopoly over the use of violence,
does so in the name of national interest to camouflage their vested
interests. In contrast, revolutionaries employ violence as a means to
transform society. The students had to die for daring to dream and
daring to fight. The killing of unarmed students, who actually wanted
to surrender, evokes a sense of outrage and all round condemnation
among the students, marking a birth of new radicalism. Their death does
not go in vain, as it is the youth who delivers the final verdict
demanding the end of the regime based on injustice. Today when our
land, water, and forests are under threat by the profit driven,
rapacious TNCs, the new avatar of the East India Company it is time to remember Bhagat Singh. In this context, Rang De Basanti
plays an important ideological role in fuelling a renewed interest in
his legacy, particularly among the youth. Though the film presents a
populist image of the revolutionaries without locating them in their
ideological mooring, it exposes the inhumanity of the existing order
and its political message therefore should not get lost.