Fourteen years on (Rang De Basanti was released on 26 January 2006), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's film continues to ring true for a democracy that is faced with some radical changes in identity.
Rang De Basanti – The seeds of a revolution: Republic Day special
Mumbai - 26 Jan 2020 10:10 IST
‘Koi bhi desh perfect nahi hota. Usay perfect banana padta hai.’
This line from Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s cult hit Rang De Basanti (2006) is as good a definition of patriotism as any.
The film, a story about a group of young men and women who undergo a transformation to take on the powers that be, feels prescient just 14 years later.
Over the past three months, in the movement that began with protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the Northeast and spread to universities in Delhi and then across India, protestors have reclaimed the very same symbols of Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ramprasad 'Bismil' and Mahatma Gandhi to recapture the popular imagination.
At the time Mehra's film was released, the Indian middle class, dominated by the first post-liberalization generation of youngsters, no longer cared about politics; the definition of patriotism had changed. Years of convenient liberalism and growing decadence had resulted in an atrophy of the last vestiges of a protesting culture.
In fact, listening to the song 'Paathshala' from the film, the current government would love to use it as evidence against the protesting students. The song sings about 'freedom from rules, books, and education'.
Told through the perspective of a British national Sue (Alice Patten), Rang De Basanti captured the zeitgeist of one such group of apathetic youngsters who discover their own sense of morality, not patriotism, with the death of a friend.
Written by Mehra, Kamlesh Pandey and Rensil D’Silva, the film feels like a far more nuanced take on the idea of patriotism. But its greater contribution was in returning to people the lesson of democratic responsibility.
The feminist writer and activist Toni Cade Bambara once remarked, “The role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.” With its thumping background score, emotional story, relatable characters and moving poetry, Rang De Basanti lit a spark in a generation that had hardly taken to the streets for a larger cause.
An immediate effect of the film was the protest marches taken out when the judiciary failed Jessica Lall in the infamous murder case.
This was simply a trigger that soon launched, in 2011, one of this century's most important movements, to push for the Lok Pal Bill to counter unprecedented levels of corruption in government. It also resulted in the rise of the first major political wild card in Indian politics, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party.
Indians had taken to heart Aamir Khan’s dialogue from the film: ‘Zindagi jeene ke do hi tareeke hain... [There are only two ways to live life...]’.
Fourteen years after the film's release on Republic Day 2006, scenes from the film have been playing out in real life. Protests across India have been crushed with disdain. Whether it was the violence in the universities of JNU and Jamia Millia or across Uttar Pradesh, voices of dissent have been met with brute force.
Incidentally, it was the rise of the Lok Pal movement led by students that paved the way for the ascension to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Over the next decade, however, a growing divide across religious, ideological and class lines has festered in Indian society.
While the film industry has consciously tried to keep away from voicing its opinions, recent years have seen a clear and open split on ideological lines within the industry. The usual suspects of Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha, Hansal Mehta and Sudhir Mishra have now been joined by some prominent names. Stars like Kamal Haasan, Deepika Padukone and Taapsee Pannu have now joined the side of the rebellion.
What’s more, the ruling party is openly stoking these tensions, in an effort to widen the divide. The latest is the rebuke of Naseeruddin Shah, calling him 'Gulfam Husain (sic)', the Mohajir terrorist handler he had portrayed in John Matthan Mathew's Sarfarosh (1999). It would behove us to point out that every human being is born with equal rights, and countries (based on their democratic/undemocratic values) decide to accept or reject those rights.
India gave them:— BJP Karnataka (@BJP4Karnataka) January 23, 2020
✓ People's Love
But they still ended up being Gulfam Hussains 😞😞😞
Nevertheless, this hate campaign has not stopped artists from stepping out, particularly members of the Rang De Basanti squad.
When police went on the rampage in Jamia Millia Islamia, Siddharth, Atul Kulkarni, Soha Ali Khan and Kunal Kapoor were among the voices protesting against the violence and the atrocities.
The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to ideals of democracy and constitutionalism. Please keep the protests non-violent and those in governance please exercise restraint. Our children and students should feel safe on their campuses protected and not fearful of the police.— Soha Ali Khan (@sakpataudi) December 17, 2019
It shocks me, how many educated, seemingly rational people I know are completely bigoted. And not just on religious lines, but also on the lines of caste.— Kunal Kapoor (@kapoorkkunal) December 16, 2019
Discrimination is like a termite which doesn’t stop at the surface but eventually eats up into the core. Religion is just the surface, caste and gender are the core. With the likes of states , languages, food in between. #peace— atul kulkarni (@atul_kulkarni) December 18, 2019
The only person missing was Azad (Aamir Khan). In all fairness, Aamir Khan had spoken out about the growing intolerance in the country back in 2015. The result was incessant trolling online, dire threats to him and his family and immediate suspension of his ‘Incredible India’ campaign for the Indian government's tourism ministry.
A decade and a half since the movie was released, Azad and Bhagat Singh are back in the conversation. From posters to songs, students and protestors have turned to the values of Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and Azad, along with Gandhi, to bolster the movement. There is also a new Azad, who, like his historical namesake, escaped the police in a daring run across rooftops in Old Delhi.
But the reason Rang De Basanti stood out was for its portrayal of disillusionment on all sides. The most interesting, or relevant, was that of Laxman Pandey, played by Atul Kulkarni.
Kulkarni portrayed a young right-wing activist of an unnamed political party, who hates these Westernized students and their liberal sensibilities. Yet, within him lurks an irrepressible love for his country's past and the desire to prove himself in one such moment. When Flt Lt Ajay Rathor (R Madhavan) perishes in a crash caused by faulty systems, Pandey decides to question his bosses. This does not go down well.
Pandey's disillusionment with the politics of ideology, which takes precedence over the good of the nation, feels like a very relevant issue in today's India.
It is no surprise that Laxman Pandey is associated with the role of Ramprasad Bismil in the documentary within the film. It was Bismil's friendship with Ashfaqullah Khan and their adoption of the revolutionary poem, 'Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna', as their rallying crying that continues to ring out as an anthem at every protest till date, though the poem itself was written by another Bismil, Bismil Azimabadi.
Poetry and protests are inevitably linked. As Bertolt Brecht said of the dark times, protest poetry enlightens the struggle of the age. Whether it be Faiz Ahmed Faiz's 'Hum Dekhenge' or Varun Grover's 'Hum Kaagaz Nahi Dikhayenge', 2020 has seen a new wave of protest poetry.
While these poems have seen lyricists like Javed Akhtar, Rahat Indori, and Grover step out with their own contributions, one name missing is that of the Rang De Basanti lyricist, Prasoon Joshi.
Collaborating with music composer AR Rahman, Joshi wrote some of the most powerful and emotive lyrics of his career for Rang De Basanti. Whether it was 'Roobaroo', the heartbreaking 'Luka Chuppi' or the exuberant title track 'Rang De Basanti', Joshi's lyrics enlivened the life, times and ideals of a young generation.
But it is with 'Khoon Chala' that the poet truly emerged. Incidentally, the song is set to the background of a protest against the ruling party that chooses to unleash the police on student protestors. This is the moment the group realizes that peaceful protest is no longer a viable option.
Joshi, currently chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), has maintained a stony silence on the latest protests. Quite understandable, since he has been under fire for some very meme-worthy interviews of the prime minister.
Of course, one has to concede that neither Rang De Basanti nor a single event is the cause of any movement in the past or the present. To quote the inspiration for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's film, Bhagat Singh, "Revolution is a very difficult task. It is beyond the power of any man to make a revolution. Neither can it be brought about on any appointed date. It is brought about by special environments, social and economic."
Yet, there are certain works of art that truly capture that sense of discontent that festers beneath the surface. Picasso's Guernica. Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) and Rang De Basanti deserve to be ranked among these. While it might not have the same aesthetic merit as the others, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's film continues to capture the truth of life in a struggling democracy. One where to protest against wrongdoing is perhaps the first duty of the citizen.
As Siddharth's Karan Singhania says: 'Koi bhi desh perfect nahi hota. Usay perfect banana padta hai.'