The debate on Rang De Basanti continues in the mainstream media. However, it is the politics of the film which is under attack as being personal and making too many concessions for the audience. This article appeared in Magazine Section in The Hindu, Sunday, Mar 12, 2006.
Is "Rang de Basanti" as politically vibrant as made out to be?
"RDB" is the latest in a lineage of recent films that have attempted to address the intertwined themes of youth, disenchantment and rebellion
IN the eyes of many young people, who have transferred their vote from the parliamentary system to the sms poll, politics is a blood sport. One played by frenzied talk-show hosts, spycam-wielding sting operators, corrupt public figures, and signature-campaigners. Can you make a political film for such a generation of urban youth, which had had no campus radicalisation, is largely disconnected from the public sphere by private aspirations, and derives its ideas about politics from television?
Contemporary Hindi cinema proposes an answer in the form of "Rang De Basanti", an account of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's visit to Mars. Or some other location that bears an improbable relationship to contemporary India, where a group of likeable but confused young men who swing between aimless hedonism and cynical nihilism are galvanised into a task force. This dramatic change is provoked, not by recognition of systemic injustice in the society they complain about constantly, but by a sense of private wrong. When their friend, an Indian Air Force pilot, dies in a crash, the accident is papered over to conceal the shady issue of aircraft maintenance. Catalysed by the Defence Minister's insinuations about their friend, and the repression of a peaceful protest, the pleasure-seekers cease floating among picturesque ruins and become conspirators. With no training in militancy, they defy such security impedimenta as patrols and roadblocks, shooting down the minister as he takes his morning constitutional and escaping with dreamlike ease.
Vengeance attained, they fight their way into a radio station, claim responsibility for the assassination, and condemn the corrupt and callous State. At this point, a glaring gulf opens up between the domain of the sms poll and the realm of real politics. The Rapid Action Force is deployed within minutes of the broadcast: the young revolutionaries are shot down in the act of addressing the people.
What dynamises these students, and the young woman who is their sheet anchor and reality check? They have been playing the roles of Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad and their revolutionary comrades in a film being shot by a young British filmmaker. Mehra deploys a parallel narrative to switch between a postcolonial Now and a turbulent colonial past. Despite this heavy-handed referencing of India's revolutionary tradition, "RDB" is far from being the politically vibrant film some reviewers believe it to be.
True, Mehra demonstrates the continuity linking the supposedly humane postcolonial state with its authoritarian colonial predecessor with unusual force. True, also, that he uses his fine ensemble cast to stir urban India's youth out of the privatism that enwraps them, and towards the awareness of larger accountabilities. Despite these advantages, "RDB" fails in its understanding of the political condition and of revolutionary action. Revolution may be provoked by an experience of personal injustice, but it always speaks for the multitudes. "RDB's" protagonists generalise about Indian society, but the heightening of their consciousness scarcely transcends the personal wrong they have suffered. Their perception of the postcolonial State's injustice against the greatest number remains shadowy. Urgent questions of religious unease and ethnic marginalisation are raised, but left swaddled in personal experience, instead of being amplified into an interrogation of official myths and public silences. We would have expected a finer effort from the director of the brilliantly moody, psychologically compelling "Aks" (2001).
No amount of cinematic wizardry can bridge the vast difference between the heroes of India's revolutionary tradition and "RDB's" protagonists. Simply put, men like Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad saw themselves as the vanguard of a popular, mass-based uprising, rather than as solo performers. While the futile and newfound kamikaze idealism of "RDB's" protagonists leads nowhere, Singh and Azad's symbolic violence was continuous with a strategy of revolutionary activity articulated in speech, writing, non-violent mobilisation and violent resistance. Colonial India's revolutionaries were anchored in a passionately constructive engagement with Indian society, in the belief that politics is a potentially redemptive and transformative practice. Above all, revolutionaries like Bhagat and Azad were not motivated by the abstract idea of a nation; they were driven by the desire to change the life of an oppressed people. By contrast, "RDB" translates political activity as a variant on the classical revenge drama.
A recent trend
"RDB" is the latest in a lineage of recent films that have attempted to address the intertwined themes of youth, disenchantment and rebellion. Sudhir Mishra's "Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi" (2005) takes the Naxalite turbulence for its backdrop; despite its muddled conflation of different moments in the 1967-1979 period, it recognises that far-left radicalism degenerated into a muddied involvement with the local micro-physics of caste and region. With its three interlocking narratives, Mani Ratnam's "Yuva" (2004) charts the possibilities of a mass-based mobilisation, one orientated towards changes within parliamentary democracy rather than towards an uprising. Govind Nihalani's "Dev" (2004) and Khalid Mohamed's "Fiza" (2000) explore, from different entry-points, the manner in which persistent majoritarian injustice, through the devices of pogrom and stigmatisation, pushes young Muslims towards militancy.
At their best, these films bear witness to the young who have, in every generation, given their lives (or wasted them, depending on your viewpoint) for causes such as liberation, justice, dignity and happiness. It is in making too many concessions to their audience that these films fail. Contemporary Hindi cinema has yet to invent a cinematic narrative that can carry the freight of the political without camouflaging it beneath romance, spectacle, melodrama or the trappings of youth culture.