Sunday, March 12, 2006

Kamikaze idealism By RANJIT HOSKOTE

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?

Improbable relationship

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.


aya said...

One: Kamikaze attack was encouraged by strong nationalism mixed with Shintoism by the Japanese army at that time. Those who died were made to believe that they could go to heaven. They were made to believe that it is a virtue to die for a nation. It is not like they were willing to die. (In reality, drugs were used to make them to attack)So, I think there is a slight difference from RDB, where they chose to do so by their own will.

Two: I think RDB reflects recent trend among youths (not necessarily only be Indian) of “impatience”. They want to change something. But it usually takes time to make a change. They want a quick result. I mean….what can people do after they die? In “Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi”, protagonists go inside village for long time. I am not saying that we should go villages to mobilize people to change. But I think that nothing would change drastically and we need patience to make a change.

Dark said...

Although I'd agree with Hoskote's analysis (Hartosh's analysis in Tehelka was better, by the way)that there is a glaring difference between the lives of the Indian revolutionaries, and their motives and methods, and those of the characters in RDB, I think he mistakes the power of the RDB enterprise.

History has been largely a dead subject in the Indian education system. This film, like the unfortunate mess of 'Mangal Pandey', and before it, 'Lagaan'. It is part of an effort to reconceptualise what happened and who Indians are, part of the remaking of the Indian nation, partially heralded by the BJP and its politics.

the vast majority of Indian citizens are below the age of 35. They are young, disenchanted with the politicians of today (almost all of whom are above 35), and the only people that they are really taught about are Nehru and Gandhi. There is a crying need for the reconceptualising of politics and politicians who serve the need of people. The creation of myths, and its reconceptualisation (as in RDB) fulfills presents ways for people to act, gives them a morality they can accept and act on.

If you have dead history, with uninspiring leaders, you have a dead nation. RDB might be flawed, but its power rests on entirely different foundations than the ones that Hoskote is addressing.

praveen said...

Well Satya..iam surprised that even you have taken a movie so seriously, inspite of the fact that it is not even known if it's a super hit..i remember reading somewhere that it's Aamir's biggest hit it's just a sensational urban movie..we shouldn't pull that into debates which it has only pretended to take up..when did any movie last have a positive influence on us here in India...Did 'Bombay' stop any communal riots? We can add many more to that list..Yes people have sported hairstyles,wore the costumes,smoked the way they did it in the movies..and thats it..
Movies never influenced people so much that they have thought seriously about it..i cant give so much of credit to our directors and producers..
Let me tell you as a south indian, i have seen many such movies,where the protaganists have taken law into their hands to change the system...such blending of a serious social issues with pure commercial elements has been successfully tried and tested down the vindhyas..
If you are one of those who is informed about the brighter side of south indian movies apart from the normal stereotyping of 'pot bellied heroes' and 'voluptuous heroines'..get some DVDs and watch few movies..Ur 'madrasi' friends will be more than willing to help you out..if one single 'rang de' has kicked up so much of noise, we should have gone mad by now..
..Movie as a reflection of the societal thinking or a movie spurring a revolution or seeing it as a sociological phenomenon would be taking it a little too far...Not to trivialise the issue what if Rakeysh Mehra looked like Subhash Ghai with a Hat, without the long hair which almost gave him looks of a cliched revolutionary..and instead of our 'intellectual'-hero Aamir, if sunny deol had starred in this...would you or anybody for that matter spoken about it so much..Please guys take it easy..
there's no impatient youth, there's no imminent revolution [and even if we are, we dont need a bollywood production to tell us that..]
Chill out movies..and RELAXxxxxxxxxx