A plot that bridges historical lore and a delayed-adolescence theme can create havoc in the hands of most filmmakers. Contemporary issues get kid-glove treatment and the movie goes nowhere. Not so with Rang De Basanti.
Its refreshing story-within-a-story premise is that young British filmmaker Alice Payton (Patten, daughter of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten) arrives in India to re-create on film the India described in the diary of her late grandfather. The grandfather had chronicled his stint as a British jailor during the Raj, including the handling of some very famous prisoners—the nationalist Indian hero Bhagat Singh and his comrades in arms. The search for modern counterparts to the historical patriots leads Payton to DJ (Khan) and his college chums (Joshi, Kapoor, Ali Khan).
This band of disenchanted and apathetic youth can’t relate, at first, to the patriotic theme of Payton’s film until a tragic event hits them personally and exposes them to the political graft around them. This prods them to set out on a real-life track to uproot corruption in a very modern context. Their chosen mission—to nail an Indian politician suspected of taking kickbacks in a conspiracy to acquire defective MiG jet fighters from Russia—goes extraordinarily haywire when the youthful band decides to play judge, jury, and executioner.
The ensemble cast is superb. Puri, as an over-protective father blinded by his inability to see reality beyond a perpetual Hindu vs. Muslim struggle; Madhavan, as an Indian MiG pilot; Rehman as his supportive mother; and Kulkarni as the mouthpiece for a xenophobic movement that resembles the ultra-nationalist Shiv Sena band of Hindus come together quite nicely. Khan’s would-be Bhagat Singh, meanwhile, is a convincing campus loafer who, in a futile quixotic quest, spearheads what turns out to be a saffron-colored (a color often associated with idealized Hindu nationalism) attack on the most outwardly visible symbols of oppression.
Interestingly, making on-screen baddies out of off-screen Russians highlights a new geo-political reality. The subtle juxtaposition of a once-socialist Russia—de-evolving back into a greaseless machine that is merely the same old Politburu in new pinstripes—against a once-socialist (and close Russian ally) India awakening from a slumber to stake her claim as a global (and capitalist) giant is, simply put, amazing. Historians may someday finger Rang De Basanti as a turning point in India-Russia relations.
Musically, this is Rahman at his most eclectic self. Rahman’s experiments with neo-Bhangra (Daler Mehndi’s title track) as well as hip-hop outlined campus jigs (Paathshala opens with chants of “Loose control”) deliver an anachronistic musical accompaniment to a smartly oft-kilter movie. At the box office, a $1.5 million take (from 66 theaters) within three weeks of release scores as the fourth highest Hindi-language gross in the United States to date (behind only Veer Zaara, Devdas, and Main Hoon Na) while its $8 million-plus global gross elevates Rang De Basanti to blockbuster status by Indian standards.
In Mehra’s view, a “new” India’s rush to embrace hyper-capitalism will have great—even tragic—consequences if India fails to bow to the 800-pound gorilla of social accountability. With sharp claws simultaneously dug deep into multiple veins of contemporary Indian reality, Rang De Basanti qualifies as a big-tent event.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.