When the film begins, you love “Rang De Basanti” instantaneously. With its young, fun characters swaying inveterately to young, fun music, the film pulls you to itself with unabashed enthusiasm that is so characteristic of confident, urban, Punjabi Delhi.
The actors are good. The five main, male actors – Aamir Khan, Siddharth, Kunal Kapoor, Sharman Joshi and Atul Kulkarni – live and breathe their roles, both as university lads and as legendary revolutionaries. Alice Patten (quite to the surprise of the disdainful native in me) manages to be natural and at ease in hers. Soha Ali Khan is chalti hai, and the other actors, including Kirron Kher and Waheeda Rehman, are competent too.
Music fills each frame of the film and indeed, it is not possible to imagine RDB without the pulsing Paathshala or the haunting refrain of “ziddi…” from Khalbali, or the joyful title track. The AR Rahman and Prasoon Joshi team has given us one of the most gorgeous albums of the year – you can listen to it over and over again.
Here we also have one of the most slick recreations, in sepia, of the militant splinter of the Indian struggle against the colonial rule, represented by Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Ashfaq and Bismil.
The problem is that the film is so confused.
On the one hand, it is about the restlessness, hope, angst of a generation. The most interesting of the young male characters, also because of what Aamir Khan and Siddharth bring to them, are DJ and Karan. DJ is frozen in a present where his future is always potential, just around the corner, unexplored. Karan wears unrelentingly uber-coolness and a casual cigarette, but something else, a disquiet, shifts underneath. There’s also Aslam, discontent with his family’s increasing insularity, and Pandey, who crosses the line between idealism and hoodlumism running with the Hindutva political party in power.
On the other hand, it sets up a very demanding parallel between a generation of young people let down by the modern state, and a generation of revolutionaries fighting against a colonial state.
Let’s not even get into comparisons between the motivations, the repression, driving the one versus the other. Just in terms of forms of protest available, our generation has a plethora of choices that simply were not there seventy years ago. RDB, in that sense, completely discounts the role of media and technology today. If a candle vigil commemorating whatever outside the India Gate were to be disrupted in so brutal a fashion now as shown, some sections of the media at least would take up the story, interview people on site or at least later. If not of their own accord, through some “connection” or the other. Power and influence are just two and a half degrees away in the real world of the University of Delhi. Further, in the real world, the virtual one – the internet – would be another arena of protest. Liberal/left mailing lists, the blogosphere, are informal spaces that are used, have been used to draw attention where the intervention of the mainstream media has not passed muster.
Neither do I want to paint too rosy a picture, nor do I want to disregard the fact that I am coming from a very particular background: “urban”, “elite” and “educated” in the sense that “we” know how to go about the business of activism. Injustice and brutality happen everyday, much still perpetrated by the state and much going unpunished. But these actors are shown to be students from the Delhi University, an extremely politically aware space. Hence, that they are completely clueless and get drawn into the logic of violence and self-annihilation so easily, is very disturbing.
There is also no conception of non-traditional, non-mainstream ways of expressing political obligation in the film. Join the army, or the police, or politics – but what about working with a voluntary organization? “The young must do something” is a great message. How to get youth involved in social and political affairs of the country is a real issue. But how it should be done, what should be done to tackle youth apathy – the film promises, but does not deliver on a way out. Rather, it leaves you in a web of half-formulated notions. (“We’re not terrorists because we didn’t go into hiding or kill innocent people.”)
Karan, through the film has said, “Nothing is worth giving your life for.” Towards the end, when Sukhi, the fifth friend says, “We’re not killers!” he replies “But they are.” This point, where a bunch of carefree easy-hearted young people turn into self-sacrificing revolutionaries against “them”, has such a knell of despair. That there was not even one end of hope for them to hold on to; that they had to go for the final option and kill someone who may not even be the ‘real obstacle’ but merely a symbol.
This sense of bleakness does not go away when sincere young people from all over the country say on television, this is it, now we must wake up, act. We know the futility and ephemerality of these assertions: they too will die out with the news of the day.
Did the filmmaker think of that? Or was he too busy making a blockbuster that would inspire the young people of India?
Phew! Forgive the rant. This is, after all, Bollywood. If we can take Sue’s no-budget documentary turning out to be a kickass fiction-drama with our customary pinch of salt, we can love RDB for what it’s worth.