In 2006 when Hindi cinema boasted productions like the Krrish and Dhoom franchises as their magnum opera and was committed to milking formulaic romantic tropes in exchange for guaranteed box office profits, Rang De Basanti felt like a fresh breeze. A genuine voice amidst a whirlwind of big budgets and recycled scripts. A breeze that over time gained a cult status and stormed into the consciousness of the Indian youth who were still finding their place in an India that itself was re-inventing, growing and becoming home to a confusing concoction of western, globalised ideals and deep-rooted archaic beliefs.
Rang De Basanti spoke to the core conflict of an entire generation: how can we invest hope and effort into a nation that seems beyond repair? The pivotal question illuminates the screen many times; one instance is when Ajay, a flight lieutenant of the Indian Air Force claims that one should be proud of India, to which Karan, a pessimistic and cynical college student, retorts: “Proud of what? The exploding population? Or corruption? Or unemployment? What are you most proud of? … The minute I get my degree, I’m out of this dump to America.” It then doesn’t come as a surprise when the scene continues with the rest of the friend group shrugging nonchalantly and continuing to make jokes as they overlook the discourse that just took place. When problems are rife and seem insurmountable, perhaps it makes better sense to withhold debates about national issues as casual dinner table conversation.
The beauty of Rang De Basanti lies in its ability to relate to a young impressionable audience while still maintaining the gravitas of the larger theme of awakening to political realities. Mehra and Pandey, the director and writer of the film, do this masterfully by introducing two parallel narratives that run at the heart of the film. One narrative is focussed on the past, telling the story of Indian revolutionaries fighting for freedom against British imperialism, while another is in the present, focussing on college students who are tasked with playing the roles of these very revolutionaries for a film. Rang De Basanti begins with the two narratives being distinct: the audience is clearly able to distinguish past from the present. Apart from the apparent difference in costumes and the sepia colour which overrides the screen, what initially creates a chasm between Bhagat Singh and Karan, who plays him, is the cynicism of the modern-day youth and their sheer inability to relate to the revolutionaries they are assigned to play. During a rehearsal where the filmmaker Sue tries to establish an avenue of relatability by sharing how Bhagat Singh was the same age as the boys when he was hanged, Aslam is quick to comment, “Those were different times Sue. Today if you tell people that you want to give your life for your country, they’ll call you insane.” Aslam echoes the sentiment of a youth whose history books celebrate martyrs like Bismil and Singh, whom they fail to understand and relate to. Why? The film answers this question with one idea: purpose.
The turning point for our carefree college kids comes in the form of Ajay’s death due to a plane crash. After investigation, it is revealed that Ajay’s jet malfunctioned due to Delhi’s corrupt defence minister signing a contract importing cheap parts for MiG-21 aircraft in exchange for a personal favour. A favour that cost the life of an innocent. The audience is left to mourn with DJ, the group’s leader of sorts, as he laments with agony and helplessness. The line “He didn’t deserve this” reverberates in our souls and pierces our hearts. Now, our characters no longer scoff at the news but pay close attention. In their attention, we see concern and anger and the realisation that issues that were once too far from their world have now taken centre stage in their living rooms.
It is at this point onwards that the tide of the film changes. In the climactic scene at the Nahargarh Fort where the characters decide their next course of action, the camera pans to each character and the freedom fighter they play. Suddenly, their faces and stories do not seem far apart. In fact, they bear the same fervour and wrath. Our characters have found a purpose: killing the defence minister and delivering justice. With that, names like Chandrasekhar Azad and Ram Prasad Bismil no longer sound foreign to the world our characters inhabit. In a masterful scene, we see a massacre with British soldiers shooting innocents. The very shot cuts to the defence minister leading the massacre, instructing his men to shoot Ajay. The past and the present have merged. The narratives have collided. The enemy has changed but the fight for justice remains. The chasm has finally dissolved, for our characters have understood that being fuelled by the purpose to deliver justice is one that transcends time and generation. They have awakened, pivoted towards the other end of an arc and there is no turning back.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.