Jingoism, chest thumping and hypernationalism are all terms that have become synonymous with the current lot of so-called patriotic films, being mindlessly manufactured in order to pander to the masses. In an age where such films are a dime a dozen, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's 2006 Republic Day release Rang De Basanti remains ever so relevant.
Aamir Khan plays the loveable and goofy Daljit Singh, more commonly known as "DJ"; a befitting nickname for this leather jacket toting, ripped jeans wearing, young and happy-go-lucky Punjabi guy. Like any typically aimless Indian youngster, he spends his days drinking and travelling, putting up a "cool" front for everyone. His lack of ambition is compensated for by his spunk and charm. Yet at the end of the day, that's what it really is, a show that he puts up. He admits to this himself in what is arguably the most raw and real scene in the film. In a late-night conversation with Sue, he opens up about how five years have passed since he's graduated yet he hasn't been able to move on. An emotion that most youngsters will be able to identify with, DJ talks about the innate fear that holds him back from stepping out of college and into the real world, the fear of being insignificant or mediocre. "College di gate de is taraf hum life ko nachate hain, te dooji taraf life humko nachati hai" — a dialogue that every twenty something would be able to resonate with, DJ's confession makes him all the more endearing and real to the audience. His struggle to carve an identity for himself, to find his footing in the real world without getting swept up or lost in the crowd is one that every Indian youth can relate to. In spite of the devil-may-care attitude that he and his friends seemingly possess, deep down, they're all just really scared and vulnerable.
With all the makings of a fun college drama, the second half of Rang De Basanti is what really sets the tone for the message of the film. The death of Sonia's fiancé, the most mature and responsible of the lot, Flight Lt. Ajay Singh Rathod, ignites the fire of revolution in the hearts of DJ and his friends who were complacent so far. The ensemble cast shines in their respective storylines, despite Aamir Khan being the biggest mainstream name, he never takes centerstage or overshadows his co-actors. DJ's radicalisation happens only when he loses his friend and is brutally beaten up for daring to question the system, with their deceased friend's mother landing up in the ICU. The unfairness of it all sinks in when DJ breaks down in Sue's arms, with blood stained clothes and several injuries, tangible evidence of the cruelty that the people in power are capable of afflicting. The close-up shots of their freedom fighter counterparts interspersed with their own faces really puts into perspective how the revolution has just begun.
The death of their friend makes them step up and take responsibility to correct the system. The sequence where they hold a candlelight vigil in honour of Ajay and are lathicharged by the police with A.R. Rahman's song "Khoon Chala" playing in the background, with vocals by Mohit Chauhan, is enough to radicalise even the most hardcore right wing activist amongst them. 'Sawaalon ki ungli, jawaabon ki mutthi' — the soulful tune brings a sort of calm to the chaos around them, letting us process what's happening and how unjust it is. The same vagabond college students who couldn't care less about the state of affairs in the nation, now hardened by the tragedy they've had to face, are ready to kill and even die for the betterment of the country. Dying with a smile on your face, with the knowledge that you did the right thing, even in that fleeting moment between life and death is a feeling that only a few will ever experience in their life. DJ, Karan, Sukhi, Lakshman and Aslam all die in the company of their comrades, their friends, with a winning smile on their face. And the ones to kill them were their own countrymen, highlighting the irony of the law being weaponised against a group of college students who took up arms against the corrupt leaders, where the vigilantes are treated like terrorists and the real villains are hailed as martyrs.
In my opinion, that is the true spirit of nationalism. Anyone can choose to pat themselves on the back for how awesome their country is while purposefully overlooking all it's flaws, it takes real courage to acknowledge everything wrong with your country and then choose to change it. Rang De Basanti is also an excellent example of how the real enemy of the state aren't outsiders but actually function from within the system itself, most often politicians or industrialists with tongues lolling at the thought of some extra cash in their pockets, even if it comes at the cost of someone's life.
Be it ten years ago or twenty, Indian youth has remained the same, with a resigned attitude towards the country that seems to intensify over generations. Especially today, where filmmakers and actors endlessly churn out mind numbingly painful and blindly patriotic films, a select few like Rang De Basanti still exist in the archives for when one needs a reminder of what real patriotism looks like.