Not only does history capture the truth of our past, but it also documents all our previous frailties so we can be held accountable if the same mistakes are repeated. The retelling of history is crucial for our nations to move forward, and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti is the perfect example of an attempt to do just that.
This film is many things at once: it is a coming-of-age story, a period retelling, and a chronicle of the largest democracy of the world. Many directors have tried their hands at mixing many genres and ideas into one movie, but none did it as well as Mehra. This movie gave attention to details, never forgot to explore every character's backstory, and never trivialised their truths.
It begins with a scene of Sue McKinley, a British journalist who has been wanting to put together a documentary about Indian revolutionaries and martyrs. However, on the day of her pitching the project to her superiors, we hear her superiors say something startling: "Do something on Gandhi. Gandhi sells. These revolutionaries, I don't know." This one line is a perfect way of entering a film about selective morality. Just because Gandhi is a well-known name, the journalists don't wish to delve into untold stories of heroes who left all they had for the dream of an independent India. This is how frivolous our priorities are, this is how superficial our patriotism is. However, the source material of her research is too dear to Sue to drop it. Hence she comes to India and gets it done all by herself, trusting her only contact in India, Sonia.
As we enter the sprawling capital of Delhi, and reach Delhi University, India unfolds in front of us like never before. Busy, chaotic, young, vibrant and our very own. We slowly get to meet Sonia's friends. All alumni of the university, and yet lurching around it for some unknown sense of peace. Aslam, Daljeet, Shukhi and Karan: all of them so similar, yet so different. Aslam is the only Muslim in this group. Despite his friends never having any qualms with that, everyone around him detests the presence of a Muslim with the Hindus. Karan, the stoic of them all, has a rich father, and all the material wealth he needs, and yet doesn't wish to embrace any of this at all. Shukhi, the fun-loving addition to this group always has a funny antic to go by, but delve deeper, you'll see him battling with his insecurities too. And Daljeet is everyone's favourite, but is too scared to leave for the real world. On the other hand their fifth friend, Flight Lt Ajay Singh Rathod, is a self-made man. He loves his job, and is passionate for this country. Ajay is in a relationship with Sonia, and their love also acts as a necessary fuel to drive you into this group and make you feel for them.
As Sue starts spending time with them, she sees in them the fervour that they could use to play the revolutionaries of India: Chandrashekar Azad, Asfaqullah Khan, Rajguru, Bhagat Singh. These people don't see how they can embody such martyrs owing to their laid back attitude to life, but Sue does. However, she still needs someone to play the role of Ramprasad Bismil. She gets him in an unlikely person: Lakshman Pandey. The local politician, who is so warped by his party's agenda, that he forgets how much hurt he is causing by repeatedly attacking Aslam for being Muslim, garnering active hatred towards them. However, even his heart wants to do something meaningful.
Days go by, we see these carefree college students become their mature selves, as they get to know more about these freedom fighters. And with them, we see glimpses of the past too. The revolutionaries are also played by the same actors, bringing home the point of retelling more prominently. The frequent and smart inter cutting of archival scenes of the past, and their continuity with the present is brilliant to say the least. The sepia tone, the harrowing memories of Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the plight of these young freedom fighters, their interpersonal relationship infuses life into the past. The scenes of their torture after being held captive in prisons are masterfully shot, with one emotional fulcrum: James McKinley, the prison head who were in charge of torturing these political prisoners to help bust their nexus. He does his job dutifully, but he breaks a little from inside everyday while doing that. His diary holds all his emotions truly, and this acts as Sue's source of hope in the present mayhem of a world.
After making us invest in these characters, the director plunges us to a dark pit. Flight Lt Ajay Rathod dies in a dysfunctional fighter plane as he waited in there to move past the Ambala neighbourhood, lest the civilians face damage. Doom spreads through the atmosphere like wildfire. All the love and laughter falls crashing down. To top all of that, there begins a new cobweb of corruption and politics, where the government blames Ajay for inefficiency in the bid to cover their problems. This jolt isn't handled well by our protagonists and soon they take some decisions, which comes crashing down around them. They fall under the political radar, and nothing looks good from in there. As they immerse deeper, they see how thick the corruption runs. The country our freedom fighters fought for is free only on paper. Underneath the façade of progressiveness lies the abyss of darkness, racism and bigotry.
The end of this movie had disappointed many people, as they didn't see anything getting resolved. Instead, we see how these boys also face the same fate the freedom fighters did, because that is exactly how hard it is to combat the government. It doesn't matter if it is the British colonial rule, or Indian democratic government. Those in power will invariably misuse it.
There is only one way to solve it: active participation in politics. Participation may mean enrolling in IAS, becoming a politician, joining the army, or simply means voting. We all can contribute to change this world, in our big and small ways. And as long as we don't, our men and women will continue to die, and will be given an ending as chaotic as this film's.