“If your blood does not yet rage, then it is water in your veins.” Chandrashekhar Azad
These words begin the superlative Bollywood film Rang De Basanti. (Colour it Saffron): Filmed in 2006 by Rakeyesh Omprakash Mehra, it is number 34 on the top 1000 films of all time.
Sue Mckinley (Alice Patten) is a young independent filmmaker, as well as the granddaughter of James Mckinley who served as part of the Imperial Police in India, during the Indian Independence Movement. Upon reading in his diary, his interactions with five leading members of the movement: Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru, Ashfaqualla Khan and Ram Prasad Basmil, she travels to India to film a documentary telling the story of these five revolutionaries.
Once there, she meets with her friend Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) and casts her four friends Daljitt “DJ,” (Aamir Khan) Karan Singhania, (Siddharth Narayan) Aslam Khan, (Kunal Napoor) and Sukhi Ram, (Sharman Joshi) as four of the five revolutionaries. The fifth revolutionary is played by a party activist Laxman Adley. (Atul Kulkani) Whilst the five actors are initially hesitant about appearing in the film, they soon settle into their roles and begin to embody the roles they are playing.
To preface this, I think this film was superlative. It was enlightening, uplifting and very powerful. It was funny, brutal and very emotionally poignant. Rang De Basanti engages well with the themes of loyalty, family, patriotism and independence. The film’s content matter being the Indian Independence Movement gave the film an intriguing and interesting backdrop.
The most interesting part of the film is how as the characters begin to embrace the revolutionaries that they are playing, their lives begin to parallel the lives of their revolutionary counterparts. While, Azad, Singh, Rajguru, Khan and Basmil were fighting for independence from British Rule, DJ, Karan, Aslam, Sukhi and Sonia are fighting against the oppressive rule of their conservative parents. The parallels that begin to grow between the revolutionaries and the characters who are playing them become progressively and startingly obvious as the film continues.
When Sonia’s fiance Ajay who is a talented fighter pilot and close friend of the rest of the group, dies when his plane malfunctions and he steers it away from a populated town to crash harmlessly in a field, the Minister of Defence, who purchased faulty parts to save money, he disguises his own greed and incompetence by claiming that Ajay’s plane crashed not due to malfunction but due to pilot error, the group become enraged and decide to protest.
The five friends along with Alice, Sonia and her mother stage a peaceful protest at Ajay’s memorial, this is soon broken up by riot police who begin beating the protestors including Sonia’s mother who slips into a coma. In a move that mirrors the five revolutionaires assassinating a high ranking British officer, the group murder the corrupt defence minister. For me, this served as one of the greatest examples of loyalty and the limits that people can be pushed to. Just like their revolutionary counterparts, the group realises that violence is the only way to get their voices heard. The extent that they go to for their fallen friend is very touching and emotionally poignant.
Another thing that this film does well is create believable and realistic storyarcs for all of the characters. DJ, Karan, Aslam, Sukhi and Sonia begin the film as just regular young men and women. They like to drink, joke, talk about girls and just have a good time and enjoy themselves, which is where a lot of the film’s humour comes from. They are well-aware of the corruption in their country and their parents disapproving of them engaging in Western traditions and ideals. However, none of them feel the motivation or desire to do anything about it.
The film opens with the five friends spending their free time drinking and dancing to Western music and ends with DJ, Karan, Aslam, Sukhi and Laxman all dying as martyrs for their cause. Laxman Pandey’s character arc is more interesting, because, to some extent, it is the reverse of his younger counterparts. He begins the film as an older, conservative and very anti-Western political activist.
Yet as the film progress, he soon loses faith in his old beliefs and adopts new ones. This character progression was also a great strength of the film, but this was not only down to the writing, but also due to the fantastic acting of the ensemble cast. All of the cast depicted how their loyalty for each other and apathy to their country’s corruption soon progressed into a burning loyalty and patriotism for India.
Rang De Basanti not only exposes the corruption in the Indian government, but it also mirrors how governments worldwide are corrupt. You hear so many stories of corruption and greed and bribery within the American, English, Italian, French and numerous other governments and how these governments use the police and the army as repressive state apparatuses. After the Defence Minister is hailed a martyr by the Indian government and media, the five friends take over a local radio station to tell the entire country of their crime.
They are soon silenced by the police and army, who are told they are terrorists, shoot them all on sight, but not before the group expose the corruption within the government and enrage citizens across the country. The fact that the five friends are dubbed as terrorists and shot as such, despite being unarmed civillians trying to bring some change to their country, reminds me strongly of how the U.S Government condemning Edward Snowdon as a terrorist, even though he did nothing more than expose the White House’s own corruption. The fact that this film is, to some extent, a reflection of governments worldwide is perhaps one of its greatest strengths.
I also really liked the film stylistically. When Sue is filming the documentary with her five actors, her footage is intercut with flashbacks to her grandfather’s experiences with the five original revolutionaries and how they were brutally interrogated and tortured by the Indian Imperial Police. These flashbacks were shot with a harsh yellow filter that not only gave the film an old-timey feel, but also represented the garishness and vulgarity of the Anglo-Imperial regime. These flashbacks also really helped to depict the horrific conditions that these revolutionaries struggled under.
Lastly, I loved how the film ended. When DJ, Laxman, Aslam, Sukhi and Karan hijack the radio tower, my initial thought was that they were all going to be killed by the police, but somewhere, in the back of mind, I was worried that they might all survive. Call me a pessimist, but in situations like this, I find it far too unrealistic that anybody would escape scot-free with accusing a government of corruption or hyprocisy.
This is why I was saddened and somewhat relieved that all five characters are shot by the police. Not, because I wanted them to die, but because of how they all became martyrs for their beliefs. A revolutionary is always aware of how they could be killed for their beliefs, but maybe they could inspire others to become revolutionaries too. This is what these five friends do.
This film was amazing. It was funny, touching and very emotional. It had great acting, strong writer and a very powerful message. I would definitely recommend it somebody wanting to watch a good film. I promise it won’t be an easy ride, but it will be a rewarding one. Hey, it might even inspire you to make some change.