Saturday, May 06, 2006

Rang de Basanti

This is a long-overdue post, about a subject that has been discussed to death already. But for various reasons, I got to watch Rang de Basanti only very recently, and therefore it is only now that I can comment on it with any degree of authority.

Aamir Khan fans can stop reading straight away, because this is not going to be one of those laudatory 'this-is-one-of-the-greatest-films-ever' sort of review - quite the opposite, in fact. Let me start with a couple of simple questions - why, pray, was this film such a huge hit? And why did the people who raved about it consider it a serious film of sorts, one that was likely to change your worldview? The film looked, sounded, and felt exactly as though it had been made by an adolescent, for an audience of yet more adolescents.

To begin with, it starts with this huge cliche - an European coming over to India to make a film on a part of Indian history, a cliche that has its roots in the colonial empire, and a tradition of social anthropology that based itself upon the premise that it was only the enlightened white gaze that could shed any light on any aspect of 'native, primitive' life, be it their quaint culture or history, which was almost always oral (note how the details of the history that Sue wants to document come from her grandfather's diary) - and this light would then be carried not only to the outside/Western world, but inwards, to the natives themselves. The presumption here is that since the natives in question are primitive, and, therefore, dumb beyond belief, they would need their lives to be explained to them by the civilised world (again, note how the four young men refuse to acknowledge the gravity of this part of their history that's being highlighted, and continue battling each other on the grounds of perceived or imagined differences, till Sue's angry outburst that brings them to their senses). Orientalism, Edward Said called this phenomenon. Bollywood's now packaging it as a story because of which 'a generation awakes'.

College life is, predictably, full of the stereotypical 'fun' that exists only in Hindi movies - certainly no one I knew behaved in quite that hysterical way in college, and we can all safely say that our university days were some of the greatest days ever. And that's not all that exists in Bollywood - so does the Delhi University that the film professed to showcase. Which institute in DU has hostel rooms the size of a modest (swanky) apartment? Where is that amphitheatre where one can hang around at all hours of the night, making merry before a roaring bonfire (why exactly they needed a fire in summer, I didn't quite get)? And since when has Delhi been all clean and airbrushed with almost empty roads? And incidentally, the International Studies Institute is an institution meant for research, not teaching. The film's supposed to be taking place in Delhi, but meanders bewilderingly all over north India - suddenly you're in some fort or the other in some place that's reminsicent of Rajasthan; the next moment you're gazing at the Golden Temple in Amritsar; and then there are the lush green fields of Punjab; a dhaba situated in the middle of nowhere in particular; and then there you are at Chandni Chowk where guess what? the only Muslim character resides. Whodathunk it?

Only one of the young men has a rich dad, but everyone else also drives expensive cars and bikes; there's the stereotypically doting Punjabi mom who takes pride in her martial race - there no mother in all of Punjab who hasn't sacrificed her son for the sake of the country, she declares; the Sanghi with a heart of gold (he, incidentally, is a very important person in the saffron party who moonlights as local goon - yet he's all naive when it comes to money matters in the party); the lovable young Air Force officer with a widowed mother and pretty fiance, who you know will be sacrificed at the altar of box-office returns the minute you set eyes on him - the cliches just didn't stop coming! We're also treated to a romanticised notion of shirking responsibility - Aamir Khan's over-the-top character apparently graduated 5 years previously, but prefers to spend his days at the university instead of getting a life because he feels safe there, everyone knows him there, he's somebody. Loser, we'd call him in real life. Bollywood calls him a hero. I know the director had to come up with an explanation as to why Aamir Khan does not and cannot look like a college student, but did it have to be so lame?

And then, of course, there were the factual errors. People in India are well within their rights if they wish to hold a peaceful demonstration, candlelight vigil, or protest march. There are scores happening all over the place. The authorities do not have the power to ask people to break it up - and certainly not in the violent way the film showed them doing. Second, every criminal's entitled to a fair trial. Even Abu Salem was granted one, for crying out loud - and here you have four unarmed students who've turned themselves in being gunned down in cold blood, before the entire nation and the press. This can happen in a dictatorship - and while I'll be the first to admit that India has more than its fair share of problems, it still hasn't come to the point where the State can kill anyone it wants, anywhere it wants. We are still a democracy, albeit a malfunctioning one. Third - who the hell listens to the radio, and that too at 6 in the morning?! Puh-leeze! Fourth, no defence minister in his right mind would toddle off for a walk on a deserted street with his dopey bodyguards ambling along a convenient distance away. It's really not that easy to kill a politician - if it were, there would be very few of them left.

Fifth - this isn't an error so much as a deliberate omission - the entire freedom movement is centred around north India, excluding every other part of the subcontinent. As a matter of fact, the violent nature of the movement, which the British had labelled 'terrorism' ) makes you think, doesn't it?), started in Bengal. It was Khudiram Bose who, at the age of 19, killed a British officer and was sent to the gallows. Bhagat Singh had extremely strong ties with the Bengal chapter of the freedom struggle - he, actually, had gone and killed the wrong officer. You wouldn't know any of this watching Rang de Basanti. (Not that this is surprising, really - India's regions are so divisive that most ignore the existence of others. If you go to Pune and check out their interpretation of history, it would seem as though they were the ones to singlehandedly send the British limping back to England!)

As for the forced and contrived parallels drawn between the freedom fighters and the protagonists, the less said about it the better. If people can seriously believe that two completely different contexts, two separate sets of ideologies, and the exigencies of two different points in time can coincide and therefore be dealt with in exactly the same manner, there is nothing that can be said to them.

What I also fail to understand is the message this film supposedly has for the youth. Love your country and do all you can to improve it. Improve it how? By taking recourse to violence and killing the first convenient scapegoat? Because that's what the defence minister was, a scapegoat. He's not the responsible for keeping corruption in defence deals alive - there was a defence minister before him, and there would be one after him. Besides, defence deals are not made by the defence minister alone - the top brass of the army, and the cororate houses, are equally culpable. It would be too controversial and dangerous where the economy's concerned to showcase that, however. Also, let's not forget that these kids only woke up to the fact that things are going horrible wrong in our country when it affected them personally. So the message is - sure, we all know there's corruption, but chill, enjoy life, till it hits you or someone you love. Then, turn into self-styled messiahs and kill the first person you think is responsible without any in-depth knowledge of the situation. Violence, however senseless, is cool as long as you have some sanctimonious reason to back it up with. Does anyone see any generation awake in the wake of Rang de Basanti? I don't - and I know it's because the urban, educated generation this film targets is very much in cahoots with the State - it's the State's economic policies that keeps their daddies and them flush with the money required to maintain their thoughtless lifestyles and lord it over the less privileged, who're too marginalised to make a difference even if they tried.

There are only two good things about Rang de Basanti - the scene where Pandey apologises to Aslam is brilliant, and entirely convincing. Second, this film will lend itself beautifully to a Mad magazine-type spoof. Can't wait for it.