Web Bharattimes


The Rang De Basanti Generation

by Sreeram Chaulia


The Rang De Basanti Generation

by Sreeram Chaulia

Mainstream Hindi films rarely attract the eye of public intellectuals except as phenomena influencing popular culture, shaping public imagination and reflecting changing social mores. A shared condescension for its lack of subtlety or technical brilliance and its surfeit of song-and-dance routines dominates the intelligentsia’s assessment of run-of-the-mill Bollywood.

In light of this utter disdain of celluloid melodramas by the cognoscenti, Kanti Bajpai’s strong critique in Outlook magazine (February 20, 2006 ‘The Film Will Encourage Cynicism’) of the blockbuster, Rang De Basanti, is actually an achievement for its director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. The fact that a commercially successful film has evoked debate and comment, however negative, from a reputed scholar means that it has enough seriousness quotient to engage Indian elites.

Rarely has a Bollywood film dared to realistically take on the holiest of cows-defence procurements and the national security apparatus. India suffers from an excess of ‘official secrets’ that are closet skeletons smeared in graft and kickbacks. From VK Krishna Menon’s ‘Jeep Scandal’ to the ‘Coffingate’ of Kargil, the people of India receive chance glimpses from time to time of the murky underworld of ammunition acquisitions that is mostly kept under wrap by a network of politicians, contractors and senior brass of the armed forces. Rang De Basanti is using the mass media to press for the public’s right to information on a matter of national importance.

What is more, it has unearthed the simple truth that the seemingly deracinated and Westernised youth of urban India are thinking citizens amenable to patriotic currents. The Rang De Basanti generation is unlike the ‘Generation Y’ or ‘General I’ that have been ticked off for MTV mannerisms, imitative identities and consumerist appetites. Mehra’s youth are much more than improvised rappers trying to be ‘cool’ with ‘yow’ affectations. They are human resources who can contribute to larger social and national projects. They are not just automatons who guzzle Pepsis, shop in super malls and party through the nights, but conscientious individuals with the transformative potential and energy for moulding a new India. They are not escapists who just want an exit from the stench-laden system, but revolutionaries-in-waiting who need a spark to ignite their service-mindedness.

Bajpai claims that Rang De Basanti’s “basic political prescription is scary. Young people are encouraged to mete out vigilante justice and then to seek atonement through populist sloganeering and mawkish explanations.” He either watched the movie with a predisposition or did not follow the script carefully. Nowhere does Mehra give the impression that the violent acts of assassinating the Defence Minister and a prominent arms dealer are justified. Internal debate among the protagonists brings out the utter futility of these measures insofar as one cannot just kill every single representative of the state who is corrupt.

The director also has this climax sequence where the youth are holed up in All India Radio and take calls from around the country, many of which criticise their actions and say explicitly that the system cannot be reformed by taking the law into one’s own hands. A diverse range of viewpoints are presented in this dramatic finale, not just that of the assassins.

Bajpai’s second cause for worry about Rang De Basanti is that “Indian society is portrayed as embodying everything good: its people are open, honest, tolerant, affectionate, and, yes, in the end, patriotic too. The Indian state by contrast is everything bad: labyrinthine, corrupt, tyrannical and, yes, captive to odious, kleptocratic politicians.”
Had he watched without prejudice, the film does offer an enlightening portrayal of communal biases among ordinary people. One of the lead actors even remarks that the rotten, unaccountable and exclusionary system is nothing but a reflection of society. The message Mehra delivers is that unless Indians self-reform, it is hypocrisy to blame agents of state for all the ills India is facing. Who are the bribe givers, the favour curriers and the dishonest hustlers, if not the people of India? Rang De Basanti is calling for systemic reform through individual awakening.

Those dissatisfied with the film have also overlooked the victim’s perspective. The protagonists are debauched binge drinkers and perennial holidayers until one of their own is lost by virtue of the web of lies in the system. The course of action they take is specific to their personal loss, which can never be felt vicariously by armchair theorists with entrenched liberal democratic notions of social movements. What happens when non-violent social movements are mercilessly crushed? Is it unreasonable that social justice causes take a violent form under structural constraints?

Why sweep the revolutionary aspect of India’s freedom struggle under the carpet just because the Gandhian experiment was more successful? The logic of consequences (non-violence does have long-term benefits and militancy does have extremely harmful spin-offs) should not blind us to the sacrifices made by Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ashfaqullah Khan and others. Rang De Basanti asks a tantalising question- Is the stability of an oppressive system more valuable than the choices made by victimised persons?

The documentary that the main characters in the film produce is on the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, which believed in the Leninist doctrine of a ‘vanguard’ that had to orchestrate spectacular death-defying deeds to arouse the sleeping masses drugged by ‘false consciousness.’ If the Rang De Basanti generation wakes up through a fictional transposition of the past onto the present, it is a cause for celebration, not intellectual contempt.