Rang De Basanti, the biggest movie to come out of Bollywood in years is a landmark in Indian cinema history. It created records on its revenue collections in the opening week at least in 10 cities. On the opening weekend it made a phenomenal $4.79 million. In the UK alone, after its fourth weekend it raked in GBP 700,000. In India, some theatres had to start a 6am show just for this instant blockbuster!
A commercial success of a cinema does not reflect its artistic values. Indeed money-spinners are not known for their social-realism value either. But going by the critics and their almost undisputed claims about the stature of this movie as both an eye-candy and an old warrior, I am unflinchingly affected. My close friends and associates back in India have been urging me to watch the film, few have narrated how much they are shaken out of their shell from watching this film, some have even told me in jest that it was as good as what Nirvana was supposed to be.
They are not alone. The various reviewers have been unequivocal. Just watch this: “A phenomenon of sorts… would be an apt way to describe this movie. One of the most unique, touching and awe-inspiring movies…..More a tale of humanity, morality, and taking a stand rather than being part of the silent majority. Its audacious spirit becomes its beauty. ‘A Generation Awakens’ – It surely does.”
Then: “It is rare that such a well-crafted and beautifully told story is seen in Hindi cinema.” And : “A well-made film, it caters more to the elite and the thinking viewer than the aam junta or the masses.”
Again: “I don’t remember when I last saw a movie that had a story to tell and a message to give — and did so in a real, gritty manner without being either preachy or dreary.” and : “One of best movies of recent times. Makes you sit up and think about what you can do to help the country better !” More: “A thought-provoking, soul-stirring wake up call to the youth of India…Engrossing entertainment meets taut social comment with perfect timing in Rang De Basanti. Wake up India, Rang De Basanti is here! A pure delight, Rang De Basanti is a cult film – the sort that comes along in a long time, and will raise the bar for everyone.”
Viewers say: “We would have got freedom faster, if Gandhi wasn’t standing in the way” and the BBC: “An entertaining mix of romance, history and social commentary, this quality production takes Hindi cinema in a fresh direction… Accomplished and universally appealing, this is the way Bollywood films should be made.”
There is a flip review theme too which invariably rejects the movie’s approach to solutions of modern Indian crises: “the bloody violence”. These could be purely Gandhians, or Gandhi-bashers depending on what side of the political fence they come from, since the movie does quite a bit to expose the right-winger communal and corrupt agendas, even as denouncing Gandhian tactics as counterproductive.
The more thoughtful ones might contemplate over the subtle genius that is at work in a movie that’s both here and there, both happy and sad, both anti Gandhi, and anti-rightists. They will even, as a reviewer above states, gloat over the fact that here is finally a movie not meant for the “aam-junta”!
True, this movie was not produced for the “aam-junta”. Its elitist bias is evident reel after reel, and this is something that could have made the audience throw up. But it turns out that the ‘educated’ class of India is far more eager to dissociate itself from the aam-junta (the masses) and this movie provides just the outlet.
I full agree with the reviewer’s comments that this is a movie that’s about Bhagat Singh and his comrades and yet it actually produces an effect that creates a class society of the elites and the masses! I also agree that here is a film that reminds people of their forgotten patriotism, that makes them call Gandhi names, and lets them think they don’t have to be the part of the silent majority!
Ironic, but if we read between the lines, we can get the essence of such a film that clearly creates an intellectual division, it rouses people to abandon the silent majority, it definitely takes a stand in favor of the “thinking elites”. And in doing so, the movie does an irreparable damage to the young generation’s worldview.
Rang De Basanti, in my humble opinion, is one of the most uncritical movies ever made on postcolonial India. It not only centers around a bunch of disoriented well-to-do youths, it even normalizes them as representative of the Indian youths in general. In doing so, the focus is again exactly in line of the commercial Bollywood ideology: the privileged class as the representative voice. In doing so, it silences the majority effectively ( hence, there is nothing called a ‘silent majority’ by default, films like this which focuses on the ‘model minority’ class actually creates and perpetuates the concept of a silent majority). So its not that after the movie, people do not want to be part of the silent majority, its just that the movie has made them the vocal minority now. As vocal minority they do not want to carry on an agenda with the silent majority. What a smudge.
In the post-1947 period India has treaded more on the colonial roadmap than on the sweet will of a majority population. The colonial roadmap is one that’s founded on the British-gifted bureaucratic structure that continues to hunt to this date, but yet it forms the minority elite class in India. The majority of people of India are largely disgruntled, frustrated, angry and never silent. It’s just that their voices are never heard on the media, press and film industry owned by greedy industrialists and producers. These myth makers then go on to form the core of Bollywood thought control industry. As a result RDB focuses on an elite minority in few cities who actually bike around and booze late into nights at campfired elite colleges, and supposes these are worth the screenings. That there is nothing wrong with being rich and spoilt (I still don’t understand why rich kids are called ‘spoilt’ with a wink, instead of being called as ‘horrible greedy money launderers’, with scorn), indeed when the aam-junta could not pass the screening test, the rich kids end up giving best of their lives.
A clear case of ignorance of the director lets the film center around only the ‘educated’ youths who despise education. The truth is a huge majority of students in India still are poor strugglers for a decent education through sheer willpower. The problem is we are so enamored by the exceptions (as they appear newsworthy) that we forget the rules. And our commercial film directors have invariably always focused on the exceptions as the desirable rules so that it draws attention (the shock factor and sensation sells).
To sum it, Rang De Basanti, is not reflective of the Indian youth. It may be valid only in case of some educated drunkards in big cities who in fast career fascination or in idolization of pep culture might have preferred to say ‘Who Bhagat Singh’? And the media by playing on this cliché has almost turned it into an irrefutable truth that people now find easy to identify with. As a pointer, just look at any annual Independence Day issue of India Today and Outlook magazines, where the lousy reporters go interview some students of Hindu College or Lady Sri Ram and then conclude that Indian youths do not know what happened in 1942 or what was the real name of Mahatma Gandhi. And mind you, these magazines sell for this enlightenment piece—to resonate/reassure either an ‘oh at least I know’ or ‘see, I told you, I am not alone’ feeling. Rang De Basanti follows this extremely conventional model. And the students then think “its hip not to know about Gandhi—after all he was such a failure, omigosh!” Needless to say, to fight Gandhi, the media have now got Bhagat Singh, not as a anti-religious, communist hero, but quite the contrary, a business brand for the coke generation that wants an “instant young handsome trigger-happy Gandhi-basher”. Most of the things being projected about Bhagat Singh in the media is factually inaccurate and painful, yet Bollywood goes on cashing his name as it is cashing Emraan Hashmi’s serial kisses.
Let’s presuppose that no Indian youth actually thought twice about the martyrs. Now, after our British lady explains their sacrifices, what do the young converts have to say? “My dear Sue, what the f**k was your grandfather doing on our land?” Hell, no. Not even a sentiment remotely connected to anti-British feeling has been expressed, which they should have logically said. To much cheer, they plan, the murder of a corrupt defense minister…
Naturally, they did not air the anti-imperial, anti-colonial speeches of Bhagat Singh. Else the well-meaning Mehra could not have made a ‘universally appealing’ movie that could rake in million pounds in the United Kingdom! In the face of a lip-treated critic of British rule, this constant fascination with Britain is one of the most shameful produce to have come out of the Bollywood garbage can. Exactly in line with all those Hindi movies where the actresses proudly flaunt Union Jack on their tops and denims to dance around the trees and clubs, this movie ends up almost glorifying a British filmmaker. The white woman in the movie is the only character without a fault. She is the only one who apparently knows everything about Indian history. She is the one who informs the Indian youths about what their history was. In the face of indifference of the youths, she is the one to remind them of Indian freedom struggle. And nowhere does she draw a critic of the British Empire as the most ghastly episode in India’s history that has left behind a culturally rich society of India as a today’s English speaking paupers’ call center den.
Nowhere has she felt that she is the opportunistic researcher taking her participants into a ride she has no control over, by creating inspired terrorists out of them. If Mehra would have studied how the classical anthropologists from the West have historically traveled to India to study and civilize their hostile “tribes” who were of course systematically oppressed by the former’s ruling classes, then he would have thought twice before hiring a British actress to educate the Indian youths.
The grander narrative of the white rescuing the brown from the brown has been such an overplayed theme since the days of the Raj, that to see a similar theme after all these years is at its best a despised déjà vu.
The Essentialism Fallacy:
Not only the Indian youths never question the postcolonial roadmap, they are depicted to be wise when they plan to attack the elected representatives in power, and when they die, they are shown as parallel to the freedom martyrs. Nothing could be more absurd than this. It’s not the violence which is a problem here. Indeed no revolution in the world has been non-violent in nature. But no revolution is based on murdering of few oppressors either. The sacrifices Bhagat Singh had made was part of a constant struggle against the imperialists. Historically at that point it was required that he had his revolutionary thoughts recorded well in the court of law so that more organized efforts could take place. He formed left wing political platform to recruit people, to train them, to disseminate Lenin’s speeches among them. He drafted future constitution for an independent India of his dreams, with lots of careful planning. To sensitize people about the need of revolution and to sow the seeds methodically is the mantra of the martyrs everywhere, so that the fruits of their labor won’t go waste. This is what Che Guevara did, or nearer home, this is what Safdar Hashmi did. They educated the people wherever they went. They organized and they agitated them. That is cardinal to revolution.
But to call a popcorn film that waits for suspense at the end where solution comes in form of murders, as a revolutionary cinema, is an insult to the concept of revolution. It’s an insult to the concept of social realism or socialist realism cinemas. If it had to glorify Bhagat Singh et al, the intention was noble. But at the same breadth to glorify a British filmmaker, and some inspired terrorists, is a shame in the name of politically sensible cinema. For the records, Bhagat Singh had flatly refused to accommodate any person who was describing his/her self as belonging to any religion, be it Hinduism or Islam, or Sikhism etc. He had flatly refused entry of any British into his party (just like Malcolm X had refused the Whites, not because he suspected them all the time, but because he did not want to waste time after exceptions, when he had the rules with him). Bhagat Singh had categorically differentiated his philosophy from the philosophy of terrorism and acts of violence. He had always denounced the terrorists as counter-revolutionary. A revolutionary does not kill to eliminate. Revolutionaries kill to replace structures. They plan well ahead like Castro did, they organize mass scale taking the “aam-junta” into account like Mao did, they help the needy people through social activism like Black Panthers did. The heroes of Rang De Basanti were neither of these. And that’s why they are a shame. And hence, at the least, Bhagat Singh would be deeply shocked to see a British woman filming his legacy using these useless parasites as substitutes, if he were to visit today.
The Gunga Din Factor:
Remember Gunga Din story by the racist Kipling. In the movie produced in 1939, the British colonialists face tribal uprising in India. Of course tribal are the savages who were being “civilized” by the British. The British soldiers were well meaning, humorous, and full of life (just like our Sue in RDB). And the tribal are the ignorant and arrogant. So on every occasion the British used their fists to knock some brains into the tribal, the audience had a good time. (Just like the audition session in the RDB where none of the Indians could follow Sue, and everyone failed to speak out “Inquilab Zindabad” correctly and it led the audience on a roar.) And when one of the Indians then betrayed his fellow people and sacrificed his life so that his people could be defeated, the audience was all moved! Bertolt Brecht, the soul of the great peoples’ theatres said: “Throughout, Indians were considered as primitive creatures, either comic or wicked: comic when loyal to the British, and wicked when hostile.”
Such was the power of colonial, propagandist cinema that moved people back those days. Such continues to be its power that we feel enlightened by British education still, and ashamed of identifying with our “aam junta.” Instead of finding out the root cause (that’s called radicalism—going to the roots) of the corruption and poverty in Indian society—which is largely due to the irreversed British power structure, we hopelessly cheer a group of idiots who go and kill an element of the society (that’s called fanaticism—kill the personal enemy at all costs). RDB is disturbing, to say the least, for it proposes a solution to the audience—a so-called solution that’s dangerously counterproductive.
People need to know that it’s not the nature of George Fernandez that leads him to do business with the coffins of the air force officers, or the inseparable trait of the BJP to buy cracked weapons from Russia. And it’s not going to change if we just go kill the defense minister or murder a couple of rightists. That’s reactionary action—an action the ruling class is quite adept at exercising to rule over us (think awhile, the defense minister in the movie would have just killed these people—like the government of India eventually did)..These solitary murders at such arbitrary phases of anger do not maketh a revolution of any nature. A systematic, methodical overthrow of the current bureaucratic structure and a replacement of the same with peoples’ cooperatives is the first need of the day. And to even understand this, one needs to study the unique history of India, which has not been based ever on mindless violence, but rather on very strategic, organized mass efforts by people to force the colonialists out of our lands. People did not emerge as freedom fighters because of personality clashes with their parents. Certainly not because someone’s father was guilty of corruption as the film showed. But because they were supremely rooted with the social problems of the age and wanted to eradicate them through freedom struggles. Likewise, our minds need to come out of gross ignorance of the factors leading to corruption. For that to happen, we shall need a complete dissociation with the global capitalists, as well as a staunch refusal to accommodate their domestic partners in crime—both of which bribe our ministers and bureaucrats well enough to take all of us for a ride. The business barons, the staunch capitalists, are ruling the orders of the day today by maintaining the anti-people democratic regimes in power, which in turn benefit their own similar class interests.
The businesses pour in millions in election campaigns of their favored politicians who win the polls even without visiting the constituencies. This is the biggest sham in the world today in the name of democracy. By killing a couple of political stooges, nothing will ever be replaced. Maybe, some leaders will change the seats. Like they say in Britain: The King is dead. Long live the King. We need to replace the power structure, not change hands of power from one Morarji Desai to one Charan Singh.
Indeed, the very film producers who dine with the corrupt politicians of Maharashtra will continue to spin millions of dollars by making so-called ‘different’ movies to intoxicate the masses into thinking that the solution lies in the surprising twist at the end of the movie, not at beginning of their organized resistance against the unequal society funded by capitalistic economy. We need predictable revolutions, not unpredictable acts of terrorisms.