Rang De Basanti: The Neo-Colonial Success Story

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”!

My Take:
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.

Postcolonial Ignorance:
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.

Colonial Amnesia:
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.

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Author: Saswat Pattanayak

Journalist, Generalist, Atheist, Poet, Lover, Photographer, Communist, Third wave Feminist, LGBT ally, Black power comrade, Peacenik, Anti-capitalist, Critical media theorist, Radical film critic, Academic non-elite…

6 thoughts on “Rang De Basanti: The Neo-Colonial Success Story

  1. hi,
    i dont know how u saw the movie,it appears that the only motive u went to the movie was to critisize it.u talk about the movie for not catering to the masses,but i guess most films has its own target audience and in this case it is the educated youth.
    u call that it is a story of the rich and spoilt kids,but i guess there was only one who was rich in that gang and all others come from middle class and their attitude and thinking towards the society and history is the same as the educated people attitude today from all backgrounds.
    u tell that that the poor struggle for decent education but think about their attitude towards society.
    comming to history,u talk the rich spoilt janata doesnt know national heoroes.then think of the educated people in small twons,for them getting good education is itself difficult.think about their resourses.there have been no. of films on bhagat singh but all of them floped because no one wants to see bhagat singh because they think he is irrevelent today ,no one wanrs to know history becausethey think it is irrevelent(i am talking of normal educated student and not of a PHD student).the reason why RDB sucseeded is that the youth could identify bhagat singh as the 5 people in the film did ,because it showed that bhagat singh is a normal peorson as the youth except that he has a misiion and he was more enlighterned .
    comming to SUE,i guess this was the chrecter u hated most.she didnt come 2 india for a research as u said how anthropologists come here and do research.she came here with a script to shoot a documentary and not for research.u tell that the 5 people never critisize their grand father,i guess no one criticises british people.thestuggle of indepedence was against the british empire and not the brtish people.
    comming to the climax,no revolution starts with a strategic effort and organised mass efforts.every revolution starting point is arbitrary phases of anger of different people.it need not be great thinkers like bhagar singh or mahatma ghandhi.these incidents ignite people and wakes up the thinkers.take any revolution u will find this,even in indian independence struggle.the people who kill the defence minister are common people ,they are not the philosophers.
    now i tell u why i like the movie, because it communicates with the present day educated youth of all classes.the future of the country is not in the hands of AAM janata but with the educated people,these are the people who can bring a chance in the society and to the lives of AAM janatha.no country is perfect it is we the people who has to make it a better place,and this is only possible if we satop complaining and start partisipating in our countys development. the film gives hope to the youth that we can change the country
    and it suceeds.

    raghu.

  2. Dear Raghu:
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. Let me attempt at responding.

    Anyone who invests 3 hours of her or his time in watching a film is entitled to an analysis of how the time was spent/invested/wasted. If the numerous praises for the movie can be valid, few criticisms should also be taken in the intended spirit. Hence it’s unfair to accuse my purpose of going to a movie just because you have a different take on the movie.

    Secondly its also in a bad taste to say that the target audience was the educated youth. You can only say that if the tickets were restricted to people who could provide proof of graduation. Even there views will differ, since many people in the physical sciences think the liberal arts students are uneducated etc. I think you reflect an elitist bias of assuming that educated youth are any better than illiterate people.

    I have stated severally in previous posts that I refuse to own the concept of middle class in India, and my guess is you are not familiar with this author’s orientation before attempting to critique him. I did not grow up with booze and jeeps, so I guess we have some issues here as to how you view a rich kid. Moreover, your line “U tell that that the poor struggle for decent education but think about their attitude towards society” is an ill-informed sentence. Precisely because the poor’s attitude of frustration necessarily is caused from the circumstantial hopelessness, not from the fatigue from late night booze parties.

    About Bhagat Singh, I think all the movies about him were very poorly made, based on false notions (I have cited links to support the claim). And dear Raghu, a film does not succeed because people suddenly become smart to understand a good cinema, but because of several other things. Distribution policies, the commercial marketing and trade networking that ranges from a small village to a big town. Not all movies, and certainly the best of art cinemas don’t get released in villages, because the director is not backed by rich investors, not because they make rotten movies. Remember people love all crash songs (and Himesh Reshammiya is the best music director today!) because of the way the films get packaged and marketed, not because they are necessarily good.

    Every filmmaker is a researcher. And an active cultural anthropologist if she or he visits a domain that’s not familiar. One does not need to enroll in a PhD program to do research. Every paanwaala who talks to dozens of people about local politicians is a researcher on people’s attitude to politics, if you know what I mean. Don’t constrict your thoughts to boundaries. I am not a fool to know that Sue did not have a degree, but I guess you didn’t get why I said she was researching (even a selection of people to shout Vande Mataram in line of her grandfather’s diary as secondary material is part of research, ok?)

    When you say “the struggle of independence was against the British empire and not the British people,” you are right. But only partially. Because first I never wanted our five friends to attack Sue, the way I would have wanted Indians those days to attack the British officers. Its not my hate towards Sue that’s apparent anywhere. Its my sorrow that our five friends missed an opportunity to get the answer from this well meaning woman about why her grandfather was there to begin with. And yes, I still maintain that our friends should have surely showed some passionate anger towards the jailor somewhere in their conversations with Sue. If they could identify with Bhagat Singh (nothing less…), they should have showed the anger a bit too against the kind of people he was against. Too bad, our hero was instead busy flirting around with the jailor’s granddaughter.

    About your line: “no revolution starts with a strategic effort and organized mass efforts. every revolution starting point is arbitrary phases of anger of different people.” We are from different strands, I am sure. Your idea of a revolution is owing its roots to anarchism, which again was never explored in this movie either. Mine rests with the scientific socialism, practiced by revolutionary figures from Lenin to Mao to Castro to Che to Chavez. And you will find they were great organizers and strategists. Even after citing Bhagat Singh talking about strategies as starting point of revolution, if you don’t agree, that’s very fine. But that way you will only be condemning the same hero you wish to glorify. And that’s precisely what the movie has done.

    You say, “The people who kill the defense minister are common people ,they are not the philosophers.” First of all you are quoting a movie as though that were some historical truth. And I wonder when did I ever say you need to be a philosopher to do revolutionary strategies. Quite the contrary, remember Marx say, “Philosophers have only hitherto interpreted the world. The point is to change it.” Activists organize, not philosophize.

    About your dreams of changing the country by leaving the “AAM janatha” behind, all the best. I like your optimism and I am very glad that “educated youths” like you are now coming forward to change the country. Although I would prefer the common masses to participate in the larger gamut in an organized manner, I will any day support you in any of your noble endeavors.

    I am happy to see your response and your most patient reading of the post. My sincere thanks. Stop by when you can.
    Saswat

  3. I agree that the movie is a well made movie….however while critiquing a movie (regarded as being of social significance) we need to analyze why the movie was made, what purpose did it serve, and did it do justice to the cause it was espousing.
    RDB, of course is not meant for the aam junta, and probably now-a-days movie makers are avoiding the aam junta deliberately. Because movies that cater to the taste of so called middle-class, higher-middle class, and rich people are the ones which mint money overseas. Movies which show the ‘traditional’ Indian values, family systems, and dogmatic rituals are craved for by NRIs and second/third generation youths of Indian origin.
    Anyways coming back to RDB, it reflects the shallowness and hopelessness of most educated youths from the middle-class and rich families. These youths do not have to worry about food, clothing and shelter or shouldering the responsibility of their families. Now those youths who are not hailing from rich families and are not in a technical field (engineering, medical etc.) or expensive fields (MBA, Fashion designing etc) or expensive schools (St Stephens, Lady Shreeram etc.) have worries very different than the RDB youths.
    If the movie was to inspire the young generation, I think it must have but inspired to do what? Are the youths a bunch of ‘inspired idiots’ now?
    The issues highlighted in the movie, rampant corruption in the highest government offices of the country and the disinterest of the leaders to improve the condition of the people, are facts that people live every passing day. There are agitators and activists working against it like Anna Hazare. Even after the Tehelka exposure the youths of the country could not wake up…and a movie like RDB awakens a generation!!?!!
    The inspiring effect of the movie was not the enlightment factor but the sensationalism factor, the white lady (who understands the Indian freedom struggle), the disillusioned funky youths turning into patriots, Aamir Khan (!!),the lathi charge, the tragic & violent death of the handsome laughing youths and fauji etc…….
    If Indian youths are not able to identify with the reasonings, sacrifices, and struggles of the revolutionary freedom fighters after studying history, that is a shame. And if a commercial hindi movie is being considered successful for inspiring them, that is ironic.
    When Raghu says that RDB has successfully inspired the youths to change the country, I would want to know how is the change going to occur?
    RDB would have done more justice to the cause of awakening the youths by highlighting the circumstances, religious, social and political, that is rendering, an otherwise vibrant youth listless and ineffective. That would have helped the educated youths (who are getting inspired by RDB like movies) to recognize the root causes of corruption, poverty, and hopelessness. Understanding would promote proper education in order to build the foundation to gradually eliminate the evils from their roots. I agree with the author of the blog, when he says that killing of corrupt individual/s will not provide any relief. Because as long as a system that perpetuates corruption is intact, the answer can never be sought in killing corrupt officials sporadically.

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