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Is Rang De Basanti India?s best bet?
Saibal Chatterjee
Kolkata, September 26, 2006
First Published: 16:52 IST(26/9/2006)
Last Updated: 16:52 IST(26/9/2006)

By For once, the Film Federation of India (FFI) cannot be faulted for its Oscar entry decision.

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti, India’s official submission for the best foreign language film Oscar, has much going for it although this critic would personally have preferred Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara.

Rang De Basanti is a well-scripted, skilfully crafted, thought-provoking entertainer that made waves when it opened earlier this year. In cinematic terms, it is a work of some merit, but the question is: will Rang De Basanti be able to sway the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences quite to the extent that it did domestic audiences? 

 
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti  is India’s official entry for the best foreign language film Oscar.
Success at home is certainly important for any film seeking Oscar success – if a film fails to appeal to its own audience, how can it be expected to make an impact on foreigners – but it is by no means essential. When an Academy member sits down to watch a film submitted for an Oscar nomination, he definitely doesn’t have its domestic box office collection figures in his or her mind. The film has to connect at the level of concept and treatment.

That is where RDB will face an uphill task. It portrays an aspect of contemporary India – the growing disillusionment of the youth with the self-seeking political class – and employs clever cinematic methods to draw parallels between the indignation and aggression of its young characters with the courage and zeal of the militant revolutionaries of India’s freedom struggle.

In India, Rang De Basanti worked big time because the historical personages whose names it invokes – Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ramprasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan and Rajguru – rang an instant bell; to the Academy voter, they might not be quite as familiar.    

Some critics have also felt that the film’s climax – in which a bunch of angry boys assassinate the country’s defence minister and then storm a radio station to get their point across to the people – was rather laboured. Ultimately, however, what will count is whether Rang De Basanti can communicate its message to the Academy strongly enough to earn an Oscar nomination.

The fact that Rang De Basanti and Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai were tied at the end of the FFI jury exercise points to the tendency in this country to confuse popularity and box office success with intrinsic quality. Both are great films that deal with roughly the same theme and celebrate the spirit that drove India’s freedom struggle – one does it in earnest, the other in a comic vein, but Omkara, which may not have fared quite as well at the box office, would have started with an in-built advantage had been sent to the Oscars.

Omkara is a fine adaptation of one of the world’s best-known plays, and even while it uses song and dance set pieces to carry the story forward, there is something very universal and international about the way the film is lit and edited. It would have been rather easy for the Academy to relate to Omkara on account of its storyline. Its cinematic qualities would have done the rest.  
 
But that is certainly not to underestimate the merits of Rang De Basanti. One advantage that it might enjoy is the fact that it is an Aamir Khan starrer. Thanks to Lagaan, Aamir is known in Hollywood and his presence in the cast would, therefore, probably be an incentive for the Academy members to go out and watch Rang De Basanti with a degree of seriousness.

All said and done, Rang De Basanti is certainly a better choice than Devdas, Shwaas and Paheli, the films that represented India in the Oscar race in the last three years. Lagaan had generated a global buzz for India, but that was frittered away by the choices that the FFI made in subsequent years.

Our films, justifiably made with an eye on the predilections of the domestic audience, are usually melodramatic, over the top and larger than life. They bank on overt emotions all the way, and often tend to border on mawkishness. The Indian masses love the high-pitched theatricality of our films; Western audiences are weaned on more subdued and subtle drama.

Omkara  closes that gap very effectively, and so probably does Rang De Basanti. Both are films with an essentially Indian heart – indigenous in theme and substance – but international in terms of narrative idiom and filmmaking style. It would be great if the Academy could be persuaded to recognise the changing face of popular Indian cinema.

Unfortunately for Rang De Basanti, it will be up against Deepa Mehta’s Water which, although Canada’s official entry, is probably far more Indian. Its language is Hindi, its setting is pre-Independence Varanasi and its emotionally charged theme is marked by classical restraint – just the combination that makes for Oscar success.


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