Rang de Bizarre
Five badly behaved but photogenic young louts and their hanger-on girl regularly gather at night at a geographical feature resembling the Grand Canyon. There they take deep slugs of beer. Next they speed through rural Punjab on motorbikes and eat parathas with one of their mothers who tells them about Sikh folklore. One of them returns home, which is a pillared palace, where a nasty father sips whisky in the morning and clinches an evil weapons deal. The ‘Muslim’ member of the gang goes back to a very ‘Muslim’ home where a lungi-clad dad is waiting to deliver a short seminar paper on Partition, vote bank politics and other ‘Muslim’ issues.
A pretty (but cerebral) cultural tourist from Britain arrives. She reminds the foul-mouthed brats about their history. She wants to (and does) make a documentary on Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad in which the five take the main roles. Each of the gang informs the British tourist about the hollowness of their lives by delivering caricature-speeches entitled ‘Youth Alienation’. “I am young,” they intone, “but without ideals. Am therefore cut off from my country. My country is bad. The system sucks. Therefore, I am an alienated youth.” But as the documentary progresses and the British film-maker introduces them to Bhagat Singh and others, they realise how best they can conquer their boredom. By assassinating some important people, of course.
The five ghastly friends have a fighter pilot friend whom they don’t seem to care about much. Or do they? We never know. In fact, this friendship with the fighter pilot is the most crucial relationship in the film but it doesn’t get more than three seconds of time or script. On one single occasion the gang rides with the pilot to a ruined monument with MiGs flying overhead. Later, the fighter pilot friend is killed piloting an MiG, and the five decide that even though they’ve not spent much time with the fighter pilot, even though they don’t really know him too well, they must immediately murder the defence minister.
So they do. They also kill the awful whisky-oriented dad who got rich from bringing in the MiGs in the first place. While they kill the neta and the dad, pictures of Bhagat Singh and Azad play in the background, forcing us to believe that criminal spoilt brats are actually freedom fighters.
The climax of Rang De Basanti is perhaps the most chilling, the most strange. It takes place in the glare of 24-hour news media and radio. It is a technicolour death on TV. Young people from all across the land roar out their approval of the bloody-minded youths on TV. The action unfolds on TV and FM radio, as the fallen five wait to die in a denouement captured in second-to-second radio and television drama. A mammoth TV crowd bellows out its hatred of the politician. Another TV throng screams its loathing of The System. A jostling, demented, anarchic TV populace, like a purple-faced crowd in a Roman amphitheatre, yells for more blood to be spilled, both of villain and hero. All on 24-hour-TV. Scary!
Why is Rang De Basanti a scary film? Because it is a film that is unable to distinguish between media and reality. It is the ultimate made-in-media-India film. It is not rooted in any kind of reality, does not explore the position of the politician in our society, nor does it tell any kind of tale of heroism and ideals, nor does it bother to find real believable people in a real believable situation.
Sure Bollywood is all fantasy anyway, but the best fantasies are always those that are, as Javed Akhtar once said, like kites that are tied firmly to a stake in the earth, not simply kites in free fall. The transcendent brilliance of Sholay was not just its luminous script but its perfectly located reality: the fact that the story was real, the characters were believable. Veeru and Jai are far greater patriots than the neon-lit young people of Rang De Basanti gyrating to disco music one night and gunning down the defence minister the next.
Some blame the electronic media. That 24-hour news television is fostering a brute unthinking hatred of the politician and ‘The System’. Fostering hatred in full technicolour, where politician-abuse creates media stars on the one hand, and on the other creates a simple-minded society where the young must be either drunk or suicidal killers. But that’s an unfair criticism. The media simply do their job and their job is to expose, to bombard and to deliver news. The media are undoubtedly a double-edged sword. It brings the politician up for public scrutiny in a sensational way. Yet, the media are also a robust public service that democratises debate and brings lofty issues right down to the street or to the panchayat or to the college dorm. It would be unfair to accuse the media of encouraging young people to murder politicians.
A democratic citizenry must see the media as its ally in activism, not seek to gear its life to being on camera, as this film shows its heroes doing. A democratic citizenry must not become so enamoured, indeed so enslaved, by the media that it seeks to emulate in daily life. To become a dumb media animal with no sense of life or perspective outside radio
or television, is to waltz closer to the abyss. An abyss of glittering bingo halls and bizarre ‘locales’ with no sense of how people actually live or speak, other than that captured by the camera. The media are a comrade in the fight, not a god that demands obedience.
Even youthful nationalism is not what Rang De Basanti makes it out to be. A group of idealistic young students from IIT have recently launched a ‘political party’. Started in Jodhpur, it’s called ‘Paritrana’ and its national president is a B.Tech in aerospace from IIT Bombay. Their aim is the “complete relief from distress” and they’ve been carrying out quiet unfussy door-to-door campaigns across Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In fact, many public-spirited young people are working at all kinds of initiatives across India and lots of dramatic films can be made on the many complex situations that are arising everyday in their lives. Rang De Basanti does a terrible disservice to the nationalism of India’s young people. It wilfully paints modern day patriots as unthinking anti-establishment killers. It foolishly creates a myth known as Gen Next which does nothing but drink and dance. And it promotes a leviathan media as the ultimate interpreter of India.
The fact that Rang De Basanti is a hit shows just how catastrophically distant we are getting from reality, where we’re happy to live from media image to media image, from frame to frame, without realising the depth and profundity of ‘ordinary’ human dramas.
The writer is features editor CNN-IBN