The Rise of the Patriot

Published on Jan 29, 2006 02:03 AM IST

With Rang De Basanti, Aamir Khan establishes himself as patriotism?s biggest proponent, write Shreevatsa Nevatia and Udita Jhunjhunwala.

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None | ByShreevatsa Nevatia and Udita Jhunjhunwala, Delhi /mumbai

In the year 1973, Manoj Kumar was busy filming Roti, Kapada aur Makaan. If Kumar aka Bharat had taken some time out and paid a visit to the cinema, the one film he is most likely to have seen would have been Yaadon Ki Baraat. It would perhaps have been impossible for him to imagine that the cherubic Aamir Khan, a child artist in the film, would take on celluloid patriotism, which had been his own forte in films like Shaheed and Purab aur Paschim.

Thirty-odd years down the line, the film industry has rediscovered the advantages of having a homegrown nationalist. Whether as the upright cop in Sarfarosh, the villager leading a cricket team against the British in Lagaan, the principled sepoy leading a mutiny in Mangal Pandey or as Chandrashekhar Azad/DJ — the catalyst of change in Rang De Basanti, Aamir Khan seems to be Bollywood’s new flag-waver. And unlike Kumar, it is hard to accuse Khan of hamming. As versatile as they come, it is hard to pigeonhole his performances or accuse him of being repetitive.

More significantly, with his latest offering, RDB, Khan relates to the particular social-class of the multiplex-going, iPod-consuming and beer-guzzling urban youth. Like Bachchan had appealed to the grievances and turbulence of the milieu his generation grew up in, with the trademark Coolie No. 786 under his belt, the controversial image of 41-year-old Khan riding a horse is set to be a lasting impression on the minds of a nation’s youth.

To contextualise the importance of RDB and particularly, Khan’s performance, it is important to trace the trajectory of Khan’s recent career. In the able hands of Ashutosh Gowarikar, the character of Bhuvan in Lagaan sought to encapsulate the struggles of a colonised nation’s subject.

Using the fantastical yet popular allegory of a cricket team, the close to three-hour film explored the benefits of secularism and community and had global box-offices ticking for quite a while. What’s more, the film is said to have missed the Oscar by just a whisker.

Talking about whiskers, Khan’s next historical venture, Mangal Pandey, saw him twirl his moustache, don a dhoti and bare his chest, while helping the Hindus and Muslims join forces to fight the British, the obvious common enemy. But unlike Lagaan, where one could suspend his or her belief, Mangal Pandey asked its audiences to accept an all too literal version of our nation’s pre-independent history. The formulaic nature of the narrative left many a critic and even the staunch Aamir fan a trifle disappointed.

But if there ever was to be a perfect redemption, RDB seems to be it. Khan does not quite rid himself of the freedom fighter’s image. As part of a documentary film that the British character of Sue (Alice Patten) is making in the film, Khan plays Chandrashekhar Azad with the same gutso and zeal that one can identify with his earlier avatars of Bhuvan and Mangal. But what makes Khan break away from the mould and what will undoubtedly endear him to the nation’s heart, is the character of DJ. Playing the part of a youngster in his late-twenties, Khan with the help of refreshing and a somewhat realist humour, portrays brilliantly the character of someone who finds it really hard to grow up.

With the death of one of their friends who is in the Airforce, DJ and his group of urban compatriots, find that even though they would like to look at the happenings of their nation as things that happen on the distanced television news channel, evils such as corruption are really a lot closer home than they would like to imagine. Having been part of a documentary where they played the roles of fiery revolutionaries, they decide to take the law into their own hands and change their fate and that of the nation with the use of some violence. Though the film partly talks of a bygone era, it succeeds in relating that to a stark present, where MiGs crash, people die, defence ministers are bribed, activism is silenced and politicians and citizens are nothing more than apathetic. Though part of an ensemble cast, Aamir confirms his standing as the common man’s revolutionary.

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, director, Rang De Basanti says, “Aamir is a man of immense integrity. He believes in the country and its dignity. He’s proud of India, but not jingoistic. That attracts people. In Sarfarosh too he played a cop doing his duty. Perhaps Aamir wanted to serve the country, but became an actor.”

Aamir’s next project is Fanaah, a love story in which he will pair up with Kajol for the first time. Sources say that the film will partly be set in Kashmir but whether or not it will be patriotic in the same vein, remains to be seen. The film’s director, Kunal Kohli says, “Even the Coke ad, Piyo sar utha ke has a tinge of patriotism. Aamir lives by his rules and he doesn’t go by what anybody says — not the media or the industry.”

Kohli goes on to add, “He doesn’t beat up people in nightclubs. He’s a righteous, law-abiding hero. If I had to vote for anyone from this industry for prime minister, it would be him.”

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