Sunday, January 29, 2006
Waking up in the age of instant messages
Rang de Basanti is a story about the sustained awakening of a close-knit group of adults, and how their growing disillusion leads them down a desperate road. Faced with the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of life in India, they find escape in an unexceptional and anonymous life, where expectations are small and laughter is a means of keeping inevitable misery at bay. When we first meet them, we realise that they have already woken up to life’s offerings and given up in a puff of cynicism. Nothing will change, they say to us over and over, but when the group is touched by misfortune, they snap out of their stupor, stop talking, and begin to act.
The story opens with Alice Patten, who plays Sue, a documentary filmmaker, facing a stone wall. Having prepared to translate to film the jottings of a diary by her grandfather who, as a jailer, oversaw the hangings of Bhagat Singh and his friends, she is told that there aren’t enough finances to fund the project because Bhagat Singh isn’t popular enough. “Gandhi sells,” she is advised. Sue walks away and completes the documentary independently. There is in this a story within a story. Rakeysh Mehra faced numerous challenges to finance Rang de Basanti, and it is entirely possible that the advice he was given, when he revealed that Singh would feature prominently in the film, is similar to what Sue was told.
The group fills the role of Singh and the rest in Sue’s film, and when their painstaking work is done, a series of tragic events sees them continue in a revolutionary mood and, like Singh, act to attract attention. But times have changed and, instead of their deeds bringing notice to corruption and apathy in the government as they had planned, their efforts are in vain. This relentless back and forth struggle, where a few individuals seek truth from a featureless and unwilling entity, sets up the dramatic final act of this resonant movie. While that end, in retrospect, requires a slight suspension of reality by the watcher, the desperation that leads to the end is entirely believable.
The film plays the present off the past, juggling between the two, as DJ (Aamir Khan) and his vibrant friends are replaced by Singh and his gang mid-scene, and in conversation. The obvious reference is to history repeating itself, and as the shift occurs, it feels like a hop between parallel universes. What shape could the next fight for independence take?
But there are smaller issues at hand. As the group expands to accept Laxman Pandey (Atul Kulkarni), a Hindu nationalist, they begin to understand each other in the way only proximity allows. Sue and DJ strike a friendship, much to the expectations of their friends and everyone else watching, and she inadvertently brokers a truce between Laxman and the rest. Within one large story there are several other plotlines, some completed, others left hanging, and almost all real. The forts where they move about, where they choose to rest, all hint at a longing for the past – anything to avoid the future.
As each character grows, so does the dialogue, and this transition from the irreverent at the start to the focused and optimistic at the film’s end is one of its many strengths. That the camera hovers away from one set of characters to follow the others, and then cuts back to them, is another. An exchange between DJ and Sue, where he momentarily lets down his guard and speaks in Punjabi while she nods and smiles, is a particularly poignant one because the roles are reversed between them.
The two could represent more than their characters. It’s odd, but Indian cinema still depicts the white man chiefly as colonizer, and not as thinking individual. Here the movie falters, but it is necessary for this story: Indian aggressors are shown as faceless, as the new colonizers. And when Sue breaks down upon hearing the final violent path DJ has chosen, we realize that the England and India of 59 years ago have changed places.
Rang de Basanti is an unusual story because it presents another point of view: that patriotism doesn’t come from loving your country blindly, and that for some it may not come at all. That's fine, but it isn’t enough to sit about and complain – if it’s broke and you’re upset, fix it.