Review of Indian Cinema: ‘Rang De Basanti’

Photo Courtesy of ||  “Rang De Basanti” is Hindi cinema at its best, Marissa Hank ’20 writes.

Photo Courtesy of || “Rang De Basanti” is Hindi cinema at its best, Marissa Hank ’20 writes.

Marissa Hank ’20

“Rang De Basanti,” or in English, “Colour it Saffron,” is a 2006 Indian, drama film written, produced and directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. The title can be literally translated as “Paint me with the colours of spring.”

Made on a budget of ₹250 million, US$3.9 million, the film was shot in and around New Delhi. Upon release, the film broke all opening box office records in India. It was the highest-grossing film in its opening weekend in India and had the highest opening day collections for a Bollywood film.

“Rang De Basanti” received critical acclaim, winning the National Film Award for Best Popular Film, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 BAFTA Awards. “Rang De Basanti” was also chosen as India's official entry for the Golden Globe Awards and the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category, though it ultimately did not win a nomination for either award.

The story follows a young, struggling British filmmaker, Sue McKinley, who comes across the diary of her grandfather Mr. McKinley.

Sue soon discovers that he had served as a jailer in the Imperial Police during the Indian independence movement. From the diary, she learns about the story of five freedom fighters who were active in the movement: Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru, Ashfaqulla Khan and Ram Prasad Bismil.

McKinley, in his diary, states that he had met two type of people in his life, those who died without uttering a sound and those who died with lots of anguish, crying over their deaths.

McKinley reveals that it was then that he met the third kind — those who die with a smile on their face.
Upon reading these emotional journal entries, Sue decides to make a self-financed documentary film about these five revolutionaries. Sue travels to India, with the help of her friend Sonia at the Institute for International Studies at the University of Delhi.

After a few unsuccessful auditions in search of the actors, Sue finally casts Sonia's friends, four young men – Daljit "DJ" Singh, Karan Singhania, Aslam Khan and Sukhi Ram – to portray the revolutionaries.

During the process of filming, the idealism of India's revolutionary heroes seeps into the protagonists. They gradually begin to realize that their own lives are quite similar to the characters they portray in Sue's film and that the state of affairs that once plagued the revolutionaries continues to torment their generation.

Ajay Singh Rathod, a flight lieutenant in the Indian Air Force who is Sonia's fiancé, is killed when his jet, a MiG-21, crashes. The government proclaims that the crash was caused by pilot error and closes the investigation.

Knowing that Ajay was an ace pilot, Sonia and her friends do not accept the official government explanation. Instead, they claim that he sacrificed his life to save hundreds of other lives that would have been lost had he ejected from the aircraft and left it to crash into a populous city.

Upon investigation they learn that the crash was due to a corrupt defence minister who had signed a contract exchanging cheap and illegal MiG-21 aircraft spare parts for a personal favour.
Angered by the situation, the group and their supporters decide to protest peacefully at India Gate, a war memorial in New Delhi. Police forcefully break up their protest using violence through batons.

DJ, Karan, Aslam, Sukhi and Laxman decide that they must emulate the early freedom fighters and resort to violence to achieve justice. As a result, more violence begins to ensue. To bring forth their intentions behind their actions, the five attempt to reach the public through a radio station.

They forcibly take over the All India Radio station premises after having evacuated its employees. Karan goes on air revealing the truth about the defence minister and his wrongdoings.

From here events spiral out of control; everyone becomes victim to government corruption. The film’s relentless depiction of state-sponsored violence condoned by hypocritical politicians (a grim reality, for many poorer citizens, especially in rural areas) struck a chord with Indian audiences.

Indeed, its explicit depiction of young jeans-clad consumerist cynics morphing into Independence-era martyrs bears an implicit and chilling corollary message: that the Indian state has now become a reincarnation, ruled by “Brown Sahibs,” of the repressive Raj that it once replaced.

“Rang De Basanti,” with its excellent musical score and elaborate plot structure and central motif of cyclical time, remains a characteristically self-reflective Hindi film, even recapitulating the time-honored tropes of male dosti-unto-death and of a wounded and comatose Mother India being reinvigorated by the sacrificial lifeblood of her sons.

Such mix of “tradition” and “modernity” have always been a hallmark of Hindi cinema at its best. Therefore, Director Mehra’s, “Rang De Basanti,” easily deserves the success it has achieved.