As I watched the film again, 14 years later, I felt like I related to the characters’ struggles more than ever before.

Personal is political Why Rang De Basanti continues to remain relevant today
Flix Flix Flashback Friday, May 29, 2020 - 17:15

Growing up, I remember watching Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti with my family when it came on TV. We laughed as the six college friends – played by Aamir Khan, Soha Ali Khan, Kunal Kapoor, Atul Kulkarni, Sharman Joshi, and Siddharth Narayan – and Alice Patten, who played the British woman Sue Mckinley, goofed around. We cried when they suffered a loss; and ultimately, we were on the edge of our seats, rooting for them as they attempted to tell their truth to the world.

Fourteen years later, my family and I could sit on the same couch, watching the same film, but with the knowledge that we aren’t on the same page. Becoming an adult for me has been inextricable from the political values and ideologies I have come to stand with, and they seem to have diverged further and further from those of my loved ones as time passed.

Revisiting the film all these years later was oddly comforting and painful at the same time. Watching Karan (played by Siddharth) and Aslam (Kunal Kapoor) have disagreements with their fathers was comforting, because it felt less lonely knowing that no matter what juncture of time we are in, there will always be disagreement and strife with loved ones. And painful, because it feels like we are at that point in history where diverging political views are fracturing interpersonal relationships.

In stark contrast, one of the most poignant aspects of Rang De Basanti was the friendship between Lakshman Pandey (Atul Kulkarni), a young leader of a right-wing unnamed political outfit, and Aslam, which blossoms despite their polar opposite views. Lakshman begins as an embodiment of present day moral policing squads. However, Rang De Basanti humanises him in a rare way – at no point are we shown that Lakshman lets go of all his regressive beliefs. But it’s hard to not warm up to him as he begrudgingly starts caring for Aslam and his friends in the process of shooting for Sue’s film on Indian freedom struggle revolutionaries. Lakshman and Aslam’s friendship is a reminder that such relationships are possible, especially today when Hindu-Muslim relationships are marred by real life and fictional tropes. The scene where the same bomb blast kills them both is both heartbreaking and evocative. As they lie next to each other in their last moments, looking at each other wordlessly, all that remains is their friendship.

Rang De Basanti is a coming-of-age film of a bunch of seemingly carefree, and privileged (except perhaps Aslam) men and women in their 20s. They begin like any other 20-somethings of their background – they mainly care about hanging out with friends, drinking, chilling. They flirt, have romances, and dream of their future. They are skeptical about the corruption, red tape and politics in India. All of us probably know people like that in real life, which makes the characters relatable even today.  

But in spite of their skepticism, they decide to take a stand against when one of their friends – a fighter pilot, Ajay, played by R Madhavan – gets killed after his aircraft crashes due to faulty parts. It is then that the political becomes personal, and the personal becomes political for them. But at no point does the film attempt to show the protagonists as more than who they are – a group of college students.

It is in the pursuit of justice for Ajay that the friends really take on the roles of revolutionaries in the Indian freedom struggle that they play in Sue’s film. The movie flits through the surreal scenes from the revolutionaries’ acts in the past and what the friends decide to do in real life to bring those in power to book. Neither knew they were being revolutionaries at the time; and the similarities play themselves out.

Re-watching Rang De Basanti felt like déjà vu – not because of the nostalgia it brought on, but because this 14-year-old film is so reflective of recent times. The youth of the country have often been written off as being self-absorbed, insincere, spoiled and ungrateful. However, they have had a major role to play in the past decade, especially the past couple of years in voicing dissent. 

After Ajay’s death, his mother and his friends march with candles to India Gate and hold a vigil for him, as if it was the most natural thing to do. We have seen similar things happening in the past – whether it was the protests following the Nirbhaya gangrape in Delhi in 2012, the Lok Pal Bill protests of 2011, the Disha gangrape protests in Hyderabad in 2019, more recently, the protests against Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens. People like you and me, led by the students and the youth, marched on to the streets, unarmed, unprepared, with no organisation other than the time and place, demanding accountability and action from those in power.

Watching blows and lathis being rained on the peaceful candlelight vigil holders in Rang De Basanti, and the black commandos shooting at the unarmed college students at the radio station in the climax of the film felt chillingly familiar. Not very long ago, our television screens were full of distressing visuals of students in Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, trying to take refuge in the library as the police allegedly hurled tear gas and stones into the premises.

As the male protagonists all die at the radio station, they ignite a spark that turns into a fire of resistance in the film, with many other students saying that they will continue the movement, demand justice. There are similar real-life stories too – for instance, Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide at Hyderabad University sparked nationwide protests. He became the face of a movement that he didn’t live to see, and didn’t set out to become.

What makes the film even more evocative is its music. Composed by AR Rahman and tracks written by Prasoon Joshi, the music shows yet again that poetry and protest have gone hand in hand. Whether it was 'Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna' during the Indian freedom struggle, 'Khoon Chala' and 'Roobaroo' in Rang De Basanti, or Faiz Ahmed Faiz's 'Hum Dekhenge' during the CAA-NRC protests, these poems and songs have become anthems of the movements themselves.

One aspect of Rang De Basanti worth critiquing is that it is somewhat premised in white gaze – it all begins with a white woman coming to India, wanting to make a film on Indian revolutionaries, and at some points, lecturing the Indian characters on their own country. There are also some quintessential shots of Indian countryside and festivities that you can imagine would appeal to a white audience. However, this is not an overwhelming aspect in the film, and it’s still the college students’ journeys – through love, laughter and friendship – that are still at the heart of Rang De Basanti.

The protagonists do commit the condemnable act of killing the defense minister in the film, but their angst with the system, the injustices it perpetuates, and the impunity of those in power are sentiments that will remain universal. Rang De Basanti also portrays something that we are seeing among everyday people. We tend to wear armchair activism, skepticism about politics, and being ‘apolitical’ as a matter of pride, until we find out that our own are being affected. However, even the act of being ‘apolitical’ is a political one. Growing up is not just about taking responsibility for our own actions, but also speaking up for the community. Rang De Basanti iterates that the personal is very much political, and it will always be. 

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