WTF ASIA 39: Rang De Basanti (2006)
The most inspirational movie of the past decade!
For free on youku.
James was a British prison guard in Colonial India, overseeing the execution of a group of young Revolutionaries. Their attitude up to their deaths inspired him to write about them in his diary. Seventy years later and back in England, his granddaughter Sue has been working for two on producing a docudrama on the exploits of these Revolutionaries, using the diary as an inspiration and reference point. She had been setting up the project over the past two years and had just gotten good news from her Indian contact, Sonia, about the production. Unfortunately for her, her bosses have nixed the project, believing that no one in England would care about some Indian revolutionaries from decades ago. Sue decides on a whim to take a trip to India in hopes of salvaging the production. She meets up with Sonia, who is still passionate about the project as well despite not having backing from Sueâ€™s business. That lack of backing, however, makes it difficult to audition or cast competent actors.
Seeing Sueâ€™s frustration, Sonia decides that they should take a break. She introduces Sue to some of her college buddies, two of whom, DJ and Sukhi, are in the midst of aâ€¦drinking game that involves a cliff and a pool. There is a bit more clowning around, some music and dancing. Then a group of Indian Nationalists try to break up the party and almost attack Soniaâ€™s Muslim friend Aslam. The police arrive, intent on arresting someone until DJ bribes them off. By the way, DJ has been flirting mercilessly in Hindi with Sue since first seeing her, not realizing that Sueâ€™s Hindi lessons have made her fairly fluent.
A few hours with Soniaâ€™s friends has Sue thinking that four of them (as well as Sonia) could be the stars of the film. They pretty much all laugh at her request, joking about patriotism and the sorry state that India is in; the bad economy, the overpopulation, the corruption. Soniaâ€™s boyfriend, Ajay, seems to be the only one to stick up for India, but casting him is out of the picture, as he is busy training as a fighter pilot. Rich boy Karan, perhaps the most cynical about the country (and pressured by his father to go to United States for his graduate studies), seems to be the only one who is at least half-serious about being in the film. The other three are late to the rehearsal and laugh at Sueâ€™s script. Though they are around the same age as the revolutionaries, they cannot relate to their words or sentiments. Still, they keep going and Sue starts to feel like she is part of this circle of friends.
During a brief moment when DJ and Sue have some time alone, DJ confides in her his anxieties of the future. He fears that he and his friends are destined to go their separate ways after college and that real life will prevent them from regularly keeping in touch. It turns out that he actually graduated from college five years earlier, but had stuck around. His bravado and charisma has masked his desperation maintain his status a somebody, a master of his own fate; in the real world, he is just a nobody like everyone else, a servant of fate. His destiny is one of boredom, if not outright misery.
The next day, Sue and Sonia are approached by Laxman, the leader of the Nationalist group that had broken up the party all those days ago. He wants to fill the final main role, having known the characterâ€™s words without the need of Sueâ€™s script. Sonia advises Sue against hiring him, but Sue decides to bring him on anyways. His introduction to the rest of the cast leads to a brawl and Sue storms out of the rehearsal area, ready to give up on India entirely and go back to England. The others decide to be civil with Laxman and keep Sue from leaving. So they continue their rehearsals and bonding time. In the meantime, the four previous layabouts start to discuss a little more about the dark time in their nationâ€™s past, which they either had never learned or had forgotten. Laxman, naturally, was already well versed in this history, but he is still not completely part of the group. The others joke that the revolutionary spirit has long since been replaced with acceptance of getting less and less. The undercurrent of the jokes suggests that the revolution has ultimately failed the people of India, and that there is no longer anything for them to believe in or to fight for. Eventually, though, they find that their passions aroused, and the chasm between themselves and their characters starts to disappear.
There have been several Indian films about Bhagat Singh and the Hindustan Republican Association. By the start of the new millennium, however, that part of history was largely forgotten or ignored. There were even three films about Bhagat Singh released in 2002, one of which I had even reviewedÂ here a few months ago. And all of them fared poorly at the box office. The director of this movie had even planned to make a movie about Bhagat Singh until his research found that young Indians had no idea or interest in this forgotten figure from history. So he decided to combine it with another movie idea that he had to make a movie that acted almost like a meta-commentary about his experience trying to make a movie about Bhagat Singh, though it eventually goes way beyond that. According to the film, the youth of India have lost the patriotic spirit of previous generations and needed a wakeup call. And this film would be that call.
This movie was released eight years (and around two days) ago. I may have been exaggerating when I said that this film was the most inspirational film of the past decade, but I was not kidding. There have been many Rah-Rah Hindustan movies coming out of the Indian movie industry, but the Indian youth simply could not relate to them like they could with the characters in this film, who would not relate to those films either. This movie, however, struck a chord AND a nerve in Indian society, sparking intense discussions about the film, the characters, Indian society, citizen responsibility, and the government. Inspired by this movie, many became more politically active, with mass protests being organized over public interest issues. One issue was the Jessica Lall murder trial, which ended less than a month after the release of the film, but restarted after nationwide protests. The 2011 movie No One Killed Jessica, which I had also recommended, showed a forty-second clip of this one with pretty much no context other than to treat it as an inspiration for a protest rally. While those forty seconds may have been Bollywood patting itself on the back, the comparisons of the rallies to scenes from Rang De Basanti were being made even back in 2006.
The storyline may seem telegraphed at times, but it seems rather natural for the most part, so that there was no other way for it to go. There have been many movies about man-aged boys who spend their days clowning around until they learn to grow up and take responsibility for their behavior. What sets this one apart from most is the sadness beneath the jokes along with a sense of true passion and purpose, though this is hardly misery-porn or a politicized polemic. There is a sense of risk that goes beyond mere crudeness. It is also hardly the only movie about a group of actors getting too into their characters or learning about history through taking part in a historical production. And while some of the discussions about history can come across as forced or cheesy (particularly in one scene), they are usually undercut or subverted with discussions about the present. The actual transition comes late in the movie and goes far beyond the actual making of the docudrama.
The decision to center much of the first part of the movie on a White English woman was an interesting decision. I suppose that the reasoning was twofold. The first was to give the story a bit of outsiderâ€™s legitimacy. It is one thing for Indians to talk about Indian patriotism: it is another to have the main source of encouragement come from an outsider. That that person is White AND English was probably deliberate. That actress Alice Patten is the daughter of the last British governor of Hong Kong may have been a coincidence and completely irrelevant to the story itself, but her direct connection to Britainâ€™s Colonial government is still notable. In addition to the outsiderâ€™s legitimacy is the outsiderâ€™s ignorance. There are several characters in the film who have patriotic sentiments from the beginning and are perfectly willing to argue with the cynics (although Laxman seems oddly silent during some of these debates), but Sue comes at these discussion as someone who cannot believe that they are necessary to have in the first place. She had some idealistic image of India that none of the others had. Perhaps all that she knew of India were these Revolutionaries and Sonia. Sonia might have known that there had been three movies about Bhagat Singh that bombed in 2002, but maybe Sue would not have known about that. And while Sonia is always supportive of Sue and the project, no one is more passionate about bringing to life the story of these Revolutionaries than Sue. Why? Why would she devote over two years to this?
The movie does not go very deep into Sueâ€™s life despite her being the main character for much of the movie. We learn that her father was in the armed forces, just like her grandfather. That is pretty much it. The rest is mostly her trying to make the movie, bonding with her new friends, and reading her grandfatherâ€™s diary. There are several possibilities. Perhaps she was just really interested in the subject matter. Or maybe she was trying to use the movie to exorcise the demons that had tormented her grandfather. Or maybe she was trying to make up for what she may have seen as the crimes that her grandfather had seen and committed by commemorating those whose blood is on the hands of her blood. As for her grandfather, the movie does not really talk about James very much. The movie shows him struggling with his duties in interrogating the prisoners, ordering their torture, and having them executed. There is one scene in particular where he practically breaks down from guilt and grief. Yet, most of what Sue reads from his journal focuses more on narrating the actions of those who would become his prisoners, not on his own feelings towards his duties. Things can be inferred from the acting, though we should not go overboard.
There are only a few Asian movies with White actors who perform well. This movie has two of them. Again, neither Alice Patten as Sue or Steven Mackintosh as James would have won Oscars for this movie, but I thought that they did far beyond what would be expected. Whatever the script lacked in terms of their characters, they made up for in turning them into actual people. Sue is driven and determined, but not cold or hardened. James is loyal and dutiful, but haunted by what he sees around him and what his duties force him to do. Steven Mackintosh, whom you probably have seen in at least two things, may not necessarily have a lot of screen time of voice time compared with the rest of the main characters, but he certainly makes the most of it, subtly and sincerely.
Actually, it is somewhat unclear whether Steven Mackintosh is portraying James or if he is portraying an actor in Sueâ€™s film. We never see him outside of the flashbacks, so it is implied that he really is her grandfather. On the other hand, the characters of the Revolutionaries are played by the same actors playing the college friends of 2006 even before Sue meets them. The movie shows the modern-day characters putting on costumes and donning facial hair of their counterparts, but never shows them shooting the film. There is a character without a name or any lines whom I assume is the cameraman, but could he really be behind all of those shots that we see of the movie within the movie? This gaping hole could be seen as a flaw, but I suspect that this ambiguity was completely deliberate. It could be that these flashbacks are all in Sueâ€™s mind and she was imagining people who somehow looked like Soniaâ€™s friends. Yet, sometimes the flashbacks transitions into the group watching playback of what they had filmed. So what was real and what was filmed? And how could they afford all of those props and background actors if funding was cut? Did Karan pay for the production costs? These questions are never quite answered and they were probably not meant to be, particularly as they become less and less relevant to the story being told. And viewers who get too hung up on that logical inconsistency might not notice the change in the story.
In 1872, a former German Revolutionary and American Senator named Carl Schurz was quoted as saying â€œMy country, right or wrong.â€ I had heard this line many times when I was a child, and it was not until I was much older that I found out that the words that immediately followed them were â€œif right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.â€ That is what Rang De Basanti is about: the desire to change what is wrong about ourselves and our society so that what is right can flourish. This movie is not necessarily for everyone. In fact, the person who had originally recommended it to me had refused to watch it herself, due to some somewhat controversial takes on the subject matter. I am not sure if the movie was really supposed to inspire the audience to imitate the characters exactly, but I am pretty sure that it was supposed to make them try to do something about what they see happening to their country. The movie is not necessarily about whether the Revolutionaries were right or whether the actors were right, but whether the people in the audience are willing to do what they believe is right. And it worked. India is hardly perfect eight years later, far from it. But it has the potential to slowly get closer and closer.
Next Time: Ong Bak: Muy Thai Warrior (Thailand: 2003, approx. 105 minutes).
Time After Next: Cure (Japan: 1997, approx. 110 minutes).