The 56th celebration of the enactment of the Indian constitution was marked by the release of the riveting, often-discussed, celebrated drama film ‘Rang De Basanti’ (RDB). In the 4 months leading up to the release, the marketing team of the film did an incredible job in order to attract the populace, especially the youth towards the film. No wonder the film had a massive opening with an enormous youth turnout, flocking enthusiastically in theatres. In a regular Bollywood movie, the production team normally spends 5% of their budget on the movie’s marketing process. The team of RDB determinedly spent a booming 40% of the budget on marketing, which makes it abundantly clear that the social context at the time of release and the message of a revolutionist bent of nationalism were activities in promulgation as much as film-making.
Today, it has been a decade to the film’s release. Over these years, many of us, the youth, have claimed its message as our inspiration to facilitate change. Although one may argue, it is an inspiration claimed far more often than it is understood. The question then arises, did RDB empower or emasculate? Taking this query into account, this article will debate realism in cinema, and will also ascertain if it was a requisite element in RDB. The filmmakers illuminated the lives of the HSRA revolutionists on celluloid with an ambitious attempt to relate their struggles with the contemporary as recourse for the vices of our polity. But romanticized caricatures of modern day heroes exemplifying an accentuated typology of nationalism often transcend the cinema halls and make their way into the deification of the common man. This article extends the thesis developed on ‘RDB and Realism’ by Meghna Dilip in 2008. With RDB’s help, the article will also try to guide its readers towards the unrecognized and realistic genre of Indian films which provide a more scrupulous study of contemporary societal problems and a far more veracious source of inspiration.
Before the article amplifies on the unnecessary glorification added to the screenplay, it would be apt to have a plot summarization. A British filmmaker, Sue Mckinley, flies to India with an unbreakable urge to shoot a historical film on the HSRA revolutionists - Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, and Rajguru, who were actually filmed with prime focus. She could sympathize with the historical freedom fighters better than anyone of her nationality because she could live in the pages of her grandfather’s diary. Her grandfather had witnessed the indomitable, fiery lives of the HSRA freedom fighters as a jailor in British India. As she is auditioning Delhi University’s students for the roles in her film with her friend’s support, we get an overview of the extant youth of our country – melodramatic, clueless, and ostentatiously patriotic. Eventually, Sue finds her characters surprisingly among a bunch of larrikins rather than among youngsters well-versed with the freedom struggle, or among those who have the capability to work for the nation’s progress with a passion they need not reinvent in themselves. It turned out to be quite the opposite with the finalized cast (the main actors of RDB). They did not possess any traits or characteristics of the roles they were about to play, (with the exception of one person) which seemed unlikely at first but compliant later. Our main cast, with whom we could relate easily, was pessimistic about our nation’s progress, and thus was apathetic towards the spoils of success. No wonder they are a group, irregular college students and mere merrymakers of their empty present. Nevertheless, they exercised themselves accordingly to get themselves into the skins of the characters which could swimmingly be accomplished in a short period. In the second half of the film, we find our friends fixed and confused at a turning point that their lives have taken where they meet the death of their beloved friend who sacrificed his life while operating the faulty MiG-21 fighter-plane. Here the film enlightens upon us the perverted treatment of the crucial MiG-21 jets which cost the lives of many pilots. Our protagonists, now raged with the disservice done to their lost friend, find the assassination of the corrupt defense minister as the only way for atonement. They zero in on this decision, inspired by the revolutionary attitude they managed to build in themselves whilst working for Sue’s film. This is the most memorable scene of the movie where we see the transition of our friends in the present with the respective revolutionist’s character they exhibit in the past. They kill the defense minister. And then to my great disappointment, they hijack a radio station to voice their opinion about the corruption that they witnessed and dealt with. No sooner do they announce themselves as the murderers of the defense minister and more clearly as students and not terrorists that the commando forces (whom we generally see at work in a war) rush to the station and shoot our friends at sight. The main characters, and finally everyone, go against the ostensibly prejudiced legal system. In a film released on the day when we pay ode to the formation of our constitution, this seemed rather counter-intuitive.
REALISM IN CINEMA
"While discussing the aesthetics of realism in cinema, a question assails us. Is cinema is a mirror image, or the representation of themes of the real world?" asks Williams in his book, Realism and the Cinema. Two groups of theories propagate the diverging opinions on cinema and reality (Dilip, 2008). The first group believes that the camera captures images of objects in real life and thus resembles empirical reality. The second group considers cinema as only the medium to represent reality in a hybrid form. It combines various art forms in its representation of the themes of the real world. Since its inception, movies have been made abiding by the principles from both these groups. Needless to say, RDB in its glamorous form tried to reach the youth following the second group’s concept. This is where we misinterpret. We love watching films of both the groups, but identifying a second group’s film with principles of the first is where we stake claim for an undue debt from the movie. In Bollywood, filmmakers have rarely made movies of the first group, but the audience has perceived many movies including RDB as films which utilized the principles of the first group, presumably due to the needless embellishment of characters (Williams, 1980). Bollywood audiences love reality presented in a stylistic package as they demand viewing experiences that are visually appealing, if not authentically hard-hitting.
THE PARALLEL CINEMA MOVEMENT
Shedding light upon realistic films made in our country, we date back to the 1950s when ‘The Parallel Cinema Movement’ or ‘The Indian New Wave’ was pioneered by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Adoor Gopalkrishnan to name a few (Sing, 2008). This movement made films on various social, and national topics, ‘the insecurities of youth’ being one of them. ‘The Calcutta Trilogy’ (1970-76) by Satyajit Ray is an example which emphasizes the socio-economic, political hardships of young and educated men with whom we can relate anytime regardless of the generation we live in. It is unsettling to compare films of the parallel movement with RDB, but we can take RDB as our guide to relate with those films. At the end of the day, they are the variations of the same theme.
Films on the inspirational ‘young guns of India’ have been made before. (Mahaan, 2010) Shaheed (1965) remains one such timeless movie. It was the first movie made on Bhagat Singh and it resorted to the principles of realism to shoot the film. Shot under the natural street lights and in realistic locations, the screenplay also had some inputs added by Batukeshwar Dutt who was a close aid of Bhagat Singh. All these highlighted raw authenticities. Sadly, none could recognize or relate with this masterpiece until ‘Rang De Basanti’. Neither did we preach Prem Dhawan’s patriotic song "O Mera Rang De Basanti Chola" penned in the movie, until a movie was made borrowing its title. This film assonated history with the frail present, and presented an unpalatable example of history repeating itself in its best dramatized form which we colloquially call ‘filmy’. Hence we effortlessly connected ourselves to the film as it was presented just like many other such social topics have been presented to us i.e. in a ‘filmy’, or in a stylized way.
THE EVERYDAY MAN
My basic problem with RDB and its immediate reactions is that I admire the movie too much to get utterly furious with its conclusion. I have always been discussing the movie with people on various notes. I went around preaching the films message until I met an everyday man. He epitomizes the working class of our nation who struggles daily in his work to make ends meet. While discussing RDB, he interrupted my soliloquy by claiming that the movie was an insult to the millions like him. He studied and graduated in engineering in our own country, and now works as an electrical engineer which implies that he took the responsibility of the electrical supply of the country upon his shoulders along with many everyday men. Hasn’t he been working for the betterment of the country with regard to his own passion? Doesn’t he ensure that everyone gets a space of light to conduct their own passionate activities in a developed world, where such needs are amenities and not privileges anymore? Doesn’t he spark the country and remind the world of our country’s progress? Aren’t there many like him in their own fields? Do they need to hijack radio stations? Aren’t they nationalists too?
Rakesh Omprakash Mehra researched for 7 years before he wrote Rang De Basanti. He decided to take a step where he would ultimately question the progress of our nation. But little did he look upon the progress that was already taking place, or had happened, or would steadily happen because there are no short cuts to success or to ‘perfection’ as clearly mentioned in his own movie. He illustrated the necessary steps that we require to reach perfection in his own view, by relating it to the steps that the revolutionists employed fearlessly. They helplessly put their revolutionary steps into use when the legal system was neither in their favour, nor was it constitutionally built. But in our own independent era, we certainly need not repeat the brave, revolutionary steps of the freedom fighters to make the independence that they gifted us go in vain. We made the constitution, and our legal system in their gifted independence which we may not expect to run smoothly, but we can definitely keep updating it with the guidance that the constitution itself gives. RDB definitely did not follow that, and hopped on the bandwagon effect of filmmaking in Bollywood where the makers have to embellish the characters as the only way to reach us. Finally, what remained powerful in the movie were the main actors and a handful of youth that had to be shown in the movie to build up the message. The message reached us, but the power did not. It had the chances of reaching us dangerously where every youth would get out and hijack the radio station each day, and thus would be a winner. Thankfully, it didn’t. Maybe Mehra himself never wanted to end it that way, but he wanted the message to be reached acutely which is: a drastic, everlasting change needs to be made in the bodies that run our country by every citizen, especially the youth in their own passionate ways. It may not be a change, but also a rectification that needs to be worked upon even if it may take time to be processed.
I still love the movie, and watch it often. The beautiful songs, the technical aspects of moviemaking, and some dialogues make my days and lift me to work toward our country’s betterment. RDB does that to me as much as other honest movies and the realist movies of the parallel movies made before do it to me. The everyday man would prefer movies that depict the real him.
Williams, C. 1980, Realism and the Cinema: A reader, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London
Dilip, M., 2008. Rang De Basanti - Consumption, Citizenship And The Public Sphere, s.l.: s.n.
Sing, B., 2008. Satyajit Ray's CALCUTTA TRILOGY - Pratidwandi (1970) / Seemabaddha (1972) / Jana Aranya (1976).
Mahaan, D., 2010. Shaheed (1965). The Hindu.
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