Friday, January 27, 2006

Rang De Basanti 

These days, if a film has a message and purpose, it deserves some kudos—even if, like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s latest Rang De Basanti, the end product turns out to be a well made but muddle-headed mess.

Taking inspiration—inadvertent though it may be—from films like Hindustani, Dil Chahta Hai, Yuva and Lakshya, Mehra fashions a 17-reel ode to how young people can be useful to the Motherland! Noble intentions then, goading the beer-guzzing, lukkhas of Delhi to arouse their patriotic genes and ‘do something’; unfortunately that ‘something’ is not just dangerous, it’s counterproductive. Then, he justifies this unthinking populism by saying that if Bhagat Singh could kill for the country, so can you, young man! But even in a flawed democracy, violence cannot be offered as a solution to corruption or any other public misdemeanour.

That apart, Rang De Basanti has several other problems, the frequent shifts to the sepia-tinted Bhagat Singh footage is one—at least Indian audiences are familiar with the story of the young revolutionaries from text books, TV, documentaries and five feature films. Using Bhagat Singh as a catalyst for the awakening of a dormant conscience is pointless. The boys in the story could be affected by the death of their friend and the subsequent cover-up by higher-ups without this fake goading from history.

To summarize the plot, Sue (Alice Patten) motivated by the diaries of her grandfather who had seen Bhagat, Azad, Rajguru and their band of freedom fighters suffer in jail and die smiling, comes to India to shoot a documentary on them. Even when her bosses nix the project, she decides to do in on her own (how does she raise funds for the lavish period recreation?).

Her Indian contact Sonia (Soha Ali Khan), introduces her to DJ (Aamir Khan) and gang, whom she immediately casts in the film. Poor little rich boy Karan (Siddharth) as Bhagat, DJ as Azad, girl-crazy Sukhi (Sharman Joshi) as Rajguru, angst-ridden Aslam (Karan Kapoor) as Ashfaque Khan, Sonia as Durga; a Bajrang Dal type Laxman Pande (Atul Kulkarni) muscles into the role of Bismil. That done, they fool about some more, Pande and Aslam glare daggers at each other, and the film keeps cutting to footage of Sue’s documentary (it looks more like a feature!).

It’s well into the second half when Mehra finally comes to the point, and Rang De Basanti becomes a different film. Enthused by the spirit of the revolutionaries they have portrayed, the overgrown ‘Boys’ take on the corrupt government that caused the death of Sonia’s fiancée (Madhavan), the earnest and patriotic fighter pilot Ajay Rathore. (This bit is inspired by real life incidents of pilots being killed in faulty MIGs planes). But in the days of aggressive TV news reporting, why would they choose a radio station to convey their message?

The story progresses in a slow, jerky fashion, with very little attention to character development, but taking little unscheduled stops at DJ’s mother’s (Kirron Kher) dhaba, Pande’s party office, Aslam’s cloistered house with father (Om Puri, wasted) and older brother demanding why he has Hindu friends, Rathore’s home with strong mother (Waheeda Rehman) talking of what it’s like being an army wife. None of which add anything to our understanding of the Boys.

Perhaps, the film has also come a little too late—India today has a booming economy, young people are very focused, and unworthy politicians have been thrown out via the electoral process. Of course, there is a huge class of underprivileged poor, but that problem tacked in Swades and Shikhar is not an issue here.

If at all, the film is saved by the technical finesse, a couple of Rahman’s songs and the performances—Aamir Khan, with perfect Delhi lout accent, living the role of a boisterous but insecure bloke; Atul Kulkarni radiating intensity, Karan Kapoor and Siddharth mirroring the confusion of youth.


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