Celebrating 11 Years Of Rang De Basanti

When Rang De Basanti opened on Jan 26, 2006 I was in a theatre in Patna watching a very fidgety, very confused audience reacting as we all to unfamiliar experiences, with embarrassment and heckling.

The film adopted a unique format to tell the story of a freedom  that we all have taken for granted . The entire film unfolds through the eyes of a  young British documentary maker Sue(Alice Patten) in India to shoot  a documentary on the Freedom Struggle. The film in two time zones. In the past , with Aamir Khan cast as Chandrashekar Azad,the Tamil star Siddharth as Bhagat Singh, Atul  Kulkarni as Ramprasad Bismil, Kunal Kapoor as Ashfaqullah Khan and Sharman Joshi as Rajguru. The same actors were also seen in contemporary times grappling with the grammar of socio-political corruption.

On release I was stunned by director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s audacity and creative energy. I knew I was watching a film that would create history. But  I also felt, wrongly, that it would be a boxoffice  disaster. As usual I underestimated the power of the Indian audience to absorb and assimilate unique cinematic experiences.

 I remember speaking to Rakeysh(now a dear afriend) after watching this landmark of a motion picture. Rakeysh was confident of the impact his film would make on the audience.

Looking back he says, “Rang De Basanti(RDB)  is  a younger film. But I  didn’t consciously choose a subject that would be more accessible to audiences than my first film Aks.  I knew I had to make this film. Since Aks my storytelling technique had improved. You learn  from your past mistakes and  new experiences.    This time I had the luxury  of living with my script for four years.  So many people  joined me on the journey that was  Rang De Basanti. It was no  longer my film. When it released  it  became  the audiences’ film.”

Looking back at  RDB, I am struck by how effective the entire cast is, and how miscast Aamir Khan was as the college brat. In fact he was so over-age for the part that the director had to write in a dialogue explaining why his character DJ chooses to hang on to his campus days long after he has crossed his student days.

RDB came when  patriotism was passé. There were 4-5 Bhagat Singh films that didn’t connect with the audience. Then there was Aamir Khan a disaster Mangal Pandey. So any sign of patriotism  in an Aamir Khan starrer  read as a  danger sign.

Rakeysh was determined to make the film. He explains , “It’s a  collection  of many circumstances. In school I wanted to join the air force.  It didn’t work out for me. In college in Delhi  I was predominantly  a sportsman. It didn’t work out because  I was from a lower middle-class family. And the first priority was to bring money back into the family….As kids in Delhi  on August 15 when we flew kites, we could hear India Gandhi speaking…On the other side there were the patriotic songs on the loudspeaker….Ae mere watan, Mere desh ki dharti…We were looking at  the idea of our country through  a kite….Films like Mother India, Do Bigha Zameen, Naya Daur which came  on tv , touched all of us.  This  was the era  when escapism hadn’t seeped into cinema  or real life. That was the era I wanted to re-capture in RDB.”

Seven years ago even before his first film  Aks Rakeysh wanted to make a film called  Awaaz. There are shades ofAwaaz  in Rang De Basant.

Recalls Rakeysh, “Awaaz was about  a  bunch of  boys working in a garage,  the haves and have-nots.  I wanted to make  it with Abhishek Bachchan.  Then  I wanted to make a film on the life of the revolutionaries. What I didn’t want to do was to shoot them with halos ….I wanted to shoot them as normal youngsters . I wanted to call it The Young Guns Of India.”

   Initially Rakeysh wanted to make a film on the life of Bhagat Singh. Then the race for Bhagat Singh films started. Several of Bhagat Singh bio-pics hit theatres one after another.

Recalls Rakeysh, “Initially I wanted to enter the race. Then I realized we were all insulting his memory. Attention was diverted by who would get into theatres first. I moved on….I did a focus group  in Delhi and Mumbai. I took a new story idea to youngsters between 17 and 23.  Our survey showed that for our generation a relationship meant, ‘Let’s get married and make babies together.’ Not to this  generation. The  youngsters we spoke to were driven by ambition. And  I  didn’t even know how to get on the internet!  .Anyway, we then moved into surveying them about the country and  the tri-colour. The borders of patriotism had   blurred. Pagdi sambhal jatta  was no more relevant. Not too many kids knew who Chandrashekhar Azad was.I told my writer Kamlesh Pandey there was no point in making a  film about the freedom fighters. He insisted , reminded me  of  the passion that Manoj Kumar’s films used to incite. But that  was a different era.”

 This , says Rakeysh, was when RDB  born. “I sadly abandoned the original idea and hit on another idea of a  British documentary filmmaker coming to  India to make a film   on the Indian armed revolution. She finds kids  who are more western than her.  Two lines… the past and present run together. They intersect. There’re sparks.   Then  the rooftop scene where the line between past and present blurs when Soha Ali Khan asks her friends to kill the raksha mantri….Suddenly the original idea was replaced by this new idea.”

 RD cost 25 crores to make. Everything   except  the  jail scenes was  shot on location

  Rakesh is all praise for his cast. “Aamir didn’t  dominate the film. And yet he has brought in  everything require.The whole Punjabi accent for his Mona-Sardar character was his idea.  There was an attraction between Siddharth’s  and Soha’s characters. We couldn’t bring it into the forefront because  of lack of space.  In any case love stories don’t have to have a happy ending. Today’s generation is very mature about love and its end.”

 The film controversial ending where our heroes gun down corrupt politicians has been perceived as fascist.

Rationalizes Rakeysh, “Every story  has to follow its own course. When heroes in a mythology enter  the caves to fight the demons , they’ve to  perish. Mani Rathnam’s Yuva didn’t work  for me after  the heroes went into the parliament….What jolted the audience is, they love my heroes and they don’t want them to die. Too bad. You love and lose the best people in your lives. It isn’t a heroic but a poetic ending.  But they become heroes because they die. What I’m trying to say is, we got independence from the goras. But we got enslaved  by our own.  Now we’re killing each other. You’re from Bihar. You know what I mean. There can be  no neat solution to the problems we face.  Rang De Basanti  is  a conversation  with the masses.”

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