Directed by: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra || Produced by: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Ronnie Screwvala, Aamir Khan
Screenplay by: Renzil D’Silva, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra || Starring: Aamir Khan, Siddarth Narayan, Sharman Joshi, Soha Ali Khan, Waheeda Rehman, R. Madhavan, Kunal Kappor, Atul Kulkarni, Alice Patten
Music by: A.R. Rahman || Cinematography: Binod Pradhan || Editing by: P.S. Bharathi || Country: India || Language: English, Hindi, Punjabi
Running Time: 157 minutes
Watching films with patriotic to nationalist overtones is an interesting experience as a foreigner. It gives one a new perspective on the concepts of patriotism and national duty, and often causes one to more deeply reflect upon their own patriotic values. For instance, in watching the uber-patriotic, super-passionate cricket sports-movie/historical drama, Lagaan (2001), not only did I catch a glimpse of India’s national obsession with cricket, but I also absorbed a sense of the state’s pride in their national independence.
Rang De Basanti (RDB) is an Indian drama that channels many of these national pride sentiments, albeit in a much less straightforward way. Its main story elements concern the juxtaposition and comparison between a young group of modern college students and a ragtag team of Indian revolutionaries who fought for their country’s independence in the early 20th century. The story follows an impressionable young British journalist, Alice Patten, who becomes inspired to film a movie about said revolutionaries upon researching the historical accounts of her grandfather, who served as a British officer in colonial India. Once in India, she casts a group of Indian friends as the freedom-fighters detailed in her grandfather’s journal. Over the course of said movie’s production, the college students become inspired by their historical roles in the movie, changing from carefree, disinterested young adults to engaged, passionate activists willing to go to extreme measures to initiate change in their home country.
The change from those carefree, apolitical young adults to violent neo-revolutionaries is RDB’s primary story arc. Aamir Khan develops a romantic interest in Patten’s British, India-obsessed journalist, but the romantic subplot doesn’t go anywhere. Everything in the plot’s background is consumed by the sudden breathless increase in pacing that sees the young Indian students metamorphose into violent freedom-fighters (… terrorists?) hellbent on seeking political reform at any cost. One thing you can’t hold against RDB is the absence of any noticeable character development, as the status of the cast’s life-goals changes drastically from opening to closing credits.
What you can pick apart is the believability of the whole affair. The fact that researching a group of early 20th century Indian revolutionaries leaves an impression on the cast and makes them reflect upon their place in society is interesting, but the absurdly violent and extreme measures the characters take in the last third of the movie tests the boundaries of credulity and any sane audience’s suspension of disbelief. Ordinary, everyday characters assassinating a corrupt elected official, one character murdering his own father in cold blood, and those same characters holding up a radio station only to be brutally gunned down by their own military, are sequences so absurd and bizarre I found myself laughing out loud. These sequences feel preachy and forced, rather than intense or emotional. RDB’s entire third act feels so over-the-top and its characters’ actions and motivations so incredulous they distract from any meaningful political commentary the movie tries to make.
As for all the action prior to the political activism… well, there isn’t much of it. Most of the first 90 minutes details the budding friendships among the Indian students and their British filmmaker. Most come from differing familial and religious backgrounds, and they find common ground in the subject-matter they’re filming by the midpoint of the movie. This development is nice, but overall the film moves slow for its first half until the death of a key character, after which the story randomly descends into anarchy and ultraviolence. The lack of any official musical numbers hurts the film in this regard as well. A. R. Rahman’s music is varied and appealing, but without any full-fledged dance sequences to take advantage of them, the score feels like a lost opportunity. Additionally, the jarring transitions between the initially carefree film-students and the intense historical flashback sequences jumble the movie’s tone. These historical scenes are also plagued by an ugly green color-correction that makes every flashback sequence look like someone vomited on the camera.
The film’s endless reverence for its revolutionary heroes and unquestioned acceptance of their actions grow tiresome. Hardly anyone pauses to question the extreme measures taken by the group in the film’s last half hour. Nothing here is in shades of grey, but rather in stark contrasts of black and white, and this lack of depth makes the actions taken by Khan and Co. less interesting than they could be.
With all that said, Khan does give a good performance as the ringleader of the group of truth-seekers. As a matter of fact, everyone in the ensemble cast acts well, keeping things emotional without becoming cartoony caricatures. There is no Shah Rukh Khan/Salman Khan-esque overacting here. If it were not for the bizarre and unrealistic murderous streaks on which these characters embark in Act Three, I would say that all of them feel relatable.
I have no problem with RDB channeling strong patriotic-activist morals in its story, but I do have a beef with the one-dimensional and heavy-handed techniques it uses to display that patriotism. Part of what made a film like Lagaan (2001) much more watchable was how that movie never took itself too seriously. It was a big, loud, fun sports-movie that portrayed its British antagonists as interesting characters. There were some hokey, “go India!” fist-pumping and chest-bumping, yes, but none of it was ever too serious or over-the-top. RDB, on the other hand, drowns in its portentous self-seriousness, coming across like a close-minded nationalist rather than a heartfelt, patriotic activist. I have a hard time believing most Indians could swallow this preachy, self-serious nonsense with a straight face, let alone those beyond South Asia.
In the end, I wish Rang De Basanti had handled its patriotic themes with more care and precision than what is shown in the final product. It’s not quite the pathetic, lazy attempt that Act of Valor (2012) was, but it’s close. I know Mehra had a deep theme he was trying to convey, but he didn’t strike the right thematic or tonal balance by a long shot. Movies like Rang De Basanti and documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) get off on overblown hype due to their supposed “complex” sociopolitical analysis and “daring” style, but when all is said and done, they’re just projects that take themselves way too seriously. I wanted to like Rang De Basanti, but I just couldn’t.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Rang de Basanti’s unending, shallow reverence for its screenplay’s nationalist themes grows tiresome well before the finale. The story is a bizarre tonal mishmash of lighthearted coming-of-age comedy, hardcore violent crime drama, and cynical political commentary. Alice Patten is an incoherent, uninteresting protagonist, and the rest of the characters are self-righteous, nonsensical wackos.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
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