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 saw these unfamiliar experiences, with embarrassment and heckling.
The film adopted a unique format to tell the story of 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 had 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 box-office 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 friend) 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’s 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 the 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 of Awaaz in Rang De Basanti.
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 was 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.”
RDB 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 required. 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’s 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 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.”