“I always believed there were two kinds of men in this world, men who go to their deaths screaming, and men who go to their deaths in silence. Then I met a third kind.”
In a mela in some corner of Punjab, a crowd of villagers surrounds a circle. A huge wrestler is challenging civilians for a fight. DJ’s friends raise his hand up as a joke. He is in the ring and is somehow escaping the demon’s grasps – just until he gets him. DJ is lifted and thrown back to his friends. Outraged, now the entire group is a part of the fight. They take the demon down. The crowd wins.
This is how the chorus of Rang De Basanti’s theme song unfolds. I first watched the movie in a theatre in April of 2006. For fourteen years, my love escalated and my viewings elevated. This was one of the many pieces of cinema I was addicted to. But like most things you grow up with, you don’t know how to look at them with a different perspective. Every first thought normalizes with time to become a fact; such you even forget you gave birth to it. The same was the case with RDB, as kids around me would call it at that time.
However, things change. You learn, and more importantly, you unlearn. I learned new meanings. And I unlearned that some things don’t have one. I learned that the wrestling scene in the theme song was the entire movie. A bigger evil – who had been established as too big to be taken down – was challenged by one man alone. He lost, but his loss sparked a revolution. Soon, the good trumps the evil. Nothing is ever too big, sacrifices are a way of life and Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra respects the capacity of its audience and the permanence of changing times. This realization changed everything. Maybe I had been overthinking and it was just a funny scene placed right in the middle of the theme song. Maybe. But that’s what we do. We – who admire art. Everything in the frame was my muse. Rang De Basanti asked to be watched again.
We observe RDB’s Delhi through Sue McKinley who intends to make a movie on Indian freedom movement revolutionaries inspired by his grandfather’s diary (once a ranked officer in British India). She is our eyes, our ears, and our hearts – as she observes winds of change similar to those narrated in that dairy. We see DJ, Sukhi, Karan, Aslam, and later on Laxman – all as entities of a modern time. Each with their self-made ideology, or uniquely lack of it. They individually and better together – reflected an entire generation. A part of Mehra’s skill was how comfortable it made you feel. Protected – as an institution would. Their group was the institution. Together, bike stunts and falling into lakes all resembled the riskiest tricks of the easiest chapter of the book. Azad, Rajguru, Bhagat, Ashfaq, and Bismil were the milestones. The transitions were elementary – fast music, diagonal shots, sepia and out of context. That trick was there to be seen and everyone aware of the events around 1919 knew what was transpiring.
The tragedy that served as the purpose in these young men’s lives paralleled the Jallianwallah Bagh incident. The police battering at India Gate paralleled the British retaliation to ‘Simon Go Back’. Ajay’s mother’s coma contrasted Lala Lajpat Rai’s death – both pivotal points in the decision of violent retaliation. A statement needed to be made. The killing of the Defence Minister paralleled the parliament attack. Mirroring was key for Mehra, but the identification of the reasons for its provocation was the movie. That was it.
For the group, their ideologies had shifted and a heart had been awakened. It prompted the movie to be thought of as a portrayal of generational existentialism or prolonged realizations. But it was more. Rang De Basanti took you back to their lives after *that* realization. There were hints all along. Ideas of youth flowered and cross-fed. Under all his charm and confidence, DJ hated his guts for their failure at accepting a world outside college. His mother remarked “Waise bhi Punjab mein toh har maa, apne jawaan bete ko fauj bhejti aayi hai. Main kyun peeche hatun? Peeche hatega toh DJ tumhara.” It was ironic, considering the no questions asked freedom DJ had. It seemed like years ago a decision had already been made. A younger DJ probably told his mother about his wish to go and live a college life out of the famed Delhi University. His mother just smiled. And now, he was here longer than anyone else ever had. For Bebo, she had, in retrospect, lived to the promise of every Punjabi mother. Her son was that famous soldier in the army who kept the camp’s morale high. One who knew better, or dash and of dare, and who just couldn’t convince himself to go back to civilian life. University was his army, his friends were his comrades. All he needed was his war, and when he got it – he was the last to go out.
Sukhi remained in the shadows. The funny one, the one who feared dying a virgin and the one without a plan. The dangerous thing about Sukhi was he had an option. Right before walking into the confession, DJ said to him “Kake, samjha kar. Ab toh aar ya paar.”, to which he replied “Waise bhi bina tumhare na mera na aar hai na paar hai“. Mehra identified that not everyone understands political spectrums, ideation or poetry in protests. Some just know their friend died and want to cry about it. Sukhi didn’t seek revenge for redemption, he cared for the group like kids care for their parents after their grandparents die. He cared and that was his only reason for action. Fittingly, he was the only of the original group whose family wasn’t shown. Sukhi was born because there was a group.
The most peculiar case though was of Karan. He, despite all those capitalistic resources and power – could never buy a leather jacket better than Ajay. He, despite being around all the time could never get Sonia. Somewhere when Ajay left for his duty, his permission for Karan to take care of his jacket seemed like a last message. Ajay knew where he might be headed and Karan’s love for Sonia was so obvious – it needed no words, songs, eye contacts, or goodbyes. It was prominent like a cigarette. And Karan loved smoking. Mehra placed frames so obvious, he later even admitted of the sub-plot. Of all the things that lived a little more after dying in Rang De Basanti, his love was the most real, and still the least tragic.
The rebel in Aslam would advocate for the sovereignly secure state in front of his family and yet fight with a Hindu political worker every day. The friend in him would sacrifice and die. The poet in him managed to live. Laxman switched sides but remained himself – an exception. His taunting with Aslam would turn to a bromance and eventually to them dying holding hands. If looked at closely, appear to be saying their last few words to each other. It is extremely subtle, and the music silences their words. Is there a subplot? Am I ruining a movie or being too woke when there is no need to? That’s what Mehra probably felt. And hence, he left hints for those who looked. Looked, not listened.
Like all chapters of replicated reality, Rang De Basanti ends unfairly. Crushingly. A tragedy. Five friends hugging each other in the office of a radio station as they have just won an ugly war with now the most humane element of all – a clear conscience. They expect prison, and they get killed. DJ hilariously remarks “beer-sheer sab band” – a testament to how the events transpired have changed their lives forever. The war won came at a cost, but more importantly, they aren’t scared anymore. They are the system.
For all its lalkars, Rang De Basanti, eventually, whispered. It told us that tipping points hadn’t disappeared in the last hundred years, just that our normalization had dominated. Somewhere in our identities still lay boundaries, margins, borders and limits, across which normalcy couldn’t be retained. For Bhagat, Ashfaq, Rajguru, Bismil and Azad , it was their realization of freedom in a country everyone identified with the absence of it. For Karan, Aslam, Sukhi, Laxman and DJ, it was about recognizing there was a freedom to be won. Their smiles in Roobaroo answered their existentialism.
The movie starts with the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his comrades. It’s narration, as we discover, is through Sue’s grandfather’s diary as she reads it on her couch. For years, I thought she fell asleep reading it. But being at a protest for a freedom our youth recently realized needed to be won, I had a realization. Sue didn’t just sleep, words gave her a space to dream. Her eyes close. The book falls. The movie begins.