Home > Movie Reviews > “This day, we walk along with death, and laugh at its pale spectre.” – On improperly placed optimism in “Rang de Basanti”

“This day, we walk along with death, and laugh at its pale spectre.” – On improperly placed optimism in “Rang de Basanti”

The only movie I watched during my seasonal hiatus from A&O was “Rang de Basanti,” which translates approximately as “Color of Sacrifice.”  It’s a very interesting movie, one that I went into knowing nearly nothing about the plot and actors.  The movie is split into two halves, with an intermission; the first half the movie was lovely, introducing us to the characters’ personalities and lifestyles, while in the second half of the movie, the tone took an abrupt turn for the darker.  I’d like to discuss the film in full, especially the climax, which is what bothered me the most, and so apologies in advance.  I heartily recommend the film, and am eager to discuss what I feel to be an unsatisfying and unrealistic end to what could have been a very successful film with an important political message for young moviegoers.  (So go and watch it, and then come back for the review!)

Sue is a young British filmmaker whose grandfather was a military officer in India during the Indian Independence Movement.  She travels to India to film a documentary about five freedom fighters, eventually making friends with five young students who at first, seem like they couldn’t be farther in personality and values from the men they have been hired to portray.  DJ, Karan, Aslam, Sukhi, and Sonia are young and restless, spending nights dancing and drinking, yet Sue sees potential in them.  Laxman, the fifth actor, is a political party activitist who also joins up, and is much more serious than the rest of them.  The film introduces us to the friends, and we see both love and tension within the group – Sue and DJ fall in love, Sonia and Ajay get engaged, Laxman and Aslam hate each other for their different religious beliefs.  It’s great fun to watch the friendship develop, and to see the boys finally get into their roles.  The film’s intermission comes after a beautiful moment at an archaeological site, Jaipur Fort.

In the second half of the film, Ajay dies in an airplane crash, sacrificing himself to steer the plane away from a city, saving thousands of citizens.  The government and media attempts to paint him as an incompetent pilot, when it is supposedly due to corrupt officials buying damaged airplane parts in order to generate a higher profit margin for themselves.  The group of students hold a public protest because of this, and riot ensues when the police come to shut things down.  The film handles this much well, and we as the audience can slowly see the way acting as revolutionaries will change the way the five boys think.

There is a moving scene when the boys confer, and their conversation almost exactly echoes a scene that they had acted out.  One revolutionary claims that the only way they can be listened to is through violence, another immediately jumps in with plans for weapons, and another adds to the plan – this escalation is similarly brought to life in the present day, as DJ, Karan, Aslam, Sukhi, and Laxman actually shoot and kill the defense minister.  Of course, this backfires when the defense minister is raised as a martyr by the media and government.  Here, the realism of the film ends, and I almost wish the film had as well.

There’s a fine balance between teaching the audience and inspiring the audience.  “Rang de Basanti,” up until this point, actively inspires through the small lens on these students.  What happens next ruins the movie: the students hijack a radio station and broadcast their story while being gunned down by armed troops, and following their deaths, are called heroes for bringing light to a corrupt government.  In this, the movie’s biggest mistake, all of the buildup becomes worthless.  Why wouldn’t the troops simply jam the broadcast frequency through which the students were telling their stories?  By letting the students’ story get heard in this dramatic manner, the director and writers of the movie have given up their previously admirable goal.  While it’s a tragedy that such young students have died, following the young revolutionaries they grew to admire, they got what they wanted: their message about government corruption has been heard and heeded by the public.  Could it really be so easy?  And is violence truly the answer?

The movie is strongest when building up the characters of the students: at first, they are nonchalant and apathetic about the world they live in.  Their attitude is, “how can we change things?” and it changes gradually to an interested, proactive one.  There are cute little snippets throughout the first half of the movie – at one point, DJ, not realizing Sue can speak Hindi, calls her his future wife, after which Sue shocks him by asking for his mother’s blessing in Hindi.  In another scene, the students poke fun at Ajay’s patriotism; as an air force pilot, he is the only truly active member of the group.  They carry him on their shoulders, in a (perhaps too-obvious) foreshadowing of how soldiers will carry his funeral casket home.  There are quite a few stiff moments in the beginning, which make me feel like Sue and Sonia are rather untalented actresses; everything gets better once the five boys enter the picture though, buffering the forced feeling with their charisma and goofiness.

I think my frustration with this movie should be clear by now.  Why would filmmakers waste such great potential and strong characters on a flimsy, Hollywood (or should I say Bollywood?) ending?  Even more frustrating, it seems like audiences and critics are soaking the film up – it has an 80/94% on Rotten Tomatoes.  How irresponsible it is, to merge such a strong beginning with a neat, happy ending; if the directors knew the ending were going to be so unrealistic, they should not have wasted our time trying to make emotions seem genuine!  In my opinion, it’s better to dive fully into the fantastic and take no such false premises about it; even literal time travel would have been better than the poorly edited overlays of modern boy next to historical revolutionary.  (I almost want to go so far as to call this movie disrespectful, to call its optimistic ending  defiling to the memory of the original revolutionaries who actually gave up their lives for a cause they believed in.  But I want people to watch this movie so they can discuss it with me!)

Overall, “Rang de Basanti” is a tragedy – a strong set of characters with intriguing parallels and an extremely strong setup with a cop-out ending.

I look forward to hearing what you think.

Best regards,

Apple

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