Tuesday, December 26, 2006

RANG DE BASANTI - a noble failure

RANG DE BASANTI is a brave and noble failure. Why brave? Because it is a Bollywood film that eschews materialistic escapism for a substantive discussion of contemporary Indian society. The film focuses on a bunch of University students in Delhi. They are part of the "new India" of middle-class affluence, IIT graduates and swankly jobs in MNCs. Apart from one of the group who is an Indian airforce pilot, the rest regard India as a "shit-hole", riddled by poverty, corruption and unemployment. What is shocking to a western eye is their nihilism: all they want is to graduate and leave the country and in the mean time get pissed and ride around on cool motorcycles. I have no idea whether this attitude really does reflect the thinking of India's metropolitan youth, but if so, it's a sad look-out for India.

This is presumably the thinking of writer-director Rakesh Omprakash Mehra. Into this mix he throws a young Britsh girl called Sue - a documentary-maker who has walked out of her job because she wants to make a film about something other than Gandhi. She goes to Delhi to produce an independent movie about Bhagat Singh - a legendary Indian freedom-fighter who died at the hands of the Raj. Initially she can't engage the Indian kids - they find that Bhagat Singh and his ilk have no relevance to their lives, and while they agree to act in her film it's basically because the gang-leader fancies her. Naturally, this being a three-hour Bollywood epic, being part of the movie awakens the kids political consciousness.

Now, I am all in favour of a Bollywood movie that tackles issues of contemporary Indian life head-on. But I can see why RANG DE BASANTI would ruffle feathers. It seems rather insulting that India's political conscience can only be awakened by an English woman - but perhaps that's what the director was aiming for. After all, the tone of the first hour of the film is rather dismissive of the crass materialism of metro kids.

But the bigger issue with RANG DE BASANTI is not that it advocates political engagement but the precise kind of political engagement that it advocates. In the final hour of the flick it becomes an altogether darker, more violent film, advocating short-circuiting established political systems for direct action of the most violent kind. I found this utterly alienating as a message and as depressing as the nihilism of the first half of the film.

Substance aside, RANG DE BASANTI has other problems. While condemning materialism on the one hand, the movie is photographed like a glossy commercial for a MNC - unsurprising given the director's experience. The actors are largely mis-cast. The English actress (daughter of
Fat Pang) playing the English documentary-maker has made a valiant attempt to learn Hindi but has a hopeless accent. Similarly, Aamir Khan (LAGAAN, THE BALLAD OF MANGAL PANDEY) who plays the lead male role, is at least ten years too old for the role, and struggles with his Punjabi accent too.

RANG DE BASANTI was released in January 2006 and is now available on DVD. It is India's official entry for the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars this year.

1 comment:

  1. Personally, I quite enjoyed the movie. Having said that, I can quite understand why it is possible for the last hour to be "utterly alienating."

    My quibble with your review is the sweeping statement of "largely mis-cast" actors, without actually specifying anything besides the accents of two actors. Expecting a British film-maker to have perfect Hindi diction would be un-natural, no? And you don't offer any evidence of Aamir Khan "struggling with his Punjabi accent."