One of the things that I have always loved about foreign cinema is that it opens me up to worlds and cultures that I will never experience first-hand. Great foreign cinema (A Separation, The White Ribbon, Stroszek) can edify me as much as it entertains me. I’m clearly not saying that all enjoyable foreign cinema must have cultural history inside it (Bergman and Fellini care little for that), but it’s always wonderful when it does. 2006’s Rang De Basanti is the first Indian/Bollywood film that I’ve reviewed for this blog, and I felt that I learned more from this film about modern Indian youth culture and India’s history than anybody possibly ever could from Slumdog Millionaire.
It is difficult to characterize Rang De Basanti in simple terms. Running at nearly three hours, Rang De Basanti is the type of multi-generational epic that went out of vogue in America around the time the Godfather films finished up. The film’s emotional core and even genre are just as hard to pin down as the film starts off as a coming of age dramedy that shoots unexpectedly into tragedy for the film’s last hour. The film has a grandness of ambition and purpose that exceeds the actual artistic merits of the film to the point where the film’s themes are subverted (I believe unintentionally) by an insane final act that lessens the ethical value of the film. Rang De Basanti has its flaws, but even despite them, it proved an immensely enjoyable movie.
An idealistic young British woman, Sue (Alice Patten), travels to India in order to shoot a historical film about India’s revolutionary movement in the 1920s against British rule. Sue finds the young stars of her film when her friend Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) introduces Sue to her group of college friends, including the charming DJ (Aamir Khan), the brooding Karan (Siddharth), the comic Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), and the pensive Aslam (Kunal Kapoor). The Western society-obsessed friends are cynical towards the state of modern India and have trouble relating to the martyred patriots at the center of Sue’s film, until tragedy in their own lives sparks a revolution in their own hearts.
I don’t want to say too much more about the film’s story because part of the pleasure of Rang De Basanti is watching the transformation this film takes. It’s not much of a stretch to say that until a pivotal event took the film into it’s final act, I was convinced that Rang De Basanti was a comedy about cultural diffusion and barriers with some light drama involved. The tone was so light and lively (and the musical numbers but more on that in a second) that when the film switches gears (and boy does it), I was left feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach by the sharp turns the story takes.
I may be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that Rang De Basanti is the first Bollywood film I’ve ever watched in my entire life. And, I’m sort of thankful for that because the moviei s a great fusion of Bollywood tropes (doomed romances, insane out of nowhere dance numbers) and more traditional Western storytelling which all fits within the film’s context of young Indian men rediscovering their sense of Indian nationalism. There’s a dance sequence interspersed with bits of historical tragedy from Sue’s film that is immediately followed by the tragic event that sets the films final act into motion, and while that may seem dizzying to American audiences, it seems to mesh within the Indian context of the film.
Ultimately, Rang De Basanti proves to be a film about corruption in the Indian government. When I was an RA, I had several friends from India and Pakistan (both from the Lahore region of the area), and either one was willing to readily educate me on the political corruption of their respective governments. And, Rang De Basanti‘s attempts to bring these issues to light is all well and good and very noble, but the film loses some of its moral authority on these tough issues when it has its heroes behave the way they do towards the end of the film. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but it’s certainly easy to say that the film finds itself muddled by the end.
Rang De Basanti is centered on a great cast with a natural chemistry, and the interactions between the young male stars reminded me of an Indian spin on classics like Diner. Aamir Khan and Kunal Kapoor really stole the show, and I’d like to see more from practically everyone in the cast though sadly not much Bollywood winds up on my list for this blog. I’ll draw this review to a close with this. Rang De Basanti may lose its footing by the film’s end, but if you can get past the thematic missteps in its closing moments, you’ll be rewarded with an intense and highly emotional look at Indian youth and the problems facing modern Indian society. For lovers of foreign cinema, I highly recommend it.
Final Score: B+