DJ and his friends laugh and dance as they sing a romantic Hindi film song announcing that DJ has fallen for Sue.

DJ teases Sue with a version of the film song “Chookar Mere Man Ko” (Having touched my heart). In the “remix” that he and his friends croon, the lyrics are changed to “Sue-kar mere man ko.”

The tape deck that opens the “Masti Ki Patshala” (School of Fun) song sequence.

The college students’ fun quickly ends when the tape deck is kicked down the steps and the music is shut down.

Enter Laxman Pandey, self-appointed keeper of national culture.

The centrality of All India Radio to national political awakening. This and several other shots foreground the technological apparatus that broadcasts the young men’s radical actions to the nation.

The FM radio show hosted by another college student, Rahul, becomes pivotal to Karan’s invocation of a national community on air.

Rahul’s “deejay remixes” music program is interrupted by Karan’s confession about how he and his friends killed the nation’s Defense Minister.

Ram Prasad Bismil’s poem “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna” is the inspiration for the oath in the “Lalkaar” (Clarion Call) sequence. The famous historical poem and Aamir Khan’s distinctive delivery recall other films and film songs about radical activism in early 20th century India.

RDB begins in the offices of World Vision, the production company that cut off funding for Sue’s film project.

All India Radio is the setting for the climax, marking a clear shift away from the colonizing “eye” of the West.

McKinley’s typology of masculinity, outlined in his diary.

DJ and Karan's final moments captured in a freeze frame. Their laughter continues on the soundtrack, suggesting that the past lives on in sound.

Sue and Sonia listen for traces of their friends and lovers’ laughter in the wind.


DJ, radio, and remixes

That RDB claims a special place for sound and music in its revised understanding of the past is clear in the name of its chief protagonist, DJ or Daljeet. The name DJ recalls a musical actor: a deejay, a disc jockey, a turntablist. While our hero is not strictly a musician, he loves songs. His constant quoting of Hindi film songs and the name he goes by link him to the world of sound and music. His name casts him as a music-maker, someone who manipulates and creatively (re)arranges music. DJ’s real first name, Daljeet, references his Punjabi lineage and upbringing, his ethnic and religious identity. But, like Sue, we do not find out that DJ is short for Daljeet until halfway into the movie.[15][open endnotes in new window] The foregrounding of our hero’s musical avatar via the name DJ signals a certainself-consciousness about the place of music in contemporary youth culture and in the life of the nation.

Both the quotidian nature and the importance of music are amply demonstrated by the way DJ and his friends routinely reference Hindi film songs. Their repertoire is impressive, extending from the 1960s through the 2000s. Among the songs they quote are: “Na Jaao Sainya” (Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam/Master, Wife, and Servant, 1962), “Dil Cheez Kya Hain” (Umrao Jaan, 1981), “Chhookar Mere Man Ko” (Yaarana/Friendship, 1981), “Mainu Ishq Da Lagiya Rog” (Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahi/The Heart Does Not Agree, 1991) and “Khaliwali” (Market, 2003). These songs are part of their charming, entertaining banter; it is how they relate to one another. Having characters who routinely break into song in a realistic way (not simply in a discrete song-dance sequence) and who sometimes modify song lyrics to fit their own lives and particular dilemmas—e.g., when DJ turns “Chookar mere man ko” into “Sue-kar mere man ko” to tease his love interest—not only heightens the film’s realism for Indian audiences, it also uses song to remind us of the history of Hindi film and film reception. It acknowledges the cinephiles in the audience and stages how they keep alive older films and film songs.

One might even think of these musical quotations as remixes, since DJ and his friends repurpose the songs to fit their playful ribbing of one another. Their facility with older Hindi film songs and the glee with which they cite and rework these songs is a subtle reminder that deejaying in India owes its popularity to the history of television and radio as much as to film. As Shanti Kumar writes, it was “irreverent and parodic” music television shows like Videocon Flashback on Channel [V] that were “instrumental in rekindling young viewers’ interest in old Hindi film songs by giving them a new ironic, hip factor.”[17] Channel [V] and MTV were also important channels for popularizing remixes of old Hindi film songs in the 1990s. 

“Masti ki Patshala” (School of Fun), the song-dance sequence that introduces us to DJ’s carefree lifestyle, also pays tribute to Indian audiences’ love of music and cinema. The sequence opens with a close-up of a boom box with two cassettes sitting on top and with the play button depressed. Tapes, we well know from Peter Manuel’s key work in Cassette Culture, were critical to the widespread distribution and consumption of (film) music in India.[18] For decades, “cassette culture” sustained fan communities and the popular music and film industries. The close-up shot that inaugurates “Masti ki Patshala” calls attention to the tape deck, and, by extension, to the history of film music in which it was a key player.[19] The song comes to an abrupt end when Laxman Pandey, the right-wing ideologue and self-appointed keeper of Indian culture, arrives with his goons. They knock the precious tape deck down the stairs and shut down the party. Later in the film, Pandey joins the good guys in their bid to save the nation. However, it is fitting that his initial villainy is expressed via disrespect for the music and the technology that are dear to DJ’s group, not to mention to the film’s audience. Moreover, Pandey’s specific accusation in this scene, “Band karo yeh nanga naach… puri desh ki sanskriti brasht kar di hain!” (“Stop this naked dancing… [it has] destroyed the culture of the whole nation”) echoes the anxiety that has long haunted song and dance performances construed as overly “modern” or “Western,” and thus not Indian. As the song title aptly indicates, “Masti ki Patshala” (School of Fun) is about technologies of fun—film, music, dance—but also about the disciplining of fun and fandom in the name of national culture.

RDB homes in on one particular musical technology that has been the terrain for contentious debates over national culture and identity, and that is the radio. For much of the 1940s and 50s, under the leadership of B. V. Keskar, the state-run All India Radio (AIR) sought to “save” India’s musical heritage and promote a “national music culture” by encouraging specific types of music—classical, light, and folk music—all of which were meant to “counter-blast bad film music.”[20] The struggle between AIR and film producers meant that for a while film songs were completely absent from AIR. During this time, audiences tuned into Radio Ceylon to listen to their favorite music on “Binaca Geetmala” hosted by Ameen Sayani. Keskar capitulated in 1957 and allowed a special program of film music “Vividh Bharati.”

The contest over radio broadcasting has continued into the present. Manisha Basu reminds us that the expansion of cable television networks in India in the 1990s was accompanied by the gradual expansion of FM radio broadcasting.[21] In 1999, the government inaugurated a new FM policy, inviting private broadcasters to apply for commercial licenses. This move was made in the context of considerable debate about the opening up of FM stations to foreign investment and undoing State monopoly of the medium. These concerns were of a piece with the rhetoric about the “invasion of the airwaves,” an anxious response to the proliferation of private satellite television channels in the post-liberalization period.[22] Since radio “was still conceived principally as a portal for beguiling and ‘false’ entertainment rather than as a cultural-pedagogical tool” of the state, FM channels were not authorized to broadcast news.[23] In designating entertainment as the primary function of FM radio, the state set in motion one of the most important developments in the recent history of film and popular music: the boom in Indipop music and Hindi film song remixes.

RDB foregrounds both of the aforementioned aspects of radio history—its role in popularizing Hindi film music and in staging debates about the nation’s identity—by staging the film’s climax in the offices of AIR (in the nation’s capital New Delhi no less). DJ and his friends storm the state-run radio station and interrupt a music program to broadcast their confession to the nation. Prior to this interruption, the radio deejay Rahul tells his listeners: “Aaj kal naye gaane chalte nahi hain” (These days new songs aren’t popular). What is popular, he goes on to note, are the “deejay remixes” he plays on his show. He then mentions R. D. Burman and plays a tune by him.[24] This reference to the legendary music director is significant for Burman’s “hip and energetic” music fusing Western rock, pop, and Indian music changed the sound of Hindi cinema in the 1960s and 70s.[25] R. D. Burman enjoyed a spectacular posthumous comeback in the late 1990s in the remixes by Bally Sagoo and other deejays. As noted above, FM radio and music-television programming facilitated the remix boom that brought R.D. Burman back into fashion. Thus, Rahul’s “deejay remixes” show underscores not just the cultural value of remixes but also the intertwined histories of radio, music, television, and film, and the national significance of these media.

RDB’s focus on DJ and the various industries with which the figure of the deejay is associated brings out several points that have not been addressed adequately in histories of Hindi cinema. First, it demonstrates that “film shares deep connections with radio and television (and now, digital media).”[26] That RDB uses musical objects and entities—the deejay, tape deck, and radio—to recall key moments in the history of cinema in India is itself proof of the intertwined nature of these media. Second, RDB emphasizes the importance of these interrelated media forms to the history and future of the nation. If in earlier sepia sequences we see myriad images of newspapers and radios—for example, Sue’s grandfather hears of Lala Lajpat Rai’s death from the newspapers and over the radio—towards the end of the film, events of national import are communicated over radio and television. But, film, music, radio, and television are not merely technologies of entertainment, means of disseminating news and popularizing film songs. They are, in fact, the affective apparatus of the nation. The audience called forth by Rahul’s radio show is reconstituted as the nation once the renegade youth begin speaking. When DJ and Karan confess their crimes on air, their voices occupy the same place as the film music they interrupt. They address and win over the same audiences. Music thus clears the space for the articulation of newly engaged sense of citizenship. It is especially crucial to note that DJ and his friends interrupt a radio show about remixes, that is, about songs that revitalized Hindi cinema’s musical past. DJ and Karan take over the task of rearticulating history as they take control of the microphone. In the process, radio is shown to be more than just a site of consumption. It is a site where deejay and listeners collectively articulate their relationship to the nation and to history.

Newspaper headlines announcing Lala Lajpat Rai’s death demonstrate the role of print technology in constituting the “horizontal community” of the nation. McKinley listens to the radio for news of the fallout from Lajpat Rai’s death.
Radio continues to broadcast events of national importance. This stereo sits at a roadside tea-stall. Several shots of a bank of television screens establish the continuing importance of journalism and media technologies to the nation.
Television images show people consuming audio broadcasts of the news through transistor radios and cell phones. College students gather around a car to listen to breaking news about their peers taking over the AIR radio station.

Aurality, itihasa, and deejay aesthetic

This brings me to a related argument RDB can help us make with regard to film, music, and history, one that goes beyond merely correcting the historical record on the development of nationalist sentiment. It is not just that film music has played an important role in the nation’s history and must be included in the historical narrative. Rather, the history of the nation may be imagined—and, thus, re-imagined—in sound. Consider the numerous references to older Hindi film songs in RDB. These musical references provide as much of a history lesson as do the sepia sequences set in colonial India. In a sequence entitled “Lalkaar” (Clarion Call), the history of the nation coming into being merges with the history of cinematic representations—particularly film musical representations—about the nation. In this sepia sequence, we witness the steely determination of the anti-colonial revolutionaries of the Hindustan Socialist Republic Association and the 1928 protest against the Simon Commission as we hear the actor Aamir Khan reciting a version of Ram Prasad Bismil’s poem “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna.”[27] Khan’s voice and the title of the poem call up Sarfarosh (John Matthew Matthan, 1999), another hit film about nationalism in which Khan starred. Moreover, Bismil’s poem was itself popularized through Shaheed (S. Ram Sharma, 1965)—a film about the life of Bhagat Singh starring the actor Manoj Kumar, also known as “Mr. Bharat” (or Mr. India) for his many patriotic roles—and The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002). Both films also include songs entitled “Mere Rang De Basanti Chola.” Not surprisingly, the title track of RDB was the bhangra hit “Rang De Basanti.” Thus, in referencing radical poetry, RDB’s songs foreground their own genealogy. The film turns to itself and its post-independence musical past to articulate the nation’s history of anti-colonial struggle. The history of the nation is the history film music. History, in other words, becomes an aural, musical entity.

In articulating the nation’s past in aural terms, RDB challenges our attachment to an exclusively visual and textual understanding of the past. This point is, in some ways, a reversal of the previous claim: The idea is not just to treat aurality historically (i.e. to consider film music an historically relevant and important object) but to treat history aurally. This is not to say that history is exclusively aural. The past persists in the aural domain just as much as it does in the visual or textual archive. More to the point, the historian’s task is similar to that of the deejay. To think of history as aural is to acknowledge that the past continues into the present as a set of diverse, disconnected, sometimes incompatible, fragments that we narrativize and re-narrativize constantly. Such a rethinking of history does not require that we prioritize the study of sound and music. Rather, it trains our attention on the contingent, the ephemeral, the fragment—and on the process of weaving those pieces into a new (still contingent) story.[28] To reconceptualize history thus is to make it more useable, more pliable, more responsive to the present.

A number of key plot details suggest such a reading of RDB. Whereas the contemporary narrative of RDB opens at the offices of World Vision in London, it comes to a climax at All India Radio in New Delhi. Sue’s “vision” of a docudrama about Indian revolutionaries is inspired by a textual account of the men’s bravery in her grandfather’s diary. As an intensely personal account of the past, the diary entry stands outside and in tension with official history.[29] Nonetheless, it represents a colonial perspective that Sue increasingly sheds as she immerses herself in the world of DJ. Remember too that DJ plays Chandrashekhar Azad in Sue’s film (the actor Aamir Khan plays both DJ and Azad). The word “Azad,” Sue helpfully reminds her bosses at the television company World Vision, “means freedom.” From the start, music is being proposed as the site for the articulation of azadi, freedom, a break from an oppressive system, and those in power at World Vision—those existing in a solely visual economy—do not understand this.

The voice-overs that frame RDB are important in coaxing us away from a visual conception of the past to an aural one. In the opening sequence of the film (pre-credits), we witness an exchange between the revolutionary hero Bhagat Singh and the prison warden, James McKinley, who we learn is Sue’s grandfather. As Sue reads from McKinley’s diary, we hear the following words in his voice:

“I used to believe there are two kinds of men in this world: those who go to their death screaming and those who go to their death in silence. And then I met a third kind.”

McKinley’s words accompany Bhagat Singh and his comrades to the gallows. He adds that what he remembers

“above all else … [are] his eyes: how they looked at [him], clear, defiant, never wavering.”

The British jailor is haunted by the moment when he and the Indian prisoner locked eyes. This emphasis on the revolutionary hero’s eyes is also evident in the opening shot of the film and the first shot of the title credits, both of which are close-ups of eyes. RDB opens with a close-up of eyes being lined with kohl. The first shot of the title-credits sequence (which follows the Bhagat Singh execution scene) also centers on a sketch of an eye. Juxtaposed with images of colonial violence, these eyes call up the panopticon and its power to discipline all those subjected to its gaze. By the end of RDB, this charged visual encounter between jailor and prisoner is replaced with an aural construction of history and heroism.[30]

Bhagat Singh locks eyes with James McKinley as he walks to his death. This charged ocular exchange is fundamental to the colonial jailer’s account of the past. Close-up of an eye being lined with kohl: the opening shot of RDB (prior to the title credits)
Close-up of a sketch of an eye: the first shot of the title credits sequence Juxtaposed with images of colonial violence and torture, the eyes of the initial sequences invoke the disciplinary power of the gaze.

The second time we hear James McKinley lay out his typology of heroic manhood is towards the end of the film. This time his voice-over is paired with a freeze-frame of DJ and Karan laughing just before they are gunned down at the AIR studio. As the two men joke (on air) about DJ’s love for Sue, the commandoes enter the studio and open fire. In the last image we have of the two men, they are frozen in laughter looking straight at the camera. The staccato sound of gunfire signals their death—but a split second later, their laughter resumes. Thus, the soundtrack does not allow DJ and Karan to die “on screen.” The two men live on in sound. As their echoing laughter finally ceases, James McKinley re-enters the aural space with the voice-over that opened the film. His words reiterate that DJ and his friends have gone to their death—and indeed, have outlived it—not screaming nor in silence, but in laughter. This sharply aural representation is very different than the first instance of McKinley’s voice-over, where heroism and memory of the nation’s past are cast in terms of a visual exchange, one fraught, moreover, with the tensions of race, colonialism, and homosociality.

The emphasis on aurality, on the past persisting in sound, is evident not just in the sequence when Karan and DJ meet their end, but also in Sue’s memories of her deceased lover and friends. In the penultimate scene of the film, after all the bloodshed, Sue tells us in a voice-over that she and Sonia listen for aural traces of the men in the ruins of a fort that was the group’s “special place.”[31] What remains of the men is “woh hasi, woh shabd, woh yaadein” (that laughter, those words, those memories).[32] Sue conceives of her attachment to DJ and his immortality in aural terms. Her heroes and their stories linger as sonic fragments carried by the wind. In the “International Version” of the film (on the DVD), Sue’s voice-over is in English, rather than in the Hindi of the “Indian Version.” Sue’s English voice-over is even more explicit about the aural nature of her memories: what she and Sonia hear in their old hangout are “voices carried by the evening breeze—not words, just sounds: sounds of laughter.” In short, Sue’s and Sonia’s continued encounter with the past is not visual (or linguistic), as James McKinley’s was, so much as aural.[33]

In emphasizing the aural over the written and the visual, RDB challenges us to think of the past as itihasa. In his book History at the Limit of World-History, Ranajit Guha quotes Sanskrit scholar Daniel Ingalls on the meaning and structure of itihasa, the root of the modern-day Hindi term for history:

“In the Sanskrit from which it is taken, [itihasa] combines two indeclinables, iti and ha, with a verbal noun to produce a complex structure. “The word iti,’ says Daniel Ingalls, “functions like quotation marks in English to shift the denotandum from thing to word.” . . . [Together, iti and ha] turn something that has been or was (asit) into what has just been said about it.”[34]

Note how the notion of a story—particularly, a story that has been narrated out loud—is implicit in this definition: itihasa refers to “what has just been said” about what happened in the past. Guha argues that through repeated usage, the word itihaas or itihasa has come to refer to

“the repository of the tales told by tradition and bequeathed from one generation to the next since antiquity.”[35]

The Mahabharata and Ramayana are prime examples of this genre. Further, Guha asserts that until colonialism came along with its all-encompassing notion of “World-history,” itihasa was the dominant “paradigm of storytelling” in India.[36] A highly favored mode of recounting and remembering the past, itihasa thrives on endless repetition. I mean this in terms of the iterative and interlocking structure of the narratives, and the fact that this vast repertoire of stories was, and continues to be, passed down orally. Itihasa thus attests to “the story’s ability to renew itself in retelling.”[37] While colonial modernity did not completely destroy this narrative mode or the corpus of Hindu mythological tales that fell under the sign of itihasa, it did shift the meaning of the term itself. Itihasa became synonymous with colonialism’s “history,” a disenchanted, written, and linear account of the past.[38]

This conceptual dominance of history over the old itihasa is not simply a vestige of colonial discourse. Dipesh Chakrabarty points out that the discipline of history itself relies on a continuous, linear, empty, and homogenous notion of time. Being a secular subject—rather, a “disenchanted” one, for it does not allow for super-human presence and agency—history does not adequately deal with what he calls “the times of gods.”[39] History, like nation, necessarily papers over those experiences and claims that (to recast Benedict Anderson’s words) bring the cosmos into the world.[40] Similarly, in an earlier essay on the topic, Ashis Nandy writes that while several historians and postcolonial critics have contested what counts officially as history, the discipline as a whole operates on the assumption that

“the idea of history itself cannot be relativized or contextualized beyond a point. . . . All critiques of history from within the modern worldview have also been ultimately historical.”[41]

That is to say, while contemporary historical scholarship can admit that there are many who do not believe in the disenchanted notions of secularity and rationality on which history is based, and consequently live “outside history,” it cannot grant much legitimacy to their “ahistorical” worldviews, their alternative narratives of the past.

RDB need not, and indeed does not, heed such modernist restrictions on conceptualizing the past. It is precisely the film’s disrespect for conventional boundaries and rules of time-space that bind history that allows the men to become heroic agents in the nation. In other words, India comes alive in RDB when it is unhinged from the modern temporality of the nation, when history becomes itihasa. The move to itihasa is achieved through the “deejay aesthetic” of the soundtrack. Just as a deejay weaves sounds of varied textures and styles, sounds evoking vastly different sensations and memories, into a single mix, RDB brings together ideas, events, and figures from disparate contexts and time periods to tell a new story about the past. This new story is not a revisionist narrative so much as a way to rethink history by “thinking sound.” In his meditation on the place of the sonic in African American experiences and theorizations of modernity, Alexander Weheliye illustrates the importance of

“‘thinking sound’ by interfacing historically seemingly disparate texts in order to excavate their intensities (which only emerge in the process of juxtaposition and recontextualization), much as DJs treat records in their mixes.”[42]

It is precisely such sonic interfacing, such a respect for different temporalities, that RDB's deejay aesthetic effects in order to turn DJ and his friends into revolutionary avatars.

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