Title Credits Sequence: Historical newspaper headlines in Sue’s research collage
Title Credits Sequence: Photographs and sketches of the Indian revolutionaries involved in the 1925 Kakori train robbery.
Title Credits Sequence: Photographs documenting Simon Commission protests, including one of Lala Lajpat Rai, the nationalist leader who lost his life from injuries sustained at the Lahore protest.
Title Credits Sequence: Archival film footage of colonial authorities pushing back Indian activists.
Title Credits Sequence: “Inquilab Zindabad” (Long live the revolution)
In the scene where DJ and his friends contemplate killing the Defense Minister, the visuals—color vs. sepia, differences in costumes of the 1930s and the present—
... keep in place the distinctions between past and present even as they suggest parallels between them.
But, as the sequence above shows, sound erases such distinctions by travelling seamlessly across the two temporal/spatial locations.
A particularly powerful example of the deejay aesthetic in RDB is the opening credit sequence. The camera moves rapidly and unsteadily, offering us brief glimpses into the material Sue has amassed in her research for her docudrama. We see close-ups of maps and newspaper headlines; photographs of famous activists, guns, and prison equipment; drawings and hand-written notes gesturing to iconic moments in the anti-colonial struggle [e.g., “Jallianwala Bagh,” “Simon Commission Protests,” and “Inquilab Zindabad” (Long Live the Revolution)]; and historical footage of British authorities beating protesters. As the credits flicker over these and other visual fragments of colonialism, women’s voices continue the wordless lament begun in the preceding execution scene. We hear Hindi lyrics in a male voice as well as some (indiscernible) Arabic words (e.g., “Ya Habibi”). Various turntable sounds—scratching, reverb, and echoes—make this song the musical equivalent of Sue’s collage of colonial violence.[open endnotes in new window]
The eerie soundscape bears some similarities with Algerian-born French artist Rachid Taha’s “Barra Barra,” a song denouncing violence and war. Taha’s music is rooted in rock, punk, and rai, all musical genres associated with youth culture and dissent. While Indian audiences may not be familiar with this particular artist or number, they certainly know the Algerian genre of rai because of Cheb Khaled’s “Didi,” a song from his 1992 album Khaled that was extremely popular in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. As Khaled and other rai artists shot to fame worldwide in the late 1980s and 90s, the genre became synonymous with Algerian pop music. But this popularity did not blunt rai’s critical edge. The genre is still closely identified with urban life, youth, and social protest, and often courts the ire of government authorities, whether in Algeria or France. Thus, the sonic traces of Arabic, rai music, and mourning in the opening sequences are not simply throwaway references to the Arab world meant to appeal to young people’s cosmopolitan musical tastes. Rather, they evoke the revolutionary history of Algeria and the ongoing struggles of Arab youth vis-à-vis the state in different parts of the world.
It is important to note that the musical and political movements referenced here are not contemporaneous. Algeria attained independence in 1962; India in 1947. The Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the organization that led the armed movement against French colonialism in Algeria, was started in 1954. Azad, Bismil, and the other Indian activists RDB holds up as models were active several decades earlier. The political events referenced in Sue’s film occurred mainly in the second and third decades of the twentieth century; Bhagat Singh and his comrades were executed in 1931. The history of rai music spans both these freedom struggles and extends into our contemporary moment. Rai began as folk music in 1930s but gained popularity as the music of youth and civic engagement several decades later. Thus, while not historically precise, the music that inaugurates RDB creates a powerful conceptual and affective link between Algeria and India. It reframes the history of Indian nationalism such that Gandhi is no longer at the center. Instead, we find more Fanonian figures such as Azad and Bhagat Singh. While the socialist politics of the HSRA and, in the case of Fanon, the FLN are erased from the film, what lingers in the aural domain is these groups’ advocacy of armed struggle as a means to counter the extreme violence of the state. The path to national selfhood is now a path of violence. The music thus suggests different antecedents, a different genealogy for the nationalist male subject. The film’s deejay aesthetic reaches to other times and other places not to uncover forgotten histories but to construct a very particular genealogy for the nation and its ideal subject.
The alternate genealogy RDB crafts for its Indian heroes through the deejay aesthetic is radical not simply because it takes us to Algeria, but because it disrupts the temporal logic that defines conventional understandings of history. A case in point is the sequence where DJ’s coterie resolves to kill the Defense Minister. Scenes of the contemporary discussion are intercut with a scene depicting a similar conversation between Chandrashekhar Azad and his colleagues about how to respond to Lala Lajpat Rai’s death after he was beaten at a protest. We move with such rapidity between past and present that the historical and the contemporary figures appear one and the same. In this and other cross-temporal sequences, RDB deploys classic continuity editing strategies such as shot-reverse shot, eyeline match, and match on action to connect the two historical moments. And yet, the temporal distinction between past and present persists visually in the color of the images and the characters’ clothing (very different in the 1930s than in the present).
In listening to the way sound operates in these sequences, we realize that the work of seamlessly merging past and present falls on the soundtrack. While the visuals switch dizzyingly between the sepia past and colorful present, the aural track smoothes over such disjunctures. Sound bridges are often used in cinema to create smooth transitions. What is different here—and what distinguishes sound continuity from the editing strategies mentioned earlier—is that sound is not merely a point of connection between the historical and contemporary moments. It extends across the past and present. In travelling back and forth across the past and present, sound erases the boundaries that keep in place a linear, disenchanted notion of history. In the critical conversation sequence described above, the borders between Azad’s era and the present crumble as the dialogue between Azad/DJ and his collaborators and the music highlighting the shifting tenor of the conversation continue throughout the sequence. It is this aural erasure of time-space boundaries that transforms DJ into an avatar of Chandrashekhar Azad, Karan into an avatar of Bhagat Singh. Sound fuses the two historical moments such that the men come to occupy a temporal space not contained by history as we know it.
In many ways, RDB’s deejay aestheticworks like a “maturation dissolve,” Corey Creekmur’s term for the visual technique commonly used in Hindi cinema from the 1940s well into the 1990s to depict the main character’s transition from childhood to adulthood. But whereas a maturation dissolve secures the protagonist’s temporal position vis-à-vis his own history—it links the adult hero to his childhood—sound and music in RDB point to an alternate understanding of the past. The past that RDB calls up has nothing to do with DJ and his friends’ personal history. Some of the men in DJ’s group have family connections, but we get no real sense of these characters’ childhood or teenage years.
In this DJ and his cohort are very much like other Hindi film heroes of the post-liberalization period. Pondering why contemporary heroes are so rarely angry, Sudhanva Deshpande argues that post-liberalization heroes are given no history, no memory of past injustices. Unlike Amitabh Bachchan’s 1970s persona of the “angry young man,” these new heroes are not haunted by the indignities they and the rest of their family suffered in the past. They have nothing to be angry about. DJ and his friends start off as typical post-liberalization heroes: carefree, childish, and cut off from history. Over the course of the film, they are granted a past—but the history they come to inhabit is not a private, personal one. The sepia sequences convey cinematic stories about other men in India’s past; the music recalls revolutionary struggles in other time periods and other parts of the world. In short, RDB unites our contemporary heroes not with earlier versions of themselves, but with other versions of themselves. This casts the men as avatars, of course. It also teaches us that history—or, more precisely, itihasa—is as much about the past one has lived through, as it is about other times, other places.
While RDB is not a mythological—the genre that inaugurated Indian cinema—it does treat the past as itihasa. The film’s treatment of sound and music highlights three critical characteristics of itihasa: orality, ephemerality, and continuity. Itihasa has historically been grounded in oral tradition. Memory of the past passes from one generation to the next through innumerable re-tellings of stories, often in oral form. But each performance, each rendition of the narrative is distinct from the next. Each telling is composed of fragments from the past reassembled and reconfigured in unique ways. Indeed, the continuity of the past rests on the ephemeral quality of performance, on the constant renewal of the story via retellings.
The renewal and re-narrativization of (aural) fragments is, in many ways, the task of the deejay. A deejay pieces together and creatively rearranges musical fragments from the past into a form that moves contemporary audiences. The deejay helps us hear the past in new and interesting ways. The sound of our martyred heroes’ laughter in the All India Radio studio—indeed, the very centrality of radio in this film—and the aural rhetoric in Sue’s voice-over help us grasp that the past persists in sound, in sonic fragments. But those voices from the past have to be re-interpreted to address the present. This is why DJ—and deejaying, broadly conceived—is critical to the nation.
One may well critique RDB’s deejay aesthetic as embracing too presentist and relativist a view of history. The first criticism is one that the film endorses all too happily. The point is to reignite a sense of nationalism for the present and the future, and this RDB certainly managed to accomplish. Where other “historical” films of the 2000s had a relatively short shelf life, RDB hit a chord with the public. Young people in particular were inspired to take to the streets in the name of the nation. As Ritesh Mehta rightly argues, while RDB-inspired mobilization around the Jessica Lall murder case was fleeting, such “flash activism” helps sustain the democratic fabric of civil society. And yet, it is precisely the real-life activism that RDB inspired that ought to give us pause as we assess the implications of reimagining history in (and as) sound. If, on the one hand, the film provoked middle class youth to protest the corruption of the judicial system, on the other, it emboldened upper-caste students in elite engineering, management, and medical schools to form a group called Youth for Equality, which
Such prejudiced iterations of the “RDB effect” and the virulence of the Hindu right’s revisionist narratives about Indian culture and history remind us of the dangers of a relativistic notion of history, one that gives credence to any and all stories about the past.
What keeps RDB from simply being a dangerous excuse for such bad-faith and ideological revisionism is that the film’s deejay aesthetic keeps its constructed nature always in the forefront. The remix never disavows its status as a creation; it is not a “found” object but a piece crafted out of found parts. While it acknowledges the creativity implicit in historiography, it does not suggest that “anything goes.” Nor does it insist that its telling is the true and authentic version of the past, a claim fundamental to the Hindu right’s revisionist agenda. The deejay aesthetic’s emphasis on product and process—that is, on the fact of the remix and on the craft of sampling, mixing, and editing—foregrounds a tenet that scholars of history have grappled with at least since the “linguistic turn” of the 1960s and 70s. As Gabrielle Spiegel put it in her Presidential Address to the 2009 American Historical Association convention,
To argue that history is narrative is not to advocate a complete turn to fiction. It is, instead, a call to recognize one’s place not just in history, but in the creation of that which comes to be seen and heard as the past. This is RDB’s most useful historical lesson and it is this that has long gone unheard.