JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Rang De Basanti poster.

 

“RDB effect”: The candlelight vigil scene that prompted similar demonstrations by middle-class youth.

 

In the film’s title song, dancing bhangra becomes a mark of patriotism.

 

Sue reading her grandfather James McKinley’s diary, which records his experiences as a colonial jailer.

Film within the film: Sue, as director, calls the end of the shot in which Bhagat Singh (played by Karan) bids goodbye to his parents.

Bhagat Singh predicts that his death will inspire others to revolutionary action. The menís walk to the gallows is repeated in the film, establishing it as originary moment (along with Jallianwala Bagh) for the violence that follows.

The star Amir Khan plays both DJ and Azad. The two avatars cross time and space to meet in this split screen shot at the filmís climax.

The book Bhagat Singh is reading right before he is led to the noose is one of the few signs of his socialist politics. In the next shot, the book cover with Leninís name on it takes up the whole frame.

The second clue to Bhagat Singh and his friends’ Bolshevism: the group takes an oath under a banner that reads “Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.”

 

Of radio, remix, and Rang De Basanti: rethinking history
through film sound

by Pavitra Sundar

A curious aspect of Bollywood cinema in the first decade of the twenty-first century was its obsession with the past.[1][open endnotes in new window] Even as India rushed headlong into the future, so to speak, powered by neo-liberal economic reforms initiated in the early 1990s, the mainstream Hindi film industry produced numerous films dealing with history. Big-budget epics like Asoka (Santosh Sivan, 2001) and Jodhaa Akbar (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2008) conjured enchanted visions of the past, while more somber dramas like Pinjar/Cage (Chandraprakash Dwivedi, 2003) probed the wounds of Partition.[2] Films about Gandhi such as Hey Ram! (Kamal Haasan, 2000) and Gandhi, My Father (Feroz Abbas Khan, 2007) jostled for the public’s attention alongside those attempting to recuperate other figures instrumental in the freedom struggle including The Legend of Bhagat Singh (Rajkumar Santoshi, 2002), Bose: the Forgotten Hero (Shyam Benegal, 2004), and Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005). While the phenomenal success of Lagaan/Land Tax (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001) and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha/Mutiny: A Love Story (Anil Sharma, 2001)—two very different period films with disparate target audiences and politics—in the summer of 2001 may have bolstered this cinematic obsession with the past, this trend was also linked to a broader interest in history in the Indian public sphere at the time. The 50th anniversary of independence in 1997 and aggressive attempts by right-wing political parties to frame India as an exclusively “Hindu” country, both in public discourse and in educational curricula, inspired animated debates about the nation’s identity and history.

One film that stood out in this flurry of “historicals” is Rang De Basanti/Color My Spring (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2006, henceforth RDB).[3] Released worldwide on January 26, 2006, the day India celebrates as Republic Day,[4] RDB was an immediate box-office hit. It recovered the $5.5 million spent in production costs within a week and went on to break records for overseas collection. It garnered a slew of accolades including nominations and awards for best film, best director, best music and best background score (both composed by A. R. Rahman), and best lyrics (Prasoon Joshi). More remarkable was the social and political impact of the film in India, what came to be dubbed the “RDB effect.” The film spurred middle class urbanites—youth in particular—into political debate and action in a way that few Hindi films previously had. The Indian blogosphere teemed with discussions of RDB and calls for civic participation.[5] For a brief while, candlelight vigils and protests of the kind depicted in the film became de rigeur. This enthusiastic journalistic and public response notwithstanding, there were those who criticized the film for the

“caricaturised [character of the] minister, the naive politics, the misplaced cause, the violent turn of events, the pat comparisons with the historical figures, [and] the far-fetched and confused finale.”[6]

Some critics also cautioned against the film’s regressive ideology as evidenced in its sidelining of female characters and its elite point of view, which is blind to the existence of lower classes and assumes that corruption is the most pressing problem facing the nation.[7] While I share many of these concerns, I submit that what is left out of most commentaries on RDB is the work that cinematic sound and music perform. To ignore the soundtrack is to miss this film’s primary means of engaging with the concept of history.

RDB teaches us that the nation’s past is incomprehensible without film sound, song, and music in India. It does so, I argue, via its focus on the figure of the deejay. The deejay has historically operated at the interstices of at least four media industries in India: music, radio, film, and television. All of these industries, the connections between them, and the technologies that sustain them are highlighted in RDB. While film music and its affiliated industries and technologies have played an important role in public debates over national identity, they are typically ignored in histories of both cinema and the nation. By adding sound and musical elements to the mix, I argue that RDB points to and partially fills this flagrant gap in the historical record.

But RDB does more than just correct the historical narrative. The argument that the nation’s history cannot be thought apart from aurality entails a reconceptualization of history itself. Rather than treating the past as a set of facts to be “discovered” and plotted onto a linear timeline, RDB urges us to think of it as a body of disparate, ephemeral fragments that can be narrativized in different ways. History is a narrative composed of (some of) those fragments, interpreted and remixed such that it speaks to the exigencies of the present. The reconfiguring of traditional boundaries of time-space in the RDB soundtrack liberates us not only from the oppression of the (colonial and contemporary) state but also, and more importantly, from its narrative about history. Cinematic sound and music in RDB are the primary means of moving from colonialism’s gift of “World-history” back to an older, more enchanted relationship between past and present: itihasa.[8]

The film effects this conceptual shift using an aural vocabulary. Not only does it give us a hero named DJ who is immersed in the world of film, music, and radio, it also consistently employs what I call a “deejay aesthetic.” Sampling, remixing, and layering sounds at will, the soundtrack connects the nation’s present with histories of struggle not typically highlighted in mainstream narratives about Indian nationalism, cinematic and otherwise. In so doing, it proposes an alternate genealogy for the nationalist (male) subject that helps rekindle patriotic fervor, both on screen and off.

The use of sound and music—and Hindi film music, in particular—to revive and rethink history is significant for a number of reasons. First, it urges us to write an aural history of the nation. In RDB’s reckoning, Hindi film music and its technologies have long played a starring role in the saga of the nation. The film asks us cinephiles to not just enjoy film music, but to appreciate its place in the nation’s history. In the face of a changing media industry and pronouncements about the death of the Hindi film song, RDB insists that film music and its technologies have a crucial role to play in the future of the nation.[9] Second, in expertly deploying the musical vocabulary and style of the globalized present to deal with past, RDB makes both nationalism and history fashionable. These concepts are not just for the old or for fuddy-duddy types. To the contrary, they now seem hip, and this makes them all the more accessible and attractive to contemporary cosmopolitan youth. By the same token, casting itihasa as a remix unmoors the concept from its Indian and Hindu foundations. Itihasa is not just the realm of gods and ancient princes any more, but that of bhangra, rai, and Bollywood.[10] It is the idiom of global pop culture. Thus transformed, itihasa renews itself and its audiences.

Rang De Basanti:
narratives of the past and the present

RDB gives us two interwoven narratives, one set in the present and the other in the past. The primary narrative begins with Sue McKinley, a young British filmmaker intent on making a docudrama about a group of famous Indian revolutionaries: Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqullah Khan, Ram Prasad Bismil, Hari Sivaram Rajguru, and Durgavati Devi. Sue is inspired by the account of the men’s bravery in her grandfather’s diary, recorded during his time as a colonial prison official in Lahore. Upon arriving in India, Sue is disheartened to find that the utopian ideals that drove the anti-colonial movement are nowhere to be found in contemporary India. But when she meets her friend Sonia’s college buddies, DJ (played by the star Aamir Khan), Karan, Aslam, and Sukhi, she sees in them the spark of the earlier generation and decides to cast them in her film. Despite being extremely disillusioned and apathetic about the national state of affairs, the group agrees to play along, in part because of DJ’s romantic interest in Sue. The amateur actors are joined by the local Hindutva activist Laxman Pandey, whom Sue also invites into the film.[11]

Sue coaxes her new friends DJ (in red shirt), Aslam, Karan, Sukhi, and Sonia to play the roles of Indian revolutionaries in her film. Sue surveys her research material for the film.
Laxman Pandey reciting “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna” from memory in a passionate, impromptu audition for the role of Ram Prasad Bismil. In preparation for Sue’s film shoot, DJ and Karan awkwardly assist Sukhi in tying a dhoti. Their obvious incompetence indicates how disconnected these “boys” are from their culture and their past. 

Over the course of shooting, the four young men, once ignorant of the history of anti-colonial struggle, become radicalized. When Sonia’s fiancé Ajay Rathod, an Indian Air Force pilot, is killed in a plane crash, DJ and his friends are compelled to act. They protest the corruption and utter lack of concern on the part of the State that led to the purchase of defective aircraft, and thus to their friend’s death. Once their peaceful protest is crushed and Ajay’s mother slips into a coma as a result of her injuries, the group turns to violence. They kill the Defense Minister and then take over the All India Radio station in order to broadcast their crime to the world. Their public confession and the retaliatory violence of the State lead to a political awakening of youth across India. DJ and his friends martyr their lives in the name of the nation and social justice. The women, meanwhile, are left to mourn. Despite having supported the men all along, even inspired their sacrificial behavior, the four women closest to DJ’s coterie (Sue, Sonia, DJ’s mother, and Ajay’s mother) are pushed aside, rendered silent witnesses to the historic and heroic actions of the nation’s citizen-sons.[12]

DJ 's comic rehearsal in front of a water buffalo shows how clueless he is about the past. DJ is transformed into Chandrashekhar Azad. Projected onto his body is historical footage about British colonialismóhe is now marked viscerally by the past.
Police brutality against non-violent protestors at the candlelight vigil for Ajay Rathod. Karan and DJ on a motorbike as the latter prepares to shoot the Defense Minister.
Karan confesses their crimes over All India Radio. Youth across the country are moved by DJ and his friendsí heroism, and pledge to follow their lead.
Ajayís mother awakes from her comma just as military commandoes kill DJ and Karan at the radio station. The nationalist overtones here are unmistakable: Mother India .... ... weeps for her citizen-sons, but their sacrifice has not been in vain. DJís mother also mourns for her son.

The film’s secondary narrative, staged partly as a film within the film (that is, as the docudrama Sue produces), is the story of British atrocities against Indians and the strident activism it engendered. Rendered in a much more fragmented and condensed manner, and thus demanding some audience knowledge of Indian political history, this narrative strand is critical to our understanding of the events in the present. Sue’s cinematic vision revolves around the following historical events:

  • the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which left approximately 1000 Indians dead and several more injured;
  • the Kakori train robbery of 1925 in which revolutionaries of the Hindustan (Socialist) Republican Association intercepted cash headed for the British treasury in Lucknow;
  • the 1928 boycott of the Simon Commission, the all-British committee tasked with proposing changes to the colonial governance structure;
  • the violent suppression of the Simon Commission protests, particularly in Lahore where Lala Lajpat Rai was gravely injured (the Indian National Congress leader succumbed to his injuries soon thereafter);
  • retaliatory actions undertaken by Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekar Azad, and other comrades to avenge Lajpat Rai’s death, including the killing of a police officer named John Saunders later that year, and the bombing and leafleting of the Central Legislative Assembly in 1929;
  • the imprisonment and torture of the radical activists; and, finally,
  • the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev in 1931.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919: General Dyer orders his forces to shoot at hundreds of unarmed civilians in the enclosed public park. The stampede sparked by British gunfire at Jallianwala Bagh.
A woman jumps into a well with her child to avoid being shot to death by Dyerís forces in Jallianwala Bagh. The Kakori train robbery of 1925, the first sequence that Sue shoots with her motley crew.
The 1928 protests against the Simon Commission at Lahore, where the nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai is gravely injured. Smile at the Gallows: The execution of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru in 1931.

The first and last events in this list—Jallianwala Bagh and Bhagat Singh’s execution—occupy a central role in Sue’s film and in RDB.  Repeated multiple times, partly as nightmares that bleed into the present, they serve as originary moments for all the ensuing violence. If, as McKinley notes in the voice-over, Jallianwala Bagh “made an essentially non-violent people consider taking up arms,” then the gallantry of the young Bhagat Singh and his friends ensures that their execution “is not the end, but the beginning. There will be others who follow in [their] wake” (these are Singh’s last words to McKinley).

RDB’s two narrative strands, separated by seven decades, are distinguished by the use of color for the present-day story and a sepia tone for the historical events. However, the parallels between the two storylines are evident in that the same actors play the roles of contemporary college students and of radical freedom fighters (for instance, Aamir Khan plays DJ as well as Chandrashekhar Azad). RDB thus encourages us to read the story of the past as the story of the present. It goes without saying that all the events in Sue’s film constitute landmark moments in early twentieth century Indian history. But the choice to highlight these, and only these, historical events and to organize them into a causal narrative has critical consequences. This particular rendering of history positions RDB’s protagonists as nationalist martyrs.

The film diminishes Bhagat Singh and his collaborators’ internationalist, socialist political commitments.[13] One of the few moments when Bhagat Singh’s Bolshevism is legible is just before his execution: “Wait a moment, Mr. McKinley,” Singh tells the British jailer, “one revolutionary is meeting another”; on cue, we cut to a close-up of the book by Lenin that Bhagat Singh is reading. The only other clue to Bhagat Singh’s leftist politics is in the “Lalkaar” (Clarion Call) sequence. Activists recite a version of Bismil’s poem “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna” as an oath standing under a banner that reads “Hindustan Socialist Republican Association.” But RDB provides no commentary on the “socialism” in the title of this political organization.[14] Shorn of Marxist ideals, HSRA’s concerns are reduced to a love for “Hindustan,” another name for India. This erasure of the revolutionaries’ political vision and affiliations works in tandem with the musical references to Algeria (discussed at length below).

Together, they propose an alternative to the hegemonic ideal of nationalist masculinity, as represented by Gandhi. As modern-day avatars of Azad and Bhagat Singh, men who were profoundly disillusioned with Gandhi’s political philosophy, DJ and his buddies offer a more aggressive version of nationalist agency and heroism. The film’s blurring of the boundaries between past and present even implies that the violence that DJ’s group enacts is justified because it stems from and is a response to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (and other brutal events like it). It is easy to see then why some scholars and critics would excoriate RDB. Given the ascendancy of Hindutva politics in the last two decades, particularly the right’s attempts to whitewash history and rewrite it from an upper-caste Hindu perspective in school curricula, a selective or simplistic account of history can be dangerous. What I seek to demonstrate below is that attending to sound and music in RDB gives us an altogether different, more productive understanding of history—an understanding not just of India’s past, but of how we come to organize disparate fragments of the past into a narrative we call history. 

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