copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

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]

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]

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 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. 

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] 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.

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 nationís 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 historianís 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 fragmentóand 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]

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.

Other times, other places

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.[43]

The eerie soundscape bears some similarities with Algerian-born French artist Rachid Taha’s “Barra Barra,” a song denouncing violence and war.[44] 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.[45] 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.[46] 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.[47] 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.[48] 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

“fought a concerted and pitched campaign against reservations [for socially and educationally disadvantaged groups] in the name of preserving ‘merit.’”[49]

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,

“No longer a ‘given’ of the past that offers itself to the historian’s gaze, the [historical] referent is something constantly re-created in the recurring movement between past and present, hence ever-changing as that relationship itself is modified in the present.”[50]

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.


1. My heartfelt thanks to my writing group buddies Aswin Punathambekar, Greg Schneider-Bateman, and Megan Ankerson for reading multiple drafts of this work and helping me find my argument. I am also grateful to the editors and anonymous reviewer(s) of Jump Cut. Their generous and detailed feedback has made this a much stronger essay. [return to text]

2. The term Partition refers to the division of British India into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947. Bishnupriya Ghosh analyzes films like Jodhaa Akbar alongside novels by Tariq Ali and Salman Rushdie in her article “Once There Was Cosmopolitanism: Enchanted Pasts as Global History in the Contemporary Novel,” Ariel 42, no. 1 (2011), 11-33.  

3. I place the term “historical” in quotation marks here because not all Hindi films that concerned themselves with the past fall neatly into this cinematic genre. As the titles listed earlier indicate, a number of these films were biopics based on actual historical figures; others are better described as fictional period dramas. Still others, like RDB (2006) and Amu (Shonali Bose, 2005), were more explicit about revisiting the past from the vantage point of the present. (Both films foreground the constructedness of the past by rendering it as a film-within-the-film or as fractured memories.)

It is also worth noting here that while the independence movement was and is the focus of many a historical film, other moments of political and social conflict also get referenced. For instance, Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi/A Thousand Such Desires (Sudhir Mishra, 2003) is about the divergent paths taken by three friends who were student activists in the late 1960s and 1970s; one of the characters remains involved in the Naxalite movement, the guerrilla struggle of Maoist tribals and lower-caste landless peasants against elite landowners and the Indian state that continues to this day. Amu, meanwhile, highlights the violence against Sikhs in the early 1980s (a matter on which RDB is oddly silent, despite its protagonist DJ being a Sikh man). Hindi cinema has maintained its interest in historical narratives, as is evident in more recent films like Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se/We Play With All Our Heart (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2010) and Chittagong (Bedabrata Pain, 2012).

4. The Indian Constitution took effect on January 26, 1950.

5. Meghana Dilip, “Rang De Basanti – Consumption, Citizenship, and the Public Sphere” (master’s thesis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2008): 30-39. As will become plain below, RDB’s explicit appeal to youth is encoded in its plot: the film focuses on a group of close college friends and charts their transformation into adults. This trajectory is key to several acclaimed films, such as Dil Chahtha Hai/What the Heart Desires (Farhan Akhtar, 2001), Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi (2003), Rock On!! (Abhishek Kapoor, 2008), and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara/You Only Live Once (Zoya Akhtar, 2011). A number of these youth films combine a standard coming-of-age story with another recurrent trope in Bombay cinema, the concept of dosti or undying male friendship. In contemporary takes on youthful bonding, the focus is not on a male dyad (with a woman forming the third term in the love triangle) but on a group of young men.

Often, women are a part of the group but their stories typically fall away—this is certainly the case with RDB, which pushes the two women, Sonia and Sue, to the sidelines in the second half. Romantic comedies that use the bildungsroman arc offer a sharp contrast, keeping women at the center of the narrative. Salaam Namaste/Hello Good day (Siddharth Anand, 2005), Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na/Whether You Know It or Not (Abbas Tyrewala, 2008), and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani/This Youth is Crazy (Ayan Mukerji, 2013) are good examples of what one might call a “coming-of-age romance.” However, it is the rare film that narrates the transformation of a group of young women friends: Page 3 (Madhur Bhandarkar, 2005) comes to mind here.

While a full discussion of the gender politics of RDB falls outside the scope of the current article, I take up the question of the initial boyishness of our protagonists with regard to the film’s conception of history later in this essay, in the section entitled “Other Times, Other Places.” For now, let me add that the combination of the themes of youth culture and political protest that made RDB such a success is also taken up in later films such as Aarakshan/Reservation (Prakash Jha, 2011) and Satyagraha/Protest (Prakash Jha, 2013). I am grateful to the reviewer(s) for reminding me of the connections between RDB and several of the aforementioned films and film genres.

6. Namrata Joshi, “My Yellow Icon,” Outlook, February 20, 2006. http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?230266.

7. Ibid., note Ranjini Mazumdar’s critique of the film. See also Neelam Srivastava, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema,” Third Text 23, no. 6 (November 2009), 706, and M. K. Raghavendra, “Globalism and Indian Nationalism,” EPW, April 22. 2006, 1503-1505.

8. Here I draw on Ranajit Guha’s critique of the Hegelian concept of “World-history” (Weltgeschichte) and his discussion of how the Indian notion of itihasa, grounded in Hindu religiosity and mythology, entails an alternative conceptualization of time. See Ranajit Guha, History at the Limit of World-History (NY: Columbia University Press, 2002).

9. On the “disappearance” of the song-dance sequence in contemporary Hindi cinema, see Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2013) and “No Longer a Frivolous Singing and Dancing Nation of Movie-Makers: The Hindi Film Industry and its Quest for Global Distinction,” Visual Anthropology 25 (2012): 340-365; Ian Garwood, “The Songless Bollywood Film,” South Asian Popular Culture 4, no. 2 (October 2006): 169-183; and Sangita Gopal, Conjugations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). See Garwood (especially pp. 170-173) for a succinct summary of the industrial changes that have allowed for the emergence of the “songless” Bollywood film in the past ten years. In her chapter “When the Music’s Over: A History of the Romantic Duet,” Gopal provides a longer and very illuminating history of the same phenomenon, but links it to the constitution and re-constitution of coupledom in Hindi cinema at different historical moments (see chapter one of Gopal, Conjugations, pp. 23-59). Ganti’s interviews with contemporary filmmakers indicate that whereas in the past the omission of songs in a film was construed as a deliberate anti-commercial stance, one that sought to limit the film’s audience to the discerning elite (Ganti, Bollywood,79), the same choice is today seen as a way to reach a global (read Western) audience (Ganti, “No Longer,” 349-357). Lip-synched songs are also seen to be at odds with New Bollywood cinema’s emphasis on realism. Still, the functions that song-dance sequences once performed remain crucial. Those are now accomplished by other narrative strategies, such that even songless films “contain the traces of the form they are ostensibly eschewing” (Garwood, “Songless Bollywood Film,” 173).

10. Rai is an Algerian folk musical genre that first gained prominence in the 1930s as the music of the urban poor and disenfranchised. Over time the genre has absorbed a wide range of musical influences from traditional Bedouin music to Moroccan and Egyptian wedding songs to western rock. The genre still retains its strong associations with youth and social protest, with the (usually) male singer or cheb voicing concerns of the “common man.” Bhangra, too, is a vibrant, danceable musical style that has its roots in folk music. Traditionally associated with the spring harvest festival in Punjab (in the Indian subcontinent), bhangra was infused with rap, reggae, and hiphop elements by British Asian deejays in the 1980s. It circulated widely in Britain and India as dance/clubbing music and also become a staple in mainstream Hindi cinema.

Hindutva is the religious and cultural nationalist philosophy embraced by several right-wing political parties in India. Pride in Hindu culture and identity is accompanied, in this worldview, with the belief that Indian culture is fundamentally Hindu and that the state and civil institutions must reflect Hindu values (however narrowly defined).

12. As feminist scholars have amply documented, the marginalization of women (as agents) in discourses of nation and nationalism is common the world over. In (post)colonial literature about the Indian subcontinent, the white woman often plays the role of a sympathetic outsider. While mainstream Hindi cinema has historically villified foreignness and whiteness (in the post-independence period, for example, vamps were portrayed as overly Westernized and thus un-Indian), more recently the white woman has emerged as a benevolent nationalist muse. While she is positioned as a lover of India and of the Indian hero, inter-racial romance is typically interrupted in these films. Shyam Benegal’s film Junoon/Obsession (1978), an adaptation of Ruskin Bond’s novella Flight of the Pigeons, is an early example of a film starring the “good” white woman. Lagaan (2001) famously revived this motif in contemporary Hindi cinema. RDB developed it further by positioning Sue and her filmmaking project as the catalyst for DJ and his friends’ nationalist “awakening” and by allowing more of a romance to develop between the British woman and the Indian man than in previous films. For a comparative analysis of the role of the white woman in Lagaan and RDB, see Jann Dark, “Crossing the Pale,” Transforming Cultures eJournal 3, no. 1 (February 2008): 124-144.

13. Srivastava, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema,” 713. 

14. The group’s title is only visible in one shot of the film, in a sequence called “Lalkaar” (Clarion Call) that I discuss below. This sequence is a reference to the historic 1928 meeting at Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi, when members of the aforementioned Hindustan Republican Association and other radical groups converged to organize themselves into a new organization named HSRA. All of the revolutionaries referenced in RDB were members of this socialist organization.

15. DJ’s mother is the only person to address him as Daljeet. That said, DJ’s Punjabi moorings are ever present in his accent and turns of phrase, and in the bhangra of the title song.

16. “Khaliwali” was itself a version of a highly popular qawwali “Le Gayi Dil Mera Manchali” by the renowned qawwal Jani Babu (Syed Jan Muhammad) released on a 1992 album. This detail is important because it draws attention to the phenomenal growth of cassette culture and non-filmi music in the 80s and 90s. While the burgeoning of other kinds of popular music was initially framed in terms of the challenge those genres posed to the hegemony of film music (consider Peter Manuel’s Cassette Culture), more recently scholars have begun to acknowledge the ways in which the film, television, and music industries fed off and sustained one another. See, for instance, Shanti Kumar, “Innovation, Imitation, and Hybridity in Indian Television,” in Thinking Outside the Box: A Contemporary Television Genre Reader, eds. Gary R. Edgerton and Brian G. Rose (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 314-335.

17. Videocon Flashback re-introduced Hindi film songs from the 1960s and 70s to young people, grabbing viewers’ attention through the gimmicks, mimicry, and catchy dialogues of the show’s VJ, comedian Javed Jafferi. Ibid., 326.

18. Peter Manuel, Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

19. In contemporary India as elsewhere in the world, cassette tapes have been replaced by newer technologies such has CDs and mp3 players. Thus, RDB’s fetishization of the tape deck might strike one as outmoded, or a sign of hipster nostalgia for outdated technology. I suggest that what saves the cassette player from being too quaint or kitschy is that it is one of many different technological apparatuses that together articulate RDB’s investment in the entwined histories of music and nation in India.

20. David Lelyveld, “Upon the Subdominant: Administering Music on All-India Radio,” in Consuming Modernity: Public Culture in A South Asian World, ed. Carol A. Breckenridge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 59.

21. Manisha Basu, “Rang De Basanti: The Solvent Brown and Other Imperial Colors,” in Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation, and Diaspora, eds. Rini Bhattacharya Mehta and Rajeshwari V. Pandharipande (London: Anthem Press, 2010), 108-109.

22. In the Indian context, the term “liberalization” refers to the “opening up” of the economy to private and foreign investment via the easing of fiscal and tax regulations. The process formally began in 1991 with the sweeping reforms introduced by then-Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. As several scholars have noted, these economic changes had a profound impact on the media landscape.

23. Basu, “Solvent Brown,” 109.

24. While Rahul is introduced early on as a pathetic figure, he is clearly significant for his name recalls the music director Rahul Dev Burman, whom he references on his music program.

25. One of R. D. Burman’s earliest hits was “Aao Twist Karein” (“Come, Let’s Do the Twist”) from Bhoot Bangla/Haunted Bungalow (Mehmood, 1965). This was followed by his hugely successful soundtrack for Teesri Manzil/Third Floor (Vijay Anand, 1966).

26. Aswin Punathambekar, “Ameen Sayani and Radio Ceylon: Notes Towards a History of Broadcasting and Bombay Cinema,” BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies 1, no. 2 (July 2010), 189. 

27. Prasoon Joshi rewrote the lyrics of Bismil’s poem for RDB.

28. Subaltern studies historians have used the concept of the fragment to challenge totalizing narratives and the historiography of the nation. See, in particular, Gyanendra Pandey, “In Defense of the Fragment: Writing About Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today,” Representations 37 (Winter 1992), 27-55.

29. McKinley’s informal account also communicates his memories of his experience (it is written in the past tense), expresses his deep disillusionment with official British policies, and focuses on characters devalued by both official nationalist historiography in India and Sue’s bosses, who would rather make films about Gandhi or even the Algerian feminist writer and filmmaker Assia Djebar. All of this gives his diary a distinctly counter-hegemonic status. Nonetheless, the emphasis on the written and the visual persists in the diary entry, diminishing its ability to challenge an empiricist understanding of history. I argue that the oral, performative, and narrative concept of itihasa that RDB foregrounds offers a more thoroughgoing challenge to the notion of history.

30. I do not mean to suggest that film is solely focused on eyes and the visual at the start. The image of kohl-lined eyes is followed by a strong aural representation of Hinduism. The camera appears to pan right to the adjacent cell, where a man cleanses himself as if performing a sacred ritual. As he pours water over his head, he chants a Sanskrit shloka (Hindu chant). His clear, crisp notes ring through the jail as our gaze (aligned with McKinley’s as jailor) travels to the next two cells, which also include male prisoners. We recognize in retrospect that the first shot was that of a man lining his eyes with kohl, and that was visual shorthand for his Muslim identity. The juxtaposition of the visual and the aural (that is, the Muslim prisoner’s kohl-lined eyes and the Hindu prisoner’s chanting) introduces the theme of Hindu-Muslim unity that runs through RDB. Similarly, as I discuss below, the title credit sequence uses a “deejay aesthetic” in the editing of the images and in the soundtrack. All this to say that mine is not an argument that disconnects the aural and the visual. My point, rather, is that RDB uses shifts in the voice-overs to dissuade us from prioritizing the written and the visual in thinking about history.

31. It was here that Ajay had proposed to Sonia surrounded by his friends, and where the group had decided to avenge Ajay’s untimely death.

32. The idea that “words” live on is also conveyed by the repeated reference to Ram Prasad Bismil’s poem “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna” and the way Karan echoes (almost verbatim) his late friend Ajay’s convictions about patriotic service.

33. This point about aurality is underlined via the non-visual form in which it is communicated, the voice-over. There are two points of further interest here: first, Sue’s voice-over emphasizes the affective dimension of the past as it persists into the present. The laughter, the happiness in her friends’ voices, is what floats back into her ears. Second, it is notable that the women are the ones who are the auditors of the past. Thus, the shift from a visual to an aural conception of the past is accompanied by a shift in the the gender of person making sense of “that laughter, those words, those memories.” One might argue that this ending not only tempers the masculinist ethos of the rest of the film, but also carves out an important place for women in the crafting and telling of history.

34. Guha, History at the Limit of World-History, 50-51.

35. Ibid., 61.

36. Ibid., 54.

37. Ibid., 62. I first came to appreciate the importance of different “tellings” that compose itihasa upon reading A. K. Ramanujan’s wonderful essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” in Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), 22-49.

38. Guha, History at the Limit of World-History, 52.

39. See chapter 3, “Translating Life-Worlds into Labor and History, ” in Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 72, 78.

40. Anderson’s claim in The Spectre of Comparisons is that “everyday practices, rooted in industrial material civilization . . . have displaced the cosmos to make way for the world.” See Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (London: Verso, 1998), 29.

41. Ashis Nandy, “History’s Forgotten Doubles,” in "World Historians and Their Critics," special issue, History and Theory 34, no. 2 (May 1995), 50.

42. Alexander Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 73.

43. In the Director’s Commentary track of the DVD, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra emphasizes the importance of aesthetic construction and the creativity of the editor P.S. Bharati in making the credit sequence work. He says:

“This particular title sequence we shot at various [camera and shutter] speeds and then brought it back to normal. It kinda stretched reality and brought it back to look real. I must say Bharati had a tough job on her hand trying to make sense of what we’d shot because everything was so non-linear, so unconnected. It was an editor’s dream and an editor’s nightmare.”

44. This pacifist reference may seem startling for RDB lionizes violent activism in the face of state violence. But, I would argue, this accommodation of contradiction and difference is a hallmark of the deejay aesthetic.

45. For the Fanonian resonances in RDB and a comparative analysis of RDB and Gillo Pontecorvo’s famous film about the Algerian War of Independence Battle of Algiers (1966), see Srivastava, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema,” 76.

46. Corey Creekmur, “Bombay Boys: Dissolving the Male Child in Popular Hindi Cinema,” in Where the Boys Are: Cinemas of Masculinity and Youth,eds. Murray Pomerance and Frances Gateward (Wayne State Press: Detroit, 2005): 350-376. Creekmur argues that films open with a segment that introduces the protagonist as a child; shortly thereafter we see the same character as an adult. The swift transitions—often in the form of a dissolve, where images of past and present overlap briefly—ensure the coherence of the character despite the use of different bodies (i.e., different actors) for the same character. Maturation dissolves partially smooth the rupture in time and space as the narrative leaps forward to the present. They also reinforce the idea that the character is fundamentally unchanged: the pain and loss of childhood continues to drives the adult hero’s actions; there is little in the way of “character development” (353). This technique was largely dropped by the time we get to 1990s Shahrukh Khan films, where we get an adult hero who is “perpetually childish” (370).

47. Sudhanva Deshpande, “The Consumable Hero of Globalized India,” in Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens, eds. Raminder Kaur and Ajay Sinha (New Delhi; Thousand Oaks; London: Sage, 2005): 186-203.

48. Ritesh Mehta, “Flash Activism: How a Bollywood Film Catalyzed Civic Justice Toward a Murder Trial,” in "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Culture, no. 10 (2012). Doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0345. One of the most famous instances of the “RDB effect” was the mobilization against the initial acquittal of Manu Sharma, the son of a prominent politician, despite clear evidence that he murdered model Jessica Lall. Public dissent took the form of widely circulated (digital) petitions, rallies, and candlelight vigils, prompting comparisons to the protest scenes in RDB. While the murder had occurred in 1999, the acquittal decision came seven years later, in February 2006, barely a month after RDB’s release. The protest that bore the most resemblance to the film was the one organized by the weekly magazine Tehelka at Delhi’s famous India Gate; this memorial is the site of the peaceful protest that DJ and his friends stage in RDB to honor their friend Ajay. The Jessica Lall mobilization prompted a review of the case, which eventually led to a guilty verdict that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2010. Bollywood’s entwinement with the case continued in the form of the film No One Killed Jessica (Raj Kumar Gupta, 2011), which was also a critical and commercial success. The title of the film references the headline that ran in the daily Times of India the day after the acquittal; the film poster declared that the “case [would be] reopen[ed] 7th January 2011.”

49. Nandini Chandra, “Young Protest: The Idea of Merit in Commercial Hindi Cinema,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30, no. 1 (2010): 119. Other critics have also pointed out that the film’s suggestion that corruption is the only or the most important problem facing the country is itself reflective of its privileged point of view and address. See, for instance, Srivastava, “Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema” and M. K. Raghavendra, “Globalism and Indian Nationalism.”

50. Gabrielle Spiegel, “The Task of the Historian” (Presidential address, 123rd annual meeting of American Historical Association, New York, NY, January 2-5, 2009). Emphasis in original.


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