Rang De Basanti

3 out of 5

Directed by: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

Okay.  Let’s give this a shot.

Indian cinema, so wikipedia tells me, is the second oldest in the world – going back to the silent era – has the largest movie output, and had a global revenue of over a billion as of 2000.  I am as wholly ignorant of Indian history and religion as I am of anything historically bound, and I watched Rang De Basanti curious to see more of Aamir Khan, and certainly not for any outright interest in its focus.  With TV, I give myself an “out” after a few episodes – TV and books, in my “consume all media” sensibilities, allow for this, as the time investment is debatable versus whatever’s gained by forcing oneself through it.  Movies are a bit different.  They’re comparatively bite-sized to long-form serials, and so once I’ve committed to starting something, I do like to try and finish it.

In case it’s unclear, this is all explanatory preface: Rang De Basanti is not my type of movie; I essentially “forced” myself to watch it due to mine own rules; I have no knowledge of or interest in its focus,

Rang De Basanti concerns British ex-journo Sue (as in Mary Sue? hyuck; played by Alice Patten) traveling to India to make a documentary based around the events chronicled in her gramps diary.  Grampa was an evil white man during the time of British dominance in India, faced with extracting info on some key players in the rebellion, post a train robbery for rebellion-funding funds.  Sue casts a wide net with her casting call, but cannot seem to find the spirit of the individuals in any of the auditioners.  That is, until she looks at the small group of friends with whom she’s become surrounded (pals with her Indian contact at the University of Delhi, Sonia (Soha Ali Khan)): their natural camaraderie and plaintive frustration with the problems of the day – which mimic those of the past – suggest to Sue that they can embrace her needed characters.  Indeed, once cast, as they get more involved they become more affected by the material, even able to buddy up to a stringent right-winger (Lakshman, played by Atul Kulkarni) when he expresses a desire to act in the doc as well.

And so the film bounces back and forth between tensions of the day; masala, music video-like segments where a song plays and the camera darts around with 90s editing effects; flashbacks (in which our principles are doubly cast in their roles from the documentary); and Sue hemming and hawing about, I dunno, not meeting her hemming and hawing quota.

I do appreciate director / writer Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s attempt at telling a historical tale in a modern context; he’d noted (I’m taking this all from the wiki…) that recent films with the same core subject matter had failed, and figured they were missing a connection for the modern viewer.  And so he essentially showed that exact problem, and attempts to ingratiate the viewer to the material in the same way our characters grow to be invested.  This “works” in the same way any generic drama blockbuster does – accepting the masala cheekiness, the film has an acceptable go-with-the-flow vibe – and this also means it’s subject to many of the same shortcomings, namely character arc shorthand to have hokey relationships (Sue and I’m-50-and-playing-a-young-adult Aamir Khan), and sudden dramatic leaps, and montages that cover up the lack of logistics for how this documentary is actually coming together.

Which, trawling back over the material, leads to a bigger problem: the film is actually kind of shallow.  I’m not sure I really learned anything beyond genericisms related to India’s vying for independence.  There are some splashes of local color, faring different religious sects against one another, and the corruption that seems to riddle the country’s government, but these don’t get much face time in the movie beyond setting up the “things sucked then and still suck now” comparisons.  That being said, this isn’t a movie for an ignorant American, and so perhaps I shouldn’t be looking for such lessons herein, and instead considering this something similar to a nationalistic American picture.

Whatever the case, Rang De Basanti has some quality performances – Aamir Khan, Sharman Joshi as the pack’s joker, and Kulkarni are all very watchable – and a valid setup.  Stripped of its runtime-expanding masala moments, it’s still a bit overlong, as Mehra seems unclear as to what his focus should be, but it’s about apace with any given notable historic drama.