October 2006 
Year 13    No.119

Cover Story


Ways of seeing

Rang De Basanti, Lage Raho Munna Bhai. Evoking idealism or validating violence?


No two films in the recent past have elicited as much discussion as Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006) and Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). Both films meditate on contemporary society and draw inspiration from history. The protagonists of Rang De Basanti take inspiration from revolutionary nationalists and the protagonist of Lage Raho Munna Bhai from Gandhi. This article is a series of reflections on why these two films, inspired by two politically divergent ideologies, may have captured the imagination of the people.

Rang De Basanti is about a group of restless college students who participate in the making of a film on the political activities of militant revolutionaries led by Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh. The filmmaker, Sue (Alice Patten), bases her script on the diary of her grandfather who served as superintendent at a jail where the young rebels were imprisoned. The diary becomes a chronicle and tribute to their political activities. After being refused funding for the film, Sue comes to India determined to complete the project. She is assisted by Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) who offers to work for free. Unable to find a suitable cast through auditions, Sue and Sonia persuade a group of friends to act in the film. Karan Singhania (Siddharth Suryanarayan), disillusioned son of a rich and corrupt father, plays Bhagat Singh, Daljeet or DJ (Aamir Khan), a charming, jobless youth plays Chandrashekhar Azad and their allies are played by Aslam (Karan Kapoor), Sukhi (Sharmaan Joshi) and Laxman Pandey (Atul Kulkarni). Sonia herself is cast as Durga Bhabi, the only woman revolutionary in the group.

The plot takes a turn when air force pilot, Ajay Rathod, a friend of the group and Sonia’s fiancé, dies in a MiG-21 crash. It becomes clear that inferior spare parts and corruption in the services are responsible for the plane crash. The defence minister (Mohan Agashe) denies charges of corruption and blames the crash on Ajay’s ineptitude. The group organises a peaceful protest that is brutally attacked by the Rapid Action Force (RAF), leaving Ajay’s elderly mother severely injured and in a coma. In a replay, as it were, of the political assassination planned by the young revolutionaries, the group plans and executes the assassination of the defence minister. Contrary to what the group had hoped, the defence minister is hailed as a great man and patriot. In order to proclaim the truth as the boys see it, they take over the All India Radio (AIR) building, hijack a live radio show and explain their actions to the public. During the confession it is also revealed that Sukhi has killed his father for being complicit in the corruption scam. State reprisal is brutal. Black Cat commandos storm the building and kill the boys.

In contrast to Rang De Basanti’s violent finale, Lage Raho Munna Bhai advocates a non-violent approach to settling conflicts. In a sequel to the superhit Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), the now famous duo of taporis (small-time street hoods), Munna Bhai (Sunjay Dutt), and his sidekick, Circuit (Arshad Warsi), return to propagate what the filmmaker perceives to be the message of Mahatma Gandhi. Munna Bhai falls in love with Jhanvi (Vidya Balan), a radio jockey who he would meet in person if he were to win a quiz on Gandhi that she is conducting over the radio. He wins the quiz by kidnapping and arm-twisting some history teachers and is invited to the show for a live interview. He meets her on the show pretending to be a history professor whose mission is to spread ‘Gandhigiri’ among the youth by using tapori lingo. Impressed with Munna Bhai’s dedication to Gandhi, Jhanvi invites him to speak to a bunch of elderly men who, after being abandoned by their own children, live in her house. Left with no option but to study, he immerses himself in the dusty books housed in a dilapidated library devoted to Gandhi’s life and thoughts. After three nights of continuous studying, Gandhi shows up to meet Munna Bhai. The only problem is that no one else can see Gandhi so everyone thinks the poor man is hallucinating.

Subsequently, Gandhi becomes Munna Bhai’s mentor and advisor. With Gandhi’s help, Munna manages to impress the geriatrics thereby consolidating his reputation as a great Gandhian. Thus begins Munna Bhai’s journey of discovering the value of Gandhigiri as he embarks on solving all problems through non-violent means. Therefore, when Lucky Singh (Boman Irani), an unscrupulous contractor, deviously takes over the home of Jhanvi and the elderly inmates, Munna Bhai refuses to react violently. Instead, he stages a peaceful satyagraha in front of Lucky’s house and sends him flowers every day. Through Jhanvi’s radio show, Munna Bhai and Gandhi sort out listeners’ problems by suggesting non-violent means of protest, which seem to work like magic. The final reckoning comes when Gandhi persuades Munna Bhai to reveal his real identity to Jhanvi. However, all ends well with Lucky Singh having a change of heart when Gandhigiri saves his reputation and his daughter from a bad marriage. The house is restored to the elderly and Jhanvi accepts Munna Bhai for what he is. In the very last sequence, Lucky Singh immerses himself in Gandhian thought in the same dusty library only to have the great man materialise out of thin air once again.

Both Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Rang De Basanti have been huge box office hits. Rang De Basanti earned 22.8 crore worldwide within the first four days of its release while Lage Raho Munna Bhai was made tax free by the Delhi government for promoting Gandhian ideals. Both the print and electronic media continue to run stories about how the two films have changed people’s lives and attitudes. Rang De Basanti reportedly inspired the public to protest against the Jessica Lal case verdict while Lage Raho Munna Bhai was credited with having inspired various groups (including students of Lucknow University) to resort to non-violence. The media has also reported on how the film has increased the sales of books and related memorabilia on Gandhi.

One does not have to be a media scholar to appreciate that these are wild exaggerations. The Jessica Lal protests had less to do with Rang De Basanti than a simmering rage about the travesty of justice in what was a murder in full public view. Similarly, peaceful demonstrations have always coexisted with violent ones. Hirani’s film may have temporarily affected the sale of Gandhi related books and memorabilia but is by no means the sole factor. (It would be interesting to see how long the 250-member website advocating Gandhigiri survives). Outlook magazine of September 11, 2006 reported that the number of publishers/authors applying for rights of Gandhi’s works doubled in the last 2-3 years and that 1,000-2,000 new books on Gandhi are published every year. In the opening scenes of Rang De Basanti, the commissioning editor turns down Sue’s proposal on Bhagat Singh while observing that "Gandhi sells". If anybody is responsible for selling Gandhi, it is the Mahatma himself. Gandhi is a compelling and controversial figure who will always elicit interest because of his iconoclasm and political genius.

Both Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munna Bhai address contemporary anxieties and suggest remedies that draw inspiration from the past. Rang De Basanti uses a layered and complex narrative that actively invites multiple readings while Lage Raho Munna Bhai has a simpler, more linear narrative structure. Since the film’s release, it is common to find at least one item in the media where someone lauds the fact that Munna Bhai has brought Gandhi back to life. Hirani’s playful engagement with Gandhi is most refreshing. But how exactly does this playful Gandhi relate to his historical counterpart? Even a rudimentary familiarity with Gandhi will reveal that his philosophy and strategies of political resistance were both complex and astute. As Ajit Duara correctly observes (The Hindu, October 1, 2006), Gandhi’s "greatest legacy to India and the world was a form of political agitation known as civil disobedience which frequently did lead to violence but which was so original a philosophy that it worked in certain circumstances and against certain regimes." He argues that an ahistorical application of civil disobedience strategies is unlikely to work and had Gandhi been alive today, he would probably have advocated very different measures to curb corruption than his screen counterpart. In one sequence, for example, a retired pensioner strips down to his underwear to shame the corrupt official into giving him his cheque. "If he came to life today, as he does in the film," writes Duara, "he would approve of a strict enforcement of the law, including the arrest and detention of corrupt officials." In Hirani’s film, Gandhi is an amiable social reformer who preaches non-violence and honesty as a panacea for all ills. Divested of any complexity, Gandhi emerges as a loveable, apolitical pacifist who is unlikely to ruffle anyone’s feathers. But history tells us that Gandhi ruffled feathers to such an extent that he was assassinated by Hindu extremists.

I should add here that all filmmakers have a right to interpret public figures in the manner they choose as long as they do not present factual inaccuracies. Nor is there such a thing as ‘the’ true interpretation. Therefore, I am not so interested in interrogating the ‘truth’ of such an interpretation as trying to understand why certain interpretations become popular at certain moments in history. It is my suggestion that in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Gandhi represents not a historical figure so much as an idea embodying contemporary society’s deep desire for redemption. In an anxious society ridden by caste, class, ethnic and communal conflicts, the film visualises a utopian world where the perpetrators of violence and corruption are magically transformed by the power of love. The desire for moral redemption (‘hriday parivartan’, as Circuit calls it) drives the narrative of the film. It is uncertain whether the Gandhi of later years, having failed to prevent the partition of India or the communal madness that claimed hundreds of lives on both sides, would have shared such a utopian vision of transforming the world.

But the film is by no means just a compendium of pious homilies. The humour in the film emerges from both remembering and forgetting Gandhi. When the satyagraha in front of Lucky Singh’s house lands Munna and Circuit in jail, they fantasise about the benefits accruing from walking the Gandhian path. They fantasise about their statues being erected in parks, their faces appearing on 500 rupee notes and their birthdays being declared a national holiday so long as it was not a dry day! The film is non-judgemental about those who have forgotten Gandhi because, the film seems to suggest, it is never too late to remember.

If Lage Raho Munna Bhai embodies a utopian desire for redemption, Rang De Basanti, despite its laughter, frivolity and bonhomie, is a dystopian parable about the impossibility of it. In a multiply layered narrative, historical reconstructions of the past punctuate narratives of the present. The boys who act as revolutionaries in the film embody the disillusion and cynicism of our times. In one of the early sequences, a group of Hindu activists led by Laxman Pandey attacks a party where DJ and his friends are dancing. Laxman accuses the revellers of corrupting Indian culture with western ideas. In the altercation that follows, Laxman calls Aslam a "Pakistani" thereby provoking DJ into a fight. When the police arrive, DJ settles the matter with a bribe. Earlier in the scene, Sukhi generously loans money to a friend and remarks that his father had money enough to rot. This one scene lays out the different registers of conflict that beset the lives of even the privileged classes in India. Unlike Munna Bhai who, despite being a gangster, has unbridled faith in the goodness of human beings, the boys in Rang De Basanti are sceptics. The actions that lead to the dark finale of the film are inspired not only by their deep empathy for the historical figures whose roles they portray but precipitated equally by a hopeless disillusion with the present. As DJ says, "Ik pair future mein te ik pair past mein rakh kar aaj par moot rahe (With one foot in the past and the other in the future, we are peeing on the present)."

Just as Lage Raho Munna Bhai’s popularity has been accompanied by stories about the film popularising Gandhian values, Rang De Basanti has been blamed for legitimising vendetta through violence. "The film’s basic political prescription is scary," writes Kanti Bajpai, academic and principal of Doon School, in Outlook (February 20, 2006), "Young people are encouraged to mete out vigilante justice and then seek atonement through populist slogans and maverick explanations." Similarly, in an edit page article in the Hindustan Times (September 1, 2006), journalist Sagarika Ghosh writes, "Rang De Basanti is a cult film for today’s youth. A film that preaches disrespect, hedonism and historical forgetfulness while valorising murder is seen as the great protest film of our time." This allegation is not new and films with violent content frequently evoke this response.

Film studies in the last two decades, especially in the 1990s, revised and re-oriented the critical frameworks and categories under which film violence has been traditionally studied and understood. Research and scholarly work have dispelled the myth that films, however violent, can cause violence except in stray individuals who are already predisposed towards it. On the contrary, an interrogation of film violence can provide useful insights into the workings of contemporary society.

The spectator’s engagement with film texts or any other cultural form is complex and unpredictable. An engagement with the realm of representation does not, except in exceptional situations, translate directly into actions in the ‘real’ world. Take the last sequence of Prakash Jha’s pro-feminist film, Mrityudand, (1997) where the female protagonist (Madhuri Dixit) shoots the villain through the head as a large collective of women gather to bear witness and suppress evidence. Anyone remotely familiar with the plight of women in rural India will know that such a resolution is more likely to be imagined than lived. But for many spectators this ‘representational’ remedy may be empowering precisely because it is impossible to achieve in real life.

Kanti Bajpai also laments the film’s suggestion that "Indian Society is portrayed as perfectly good while the state is made to look hopelessly bad." It may be useful to recall that Rang De Basanti is by no means the first film to articulate disenchantment with the state. In fact, more than any other popular cultural form, Bombay films have consistently critiqued the decline of state machinery and the failure to deliver social justice. Whether or not such representations are desirable depends on one’s expectations about the role and purpose of cinema and on which side of privilege one stands. Let us take a quick look at Rang De Basanti’s architectural ancestors.

The post-1974 films of Amitabh Bachchan are articulations about the crises of the state. The rise of the angry young man coincided with, even anticipated, the declaration of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, independent India’s most oppressive experience of state repression. Not only does the state retreat from its promise of delivering justice and democratic rights, it unleashes terror on its citizens. From the mid-’70s onward, innumerable films have depicted how the judiciary fails to deliver justice, protecting instead those it ought to punish.

The films of the late ’80s and ’90s become more categorical about the failure of the state and its machinery. Representatives of the rule of law are shown to be directly complicit with corruption and criminality. With lawlessness spilling over into increasingly chaotic public spaces, notions of justice and revenge begin to collide. As state institutions crumble, vigilante figures, or those I call urban warriors, begin to function as surrogate law keepers.

In films such as Arjun (Rahul Rawail, 1985), Parinda (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1989), Ghayal (Raj Kumar Santoshi, 1990), Narasimha (N. Chandra, 1991), Yeshwant (Anil Matto, 1997), Satya (Ram Gopal Verma, 1998), Ghulam (Vikram Bhatt, 1998), Shool (E. Niwas, 1999), Vaastav (Mahesh Manjrekar, 1999), Takshak, (Govind Nihalani, 2000), Kurukshetra (Mahesh Manjrekar, 2000), Garv (Punit Issar, 2004) and Sehar (Kabir Kaushik, 2005), the urban experience is shown to evoke terror, insecurity and even madness.

In the 1990s the representational collapse of state institutions and the imploding of boundaries between law and lawlessness is complete. This ‘collapse’ becomes articulated particularly in the mid-’90s around the emergence of the mafia or gangster films that lay bare the intersections and overlaps between law keepers and lawbreakers, state and society, order and chaos. In the landscape of Bombay films, state and society cannot be separated. Perhaps for this reason, Rang De Basanti’s finale provides two assassinations each representing the state and civil society.

Cinema is a phantasmic site on which desires, aspirations, fears and anxieties can be played out. Within the cinematic space, imagination is paramount. Both Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Rang De Basanti address contemporary desires and anxieties, which accounts for their popular appeal. Neither however can be held responsible for either aggravating or diminishing violent acts. The complexities of spectatorial engagement becomes evident if we consider that there are many who have strongly identified with both films regardless of their seemingly divergent ideologies.

Notwithstanding the politics of violence or non-violence, both films envision certain ways of living and being. Both Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Rang De Basanti are texts primarily driven by men and male friendship. Munna Bhai is in love with Jhanvi but his primary companion is Circuit. In a world of collapsing certitudes and increasing uncertainty, the constancy of love and friendship between Munna and Circuit is no less attractive than Gandhigiri. Rang De Basanti has two significant female protagonists who initiate the film-within-the-film project that, in turn, acknowledges the historic role of Durga Bhabi. The narrative, however, belongs to the boys around whom the climax of the film is structured. To this end, the very last image of the film is significant. The boys are resurrected, as it were, in the vast and colourful expanse of the mustard fields. They watch approvingly as a young boy called Bhagat Singh plants a sapling so that a thousand mangoes may grow. We last see them drifting lyrically across the yellow flowers. Even death, it appears, cannot part them. The parable of love and loyalty explored through male bonding provides a poignant counterfoil to the darkness of the film’s theme of violence and vendetta. In both films a sense of community and reconciliation, fast declining in the anarchy and uncertainty of a rapidly globalising world, is found in the constancy of friendship. n

(Shohini Ghosh is associate professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.)



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