February 14, 2020
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A Message Takes Flight

RDB drives home the point of deceased MiG pilot's mother

A Message Takes Flight
Abhijit Bhatlekar
A Message Takes Flight
Standing in quiet dignity outside Rashtrapati Bhavan a few years ago, Kavita Gadgil handed out a bunch of photocopied papers to waiting journalists soon after she had spoken to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. All that Gadgil wanted was the establishment sit up and take notice that she, as a citizen and a mother of a dead MiG-21 pilot, was concerned about the safety of young air force pilots. Her cause drew renewed attention when, years later, the film Rang De Basanti (RDB), brought the whole issue back into focus. While RDB is a runaway hit, it also succeeded in making the three service chiefs take time off to watch the film at Delhi's Mahadev Road auditorium.

But as the producers quietly accepted the three cuts 'suggested' by defence ministry officials, it brought back into focus the uneasy ties the three services share with the mass media. For the army, it all began with Major Saab. Horrified at how it portrayed the prestigious National Defence Academy, the army approached the censor board to ensure that any film dealing with the armed forces would get a nod from them before screening. Since then, filmmakers have to adhere to several guidelines if they take help from a particular service. These stretch from ensuring that the service is "displayed in a positive light" to giving them total editorial control. But a film like RDB did not seek any help from the Indian air force. Instead, it took a few distant shots of the Ambala air force station and left the rest to computer-generated images of the MiG-21.

Where the film succeeded was in exposing, at least partially, the 'real reasons' behind the spate of MiG-21 crashes. But the defence ministry has always been skirting this issue. A former air chief flew the MiG-21 from the air base at Bareilly to prove that all was fine with the aircraft. What was not told was that on that particular day, none of the MiG-21s at the base was in an airworthy state. Instead, one was flown in especially from Gwalior.

Today, the Gadgils' message is hitting home, thanks to RDB. They are busy setting up a memorial in the name of their son to "educate" civilians on the risks military aviators take when they fly their magnificent machines. Just for that, RDB deserves applause: the issue taken on is politically live and sensitive. Even if the three service chiefs managed to get the filmmakers to drop a scene where a "fictitious defence minister" takes to the skies in a MiG-21. Did someone say it was too reminiscent of George Fernandes sitting in a MiG-21 at the Ambala air force base?

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