January 23, 2020
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My Yellow Icon

There's a buzz about this tale that rocks to the beat of the urban youth and has all the trappings of a successful film

My Yellow Icon
Abhijit Bhatlekar
My Yellow Icon
Bollywood didn't expect to be in for a surprise so early in the new year. It has come in the form of the Rs 30-crore gamble called Rang De Basanti. This is not a raunchy comedy, nor the evergreen shot-in-Switzerland love triangle. It's a film that talks about something as non-sexy as the lost spirit of nationalism. It has been helmed by a director called Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra whose filmography boasts of a resounding flop called Aks. The film's cast is headed by Aamir Khan with the disappointment of Mangal Pandey behind him. There have been more odds to contend with: a motley group of young actors whom no one had heard much of. Yes, there's rocking music by A.R. Rahman, but certainly not of the kind that can approximate the mobile-downloadable kitschy popularity of Himesh Reshamiyya. It gets worse. Rang De's reclusive star Aamir has been cussedly reluctant to promote the film in the media, he's only talked to his young viewers in forums, chatrooms, studio discussions; the journos kept waiting in the queue. In a nutshell, no one would have predicted the phenomenal response that Rang De has been getting from viewers.

It has struck a unique chord with its target demographic: urban youngsters and the Indian diaspora. The film has started off exceptionally, earning Rs 22.8 crore worldwide in the first four days of release, and the first week's gross comes to about Rs 33.91 crore worldwide. It has emerged as Aamir's biggest opener in the overseas market. Released widely with about 600 prints over the extended Republic Day weekend, it is being dubbed by the trade pundits as a "class hit", a "multiplex success", "the Black of 2006".

But more than that,Rang De has turned out to be one of the most fervently debated and dissected films in recent times. Just log on to the web and you'll encounter passionate discussions. "The reactions are not just good, bad or nice but extreme," says Kunal Kapoor, who plays Aslam in the film. "Liking the film is one thing. Rang De has created a certain sweeping spirit," says Atul Kulkarni who plays Laxman Pandey.

According to desicritics.org, the film yielded as many as 2,234 posts on blogger search just four days after its release. Rediff.com already has 29 web pages of a continuing discussion on the film. In fact, the debate in the blogosphere, the realm of the young and the restless, has now moved on from the film to analysing the historical figures it draws parallels from, to Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad, and whether they are indeed the big heroes that our history text-books make them out to be.

You don't need to put Rang De under the scanner to know what's wrong with it. The flaws stare at you hard. The caricaturised minister, the naive politics, the misplaced cause, the violent turn of events, the pat comparisons with the historical figures, the far-fetched and confused finale. Like any other celebrated film, after the first round of applause, it is now at the receiving end of complaints.

And yet, you can't just wish away its peculiar tug. However silly its story, theme and ideology may sound on paper, something about it comes alive on screen. So even the most hardened of cynics in Bollywood, young filmmaker Anurag Kashyap (yes, the one who brazenly lammed the critically acclaimed Black last year), is in Rang De's grip: "I just love it".

What's with the film? At one level, it is a very well-made, technically accomplished effort which offers popular fare in a new format, specially in its bright, breezy and delightful first half. "Its sensibility and style is the future of cinema," says screen-writer Javed Akhtar. The script (Kamlesh Pandey), screenplay (Mehra and Rensil D Silva), dialogues and lyrics (Prasoon Joshi), music (Rahman), photography (Binod Pradhan) and editing (P. S. Bharati) are something our dream factory doesn't conceptualise every other day. And they come together, rather than work independently of each other, to carry forward the film's theme. Just listening to the soundtrack will inform you of the film's thematic trajectory. "The Prasoon Joshi-A.R. Rahman combine offers a fusion of meaning and music," says Baradwaj Rangan, film critic, the New Sunday Express. Akhtar thinks the film has great dialogue. "Even while the lines are natural and real, they still have complete dramatic impact when required," he says.

But the most attractive aspect are the characters. They have become mini icons for the young. What they represent—their values, attitude, lingo and lifestyle—has found an easy echo with GenNow. "Everybody in the audience wants to be part of the group, or they think their own group is as beautiful. They travel with the group and after a point forget that they are fictional protagonists, that's why they take us home with them," says Siddharth Suryanarayan who plays Karan Singhania. The drifting, the beer, the canteen, the music, the bikes, the speeding jeeps, the dazzling lights and trendy jackets—these are images and experiences almost every urban youngster has lived with. "The film works if you care about the people in it. I laughed with these guys, I cried with them, I was happy when they were happy and when I came out of the theatre I couldn't wait to be back," says Rangan.

Mehra has been successful in defining his characters well and then getting just the right actors for each of the roles. The individual performances work, so does the group as a whole. And the spontaneity indicates they would have had fun filming it. "Each of us had a well-etched, distinct character so there was no insecurity or competition. And a 15-day workshop before the shooting made us comfortable with each other," says Kapoor.

The other successful aspect of the film is that its notion of patriotism and nationalism seems to be in tune with the sentiments of the times. In much the same way as Gadar was five years ago. Gadar, with its potent packaging of mush and jingoism, drove the crowds into the movie halls. It played on the animus against Pakistan, was all about "them" and "us". Times are now a changing. Rang De talks of the nation with a sense of hope, but a hope that's also guarded, deeply embedded in cynicism. The most favourite lines reverberate: Ik pair future mein te ik pair past mein rakh ke aaj par moot rahe (With one leg in the past and the other in the future we are peeing on the present.) Can nothing become of this nation? A tad too simplistic and over-the-top but a sentiment that instantly finds a connection with its viewers. According to Ranjini Majumdar, associate professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, the film successfully fuels the "middle-class fantasy of corruption being the only problem in the country".

We have had a number of films on the rootlessness of the young and their search for identity. Rang De does not just articulate their angst but also plays out their engaging banter. Which again makes it very powerful. According to Majumdar, the film is able to capture the youth experience very effectively. "There is a non-heaviness to the characters. There's no heavy code of martyrdom. It allows for fun, happiness," she says. Nationalism then is not the stodgy Bharat of Manoj Kumar's movies, nor the preachy politics of Swades or Shikhar. It's nationalism that's edgy, entertaining and oh such fun.

It's also nationalism in the age of globalisation. No wonder then that the film should have found brand association in Coca Cola, with the multinational launching a Rang De line of bottles. But this is just one of the things about the film that is raising hackles. Primarily, it's the historical comparisons and the seeking of validity for present-day violence from the past. "Bhagat Singh's fight was a different fight. He was essentially non-violent. It wasn't that he was advocating violence but used it as a means to draw attention to his ideology. He regretted the killings later," says filmmaker Raj Kumar Santoshi, who brought the hero alive on the screen a few years ago. But curiously it is this "pat" interplay with history that also helps connect the film with today's young. An entire generation which has constantly been dismissed as callous and clueless is seen with some amount of positivity in the light of the past. "Youngsters may seem complacent but there's an unrest within them that the film is able to touch," says Kulkarni. "It says there's a Bhagat Singh as an alternative in each of us," says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan.

Visvanathan ventures so far as to say that Aamir has done more for history than the ICHR, even as he calls the actor the "bete noire" of positivist historians. "He makes history interesting, puts fun into it." Observes Kashyap: "It's initiating discussions. It might be juvenile conversations but youngsters are at least talking history and politics while leaving the halls."

The other problem is the film's so-called violent message. "It's teaching kids to be violent," says filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi. But it's not the unbridled vigilante violence of a Shool, Krantiveer or Gangajal. If you look closely, the film doesn't really offer violence as a solution despite the nihilism and anarchy. Within the Bollywoodian notions of poetic justice, it does show up the utter futility in its protagonists' call to arms. "Despite the sense of loss, the final impact is positive," says Kashyap.

In the recent history of Indian youth cinema, Yuva may have been more proactive, Paanch more subversive, Hazaron Khwaahishen Aisee more politically aware cinema, but it's Rang De that's turned out to have had the most powerful impact.

By Namrata Joshi with Lata Khubchandani in Mumbai
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