Rang De Basanti (literal translation: Paint it Saffron ) is a 2006 Indian Hindi-language drama film written, produced and directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. The film features an ensemble cast consisting of Aamir Khan, Siddharth, Atul Kulkarni, Soha Ali Khan, Sharman Joshi, Cyrus Sahukar, Kunal Kapoor and British actress Alice Patten. It follows a British film student (Alice Patten) traveling to India to document the story of five freedom fighters of the Indian revolutionary movement. She befriends and casts five young men in the film, which inspires them to fight against the corruption of their own government.
In London, film student Sue McKinley finds the diary of her grandfather James, who served as a Colonel for the British Raj in the 1930s. James oversaw the capture and execution of five Indian freedom fighters – Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru, Ashfaqulla Khan, and Ram Prasad Bismil – and has written in his diary about his admiration for their revolutionary spirit in spite of working for the British Empire.
Inspired by the revolutionaries’ story, Sue decides to make a film on them and travels to India, where she searches for actors with the help of her friend Sonia, an international studies student at the University of Delhi. Amid a string of unsuccessful auditions, Sue meets Sonia’s friends: Daljit “DJ” Singh, Karan Singhania, Sukhi Ram and Aslam Khan. She immediately decides to cast them in her film, with DJ as Chandra Shekhar Azad, Karan Singhania as Bhagat Singh, Aslam Khan as Ashfaqulla Khan, and Sukhi Ram as Shivaram Rajguru.
DJ, Aslam, Sukhi and the spendthrift Karan, who is the spoilt son of political businessman Rajnath Singhania (played by Anupam Kher), are carefree and cynical about their futures in India and of India’s future as well, and while they easily get along with Sue, they remain uninterested in working on a film expressing patriotism towards India. Tensions arise when Sue casts the boys’ rival, the right-wing Nationalist party activist Laxman Pandey as Bismil. However, over the course of working on the film, Pandey grows closer to the others including Aslam who he disliked in the beginning for being a Muslim. Sue also begins a relationship with DJ.
The group is devastated when their friend Ajay Singh Rathod, a flight lieutenant in the Indian Air Force and Sonia’s fiancée, is killed when his MiG-21 jet malfunctions and crashes. The government attributes the accident to pilot error, blaming Ajay for being a rash pilot and closes the case, but Sonia and her friends refuse to accept the official explanation, remembering Ajay as a skilled pilot who died while steering the plane away from crashing into a populous city. They learn that the corrupt Defense Minister, Shastri, signed a contract importing cheap parts for MiG-21 aircraft in exchange for personal favors. Karan, however, is severely jolted when he realizes that his father, Rajnath was involved in orchestrating the deal.
Galvanized against the corruption of the government by their efforts working on the film, the group organizes a peaceful protest at the India Gate war memorial, but the police arrive and violently break up the demonstration with Ajay’s mother going into a coma. Laxman realizes that his senior party official, Raghuvir Mishra, was in league with the government officials ordered the police to stop the protest and becomes disillusioned with his own party. Inspired by the revolutionaries, the group decides to take action themselves and they assassinate Shastri to avenge Ajay’s death, while Karan confronts and murders Rajnath.
However, their plan backfires as the Indian media reports that Shastri was killed by terrorists and celebrates him as a martyr. The group decides to publicly clarify their intent behind the assassination, and take over the All India Radio station after evacuating its employees and alerting Karan’s friend Rahul, who works there and is live at the moment. Karan goes on air and calls out the defense ministry’s corruption to the public. The police and Anti-Terrorist Special Forces arrive at the station under instructions to kill them. Sukhi is shot dead, while Aslam and Laxman are killed by a grenade and DJ is severely injured. DJ reunites with Karan in the recording room as the latter finishes his public statement, and the two of them get killed together.
News of the boys’ death enrages the public, spurring a wave of demonstrations against the Indian government with the Indian youth across all states of India beginning protests and demonstrations against the rampant corruption. Ajay’s mother awakes from her coma. The film ends with Sue describing the personal impact of meeting the boys and working on the film, while the deceased boys are seen in an afterlife-like state meeting a young Bhagat Singh in his family garden.
The film is driven by the superb performances of all the cast members led by Aamir Khan and including Alice Watten performing in her first Bollywood film. The movie gave a realistic portrayal of changing sentiments and values of the youth of India as many moved towards adopting Western cultural traits. It also showed the growing divide between India’s Hindus and Muslims and reconciling them both in the background of a united freedom struggle. The movie manages to mix key Bollywood masala elements with strong sentiments regarding patriotism, coming-of-age and friendship. The strong script and performances is also supported by a fantastic soundtrack composed by A.R Rahman of Slumdog Millionaire fame.
The movie succeeds as it weaves historical facts with contemporary themes and characters, thanks to Mehra’s smart writing and direction that draws you instantly into Rang De Basanti’s absorbing plot, which flits smoothly from past to present. With a cleverly scripted non-linear style of narration, Mehra takes the audience on an inspiring journey of self-discovery and courage while rekindling the fiery spark of passion for and pride in one’s homeland, which for many of India’s MTV Generation was a forgotten part of history. As he blurs the line between the past and the present, the protagonists literally and figuratively breathe the essence of the braveheart revolutionaries who laid down their lives for the nation during India’s freedom struggle against the oppressive British Raj.
Every once in a while a movie comes along that makes us question our commitment to our country, makes us ashamed about our indifference towards the horrors that exist within the country, opens our eyes to the corruption, red-tapism and injustice that is prevalent in the system, and urges us to break down these walls to stand up for what’s right. Rang De Basanti is that kind of a film. It instils in us Indians, as citizens of the country, a sense of pride, joy and a feeling of purpose and responsibility to our motherland beyond the divisions of castes, religions and backgrounds.
One of the best films to come out of Bollywood, the movie shines in all spheres – acting, direction, music and plot. Go watch it if you never have.