“Zindagi jeeney ke do hi tareekey hote hain… Ek jo ho raha hai, honey do, bardaasht karte jaao. Ya phir zimmedari uthao ussey badalne ki”
(There are only two primary choices in life… One is to accept things the way they are. The second is to accept responsibility to change them.)
— DJ, Rang De Basanti, 2006
When Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s cult classic Rang De Basanti released in the year 2006, it redefined the meaning of freedom and carved its place in history as a cinematic and social turning point. And It dared to raise an important question, ‘What is patriotism?’ Carrying flags and singing the national anthem on Independence Day and Republic Day? The film attempted to lay bare how the youth felt about the nation.
By drawing parallels between two periods — the freedom fighters that fought the British Raj and young Indians who are fighting the vile corruption in the present day — the movie shook the country’s collective conscience, sparking campaigns asking for justice for victims of unaccountable criminality like 34-year-old Jessica Lal, Nitish Katara and Priyadarshini Mattoo. To some extent, it also spurred the anti-corruption campaign initiated by Anna Hazare which saw participation from scores of young Indians.
Now, the makers of this cult movie have turned the film into a book, ‘The shooting script of Rang De Basanti- A Generation Awakens’ published by Om Books International. “With a movie like RDB that entered the collective subconscious, the book was shouting to be written,” reveals director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra in a telephonic conversation. And for a film still holds relevance against the backdrop of the current socio-economic status-quo, the book aims to keep the film’s going for years to come.
How the movie came to being
As we flip through the 241-page book, we are taken back to the early days, when the makers came upon the idea of a film that painted a picture of the state of affairs in India. Back in the late 90s, when Rakeysh directed commercials he met Kamlesh Pandey. He worked with Kamlesh on a docu-feature ‘Mamuliram: The Little Big Man’ which took them to the villages of Gujarat. Upon realising their common love for the armed revolution, they were determined to make a film titled ‘The Young Guns of India’. But the project did not take off. Years later, in 2001 they once again set out with an aim to make a film, this time it was to tell the story of young freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ramprasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Rajguru and Sukhdev, who no one from the younger generation identified with.
Rakeysh reminisces the early days. He says, “I would never write a script that didn’t express my thoughts. Be it Aks which was a supernatural thriller, Delhi 6, a portrait of old Delhi or Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a biopic on Milkha Singh (rooted in the horror of Partition), all my movies have aspects from my life. My grandmother used to tell me mythical stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata every night. But at the end of it, she used to break the news that Ram and Ravan don’t exist. ‘It is all within you,’ she used to tell us, ‘The good and the bad reside within us.’ Growing up, I heard stories from my relatives about how they grew up in a refugee camp, how they used to visit Purana Qila, the oldest structure in Delhi. All these things were very vivid in my memory. I have always believed, if you want to be a writer, it is your passion, your job and your responsibility to tell stories that move you.And in this process of storytelling, you positively affect the life of another person.”
So RDB was a result of many memories. For instance, when he was in Airforce School, he remembered seeing a life-size MiG 21 fighter plane in the foyer. Years later, he watched a documentary called Coffins in Tricolor by NDTV which exposed a corruption scam involving MiG 21s. Both these incidents became an important aspect of the movie. Then there’s another from his college days at Delhi University. In 1980, the atmosphere there was politically charged as the Emergency had come to an end in 1977. So he and his friends used to talk about how they could change the country. RDB became a story of these friends.
Mehra is currently working on three projects, one of which is Mirziya inspired by Mirza Sahiban for which he will begin shooting in October. Where does he see Indian Cinema going in the next decade? Will we have more films like Rang De Basanti, films that inspire and change lives? Will we have more films that narrate real-life stories, of people like Milkha Singh and Mary Kom. He answers, “I hope so. There is so much that India has to offer. We need movies that showcase India to the world. Cinema always evolves. In the 50s or 60s, the movies spoke of the state of the country, reflecting the poverty, the unemployment, followed by an era of escapism. Once again, cinema is seeing a new form of expression. Our socio-economic milieu has taken a turn. Cinema cannot function in isolation. It has to reflect the society.” In the same breath, he tells us that there is a lot the Indian cinema can do in this regard. “India has a very rich history. We need more period films, movies that speak of our mythology. Then we need films that focus on the ever-important topic of gender bias and films that go beyond the mindless item numbers, the urban ethos — how it affects a young boy or girl, pressure of studies — how children get bogged down by the pressure of achieving a certain percentage, of how education is now targeted towards merely getting a job.”
Yes, the country definitely needs meaningful cinema, movies that catalyse compelling discussions and characters that inspire the nation.
Originally published in The New Indian Express on August 14, 2014.