One of my favourite pastimes while watching a Bollywood movie is to second-guess the director, think up what's going to happen next. Mostly I don't find directors very challenging, but Rang De Basanti was one film I wasn't sure where it was leading to at the intermission point.
Is that a good thing? Yes, if only the break was not 90 minutes into the film. By which time one's patience is slowly starting to wear thin at the never-ending antics of five out-of-college but in college mode youths plus one girl.
Very few Indian directors, I think, can be dispassionate enough to know how much to edit their films, especially talented ones like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra whose debut, Aks, was unusual. It's not half as difficult to make a good film as it is to do an encore. Few directors pass the test of a better second film.
Does Rakeysh Mehra, whose second film comes five years after his first, make the grade? I would give a qualified yes. Rang De Basanti has a story to tell, is not a ripoff of some exotic film, but the story is told at a leisurely pace. Is it a patriotic film? Yes and no. Is it a coming of age film? Yes and no. Is it a fun film? Yes and no. Is it a serious film? Yes and no. Does it have a neat ending? Yes and no.
You see the difficulty?
The story begins with the young British filmmaker Sue (Alice Patten) stalking off her budget-hit job to India to make a film on the young revolutionaries who so impressed her grandfather, an angrezon ke zamaane ke jailor, with their calm in the face of imminent death. In Delhi, aided by Sonia (Soha Ali Khan), she runs into DJ (Aamir Khan), Karan (Siddharth), Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), Aslam (Kunal Kapoor). With them and the saffron-hued Laxman Pandey (Atul Kulkarni) who joins them later, she hopes to realize her dream of a making a film on Bhagat Singh, Chandrasekhar Azad, Rajguru et al.
But, contrary to Sue's expectations, the youth have no feelings for their country. India is a no-hoper where corruption is rampant, and nothing can be done to salvage the situation, they believe. They even poke fun at Sue's attempts to make a film, till they come around. As they play the historical characters, their perspective about the present, and their own role in it, changes forever. Which, in a nutshell, is what the movie is about.
Madhavan, as Sonia's IAF pilot fiancé, is the voice of conscience who rouses these five into action.
If I said how, I will be giving the end away. Talking of which, the end could have been handled differently, but that would not have got the result the director wanted.
It is very easy for a film of this nature to descend into preachiness, a fault another well-intentioned film Swades was unable to resist. Thankfully, this director doesn't give in, yet gets his message across.
The film has an awesome cast; apart from the headliners, there's Om Puri, Kirron Kher and Waheeda Rehman, doing little more than cameo roles, true, but who leave their mark.
Plus, it has an A-list of technicians. After an indifferent score for Mangal Pandey, A R Rahman redeems himself in Rang De Basanti. Binod Pradhan's cinematography is lyrical, and adman Prasoon Joshi evokes the youth lingo with his dialogues. Sameer Chanda's art direction and Allan Amin's action sequences are its other strong points.
Of the actors, it's tough to single out non-performance. Alice Patten, with her night-school Hindi, is brilliant, though at times I thought I was hearing Sonia Gandhi. So are the five lukkas, all of who are given their time under the sun and come out unburnt. Personally, Soha Ali Khan's performance was a pleasant surprise; she's got her mother Sharmila Tagore's genes all right.
But ultimately, despite sharing the screen space with others, this is an Aamir Khan film. And the actor, playing a character 15 years younger, lives the role, conveying the right amount of mischief (as in the banter in Hindi with Sue without realizing she knows the language), carefree flippancy, earnestness, insecurity, even breaking down on screen, and keeping his infectious laughter till the very end.