Ways of seeing

Written by Shohini Ghosh | Published on: October 1, 2006
Rang De Basanti, Lage Raho Munna Bhai. Evoking idealism or validating violence?

No two films in the recent past have elicited as much discussion as Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006) and Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). Both films meditate on contemporary society and draw inspiration from history. The protagonists of Rang De Basanti take inspiration from revolutionary nationalists and the protagonist of Lage Raho Munna Bhai from Gandhi. This article is a series of reflections on why these two films, inspired by two politically divergent ideologies, may have captured the imagination of the people.

Rang De Basanti is about a group of restless college students who participate in the making of a film on the political activities of militant revolutionaries led by Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh. The filmmaker, Sue (Alice Patten), bases her script on the diary of her grandfather who served as superintendent at a jail where the young rebels were imprisoned. The diary becomes a chronicle and tribute to their political activities. After being refused funding for the film, Sue comes to India determined to complete the project. She is assisted by Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) who offers to work for free. Unable to find a suitable cast through auditions, Sue and Sonia persuade a group of friends to act in the film. Karan Singhania (Siddharth Suryanarayan), disillusioned son of a rich and corrupt father, plays Bhagat Singh, Daljeet or DJ (Aamir Khan), a charming, jobless youth plays Chandrashekhar Azad and their allies are played by Aslam (Karan Kapoor), Sukhi (Sharmaan Joshi) and Laxman Pandey (Atul Kulkarni). Sonia herself is cast as Durga Bhabi, the only woman revolutionary in the group.

The plot takes a turn when air force pilot, Ajay Rathod, a friend of the group and Sonia’s fiancé, dies in a MiG-21 crash. It becomes clear that inferior spare parts and corruption in the services are responsible for the plane crash. The defence minister (Mohan Agashe) denies charges of corruption and blames the crash on Ajay’s ineptitude. The group organises a peaceful protest that is brutally attacked by the Rapid Action Force (RAF), leaving Ajay’s elderly mother severely injured and in a coma. In a replay, as it were, of the political assassination planned by the young revolutionaries, the group plans and executes the assassination of the defence minister. Contrary to what the group had hoped, the defence minister is hailed as a great man and patriot. In order to proclaim the truth as the boys see it, they take over the All India Radio (AIR) building, hijack a live radio show and explain their actions to the public. During the confession it is also revealed that Sukhi has killed his father for being complicit in the corruption scam. State reprisal is brutal. Black Cat commandos storm the building and kill the boys.

In contrast to Rang De Basanti’s violent finale, Lage Raho Munna Bhai advocates a non-violent approach to settling conflicts. In a sequel to the superhit Munna Bhai MBBS (2003), the now famous duo of taporis (small-time street hoods), Munna Bhai (Sunjay Dutt), and his sidekick, Circuit (Arshad Warsi), return to propagate what the filmmaker perceives to be the message of Mahatma Gandhi. Munna Bhai falls in love with Jhanvi (Vidya Balan), a radio jockey who he would meet in person if he were to win a quiz on Gandhi that she is conducting over the radio. He wins the quiz by kidnapping and arm-twisting some history teachers and is invited to the show for a live interview. He meets her on the show pretending to be a history professor whose mission is to spread ‘Gandhigiri’ among the youth by using tapori lingo. Impressed with Munna Bhai’s dedication to Gandhi, Jhanvi invites him to speak to a bunch of elderly men who, after being abandoned by their own children, live in her house. Left with no option but to study, he immerses himself in the dusty books housed in a dilapidated library devoted to Gandhi’s life and thoughts. After three nights of continuous studying, Gandhi shows up to meet Munna Bhai. The only problem is that no one else can see Gandhi so everyone thinks the