15 years ago, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti did not require any heavy dialogues or polished Urdu or Sanskrit euphemism to make the youth realise how most of us had accepted corruption to be a part of our system instead of fighting it.
In one of the shot sequences, the young college boys meet at a bar in Delhi, to bid farewell to their friend Ajay. Somewhere amid fun and laughter, the conversation gets heated and the most significant, honest, the truth came out as a dialogue from Ajay Rathod.
'Dur se commentary dena bahut asan hota hain, doosro ko galiyan dena aur bhi asaan. Agar tumhe problem hain toh tum badlo na is desh ko. Yeh toh tumhara bhi desh hai. Politics join karo, police ya IAS main bharti ho jao, badlo cheeso ko, padh tum nehi karoge. Aur main batao kyun. Kyunki ghar ki safai main haath ganda kaun karein...Koi bhi desh perfect nehi hota hain, usse perfect bana na padhta hai.'
Prior to Rang De Basanti, we have seen biopics of revolutionaries but never before have the youth been so passionately involved in the Indian politics, personally taken it on their shoulder to fight against corruption and injustice. During an exclusive conversation with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, the director shared the origin of his ideas.
The Delhi we see in your films, be it the Connaught Place, or DU, it always comes with a different frame of emotions. Where does that come from?
You see I'm a Delhi boy,I have grown up in Delhi, I have played on streets and I really know the city inside out. When people say, tum kaun se gaon se ho, I say mera gaon Delhi hain. (When people ask where's your native village, I say, it's Delhi).
Which part of Delhi?
I'm from all over Delhi starting from Old Delhi, then Lutyens Delhi, my father was in Claridges so I spent a lot of time there at Aurangzeb road. We kept going South. When you belong to a place it means a lot more to you than if you are just a visitor, I think you are right, all my films, whether it's Rang De Basanti, or Delhi 6, even Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, for me Delhi is the third character.
So how did Rang De Basanti start as a script and become a film?
Umm.. a lot being written and spoken about it, so my seniors, I actually wanted to make a film on the arm revolution of India, the young guy and brings the revolution between 1919, and 1933 starting with Ram Prasad Bismil, Durga Bhabi, Ashfaqulla Khan, Shivaram Rajguru, many more. I always used to wonder, what made these youngsters who were 19, 20, 22 years old, leave their colleges and give their life away for the country. I used to wonder, these boys were just like we were when we were in college, so I used to wonder what were they thinking about, what made them give their life away, for this kind of a search we had to research a bit much more and I realised that the idea of India was very much alive inside their hearts. They wanted to end the exploitation of one human being over another, that was Bhagat Singh's world. He thought independence does not mean mere independence from the goras (meaning the British) and tomorrow to be entangled by our own. So he demanded complete independence of freedom of speech. In fact, I worked on the script and called it the Young Guns of India, and I thought let me talk to some youngsters.
'I realised that the youngsters, their aspiration was not about the idea of India'
I went to Bombay, now Mumbai, and I gave them key dialogues of the script and I thought that was not identifying with the script. They thought it is another Bhagat Singh story and the stories which have been done and all that. So I was heartbroken, that two years of work was not making any difference, this time I went Delhi and repeated the exercise, this time I called around 40 students from Delhi University, North Campus, South Campus, and there the results were even worse than Bombay. They completely rejected the idea after five minutes. Then somebody said that Chandrashekhar Azad was Kirti Azad's grandfather and I asked what are you planning to do, they wanted to get in some American University, get a job in an American company, then somebody said if you do well you could get a job at an Indian bank when you can go to City Bank. So then I realised that the youngsters, their aspiration was not about the idea of India. And whatever I make will go down the drain and it will not make a good film. So we rewrote the script altogether and that's how Rang De Basanti was born.
'I wanted to become a pilot. But then there was this huge corruption scandal...'
We started with the youth of today, and then they start enacting in a documentary which is in the past and playing the roles of the revolutionaries. In one film there were two films...two storylines, one set in 1920, and one set in the 2000s, and wherever the lines crisscrossed there used to be a spark until there came a time when the lines blurred in the spirit it's not in form, that's when the spirit of the young revolutionaries entered the bodies of the youngsters today. Once I had that, they needed to make it more relevant. So I'm from Airforce school, I'm from Bal Bharti Airforce, and you know as you enter the school there's a MIG21 aircraft. Uska dhancha hain wahan pe. We used to go for airforce shows, all my teachers were wives of air warriors, who were in-commander, fighter pilots, so the airforce was very close to my heart and at one point time in my life, I wanted to become a pilot. But then there was this huge corruption scandal, they were buying damaged air parts and the pilots were losing their lives, the MIGs were crashing they were not safe to fly. The then defence minister had said 'Yeh youngsters hosh main nehi, josh main plain urate hain,' (these youngsters don't apply with excitement, not concentration) to which I felt something needs to be done, it made me very angry, and it made me think deeply, so we bought that aspect was brought in the film as the pivotal plot of what the youngster thought. It is very easy to say sab kuch corrupt hain and point fingers, but if you want to clean the system you have to enter it. So that's how the whole script developed.
Well whatever you just said, it felt like as if you narrated your shock through Sue's character. Is it true? Whatever Sue had noticed when she came to India and learnt that these people don't know about Chandrashekhar Azad and everyone else.
No, its something we wrote in the script. It's not that the youngsters don't know about our history and what's making the modern, but the thing is you don't identify with it. You identify with the rhetoric. As Sue identifies with slow-motion shots, they identify with songs and dances, of patriotism. That is like in spite of everything you are not doing anything about it and I was one of them. I was a student of Delhi University and I used to talk about how the system is corrupt, sabh kon line main rakh ke goli se ura dena chaiye, but what did we do? We did nothing?
You made a film about it, that was something.
Oh no I didn't do anything. When we were young we went on to find jobs, buy our first bike, first one bhk apartment, got married then two-bedroom flat and you know to do your own businesses. Lot of us went outside, there were very few who contributed towards the country. Even who contributed to the defence ministry they were disheartened, when I used to meet them. What's happening in the civilian society, out there they were putting their lives out in the line and out here, there is complete dispensing from what India meant to them. It was not about a cricket match and waving the tricolour. People thought singing Jana Gana Mana every morning in school is patriotism. It's not that. It's when you pledge yourself towards change and towards freedom, and to do something. These were the thoughts that triggered the script.
So do you think the Youth today are more aware of India's future or are they the same?
Umm.. I don't know whether they are the same or you are the... The young people, they always want to bring about the change they don't want to compromise. But they are told that we need to compromise. They are told that you need to get a job, and not follow your passion. They are told, get a good cushy job, a degree, that's about it. Yes, you can even serve humanity while doing that but then it's because... it never happens. I think Rang De Basanti was a wake-up call. Even our byline said, generation of the 80s. I'm not excluding my story in that. This is the best I could do is a film writer, director. Through my work, I could raise that work.
Even now the film is extremely significant. Were you sceptical about the film's tenure back then?
But, umm. yeah you know, Im not very happy if the film is relevant or significant as you are saying. That means the situation has not changed, and we had a good year, if you are talking about the life of the film so far. The film yes it remains relevant even today, and Im waiting for the day when it becomes irrelevant. I hope it happens in my lifetime.
Well about the dialogues of the film. They resonate with us even today. Can you comment on its origin?
That's what I thought, I used to see films and people used to have flourishing colourful dialogues, and I thought why can't our characters speak normally, that's how we wrote the film. It was later translated by Prasoon (Joshi). And I contributed in my own little bit towards that part. The screenplay I wanted it to be as realistic as possible. I didn't want my character to start singing song or dancing in a very choreographed way, like one dancer and forty dancers behind. I think for the first time a film came on the screen when there was no lip-synced song, there's one sakhi mela where they did the bhangra, and all the boys go in there and they do their own thing, which was not rehearsed they just jumped. You know which any normal common person can do. Everybody said that your characters are not singing, such beautiful songs, why aren't they singing. I said in my ear I will get a false ring tone if they start singing, let that be in the background.
I expose my emotion and what I want to say through my work... almost like standing naked in the middle of the road
And it kind of worked out. And a lot of things, the way it was structured, the storytelling, the way it was told, it didn't follow a linear pattern, it went back and forth, a lot. So yes, you can say... I was not sceptical, I made it from the heart. Whether it will reach the box office, or not make it there is not in my hands. That's a very manipulative or very smart way of making films, I'm not that smart. I would rather tell a story as it comes to me, as honestly as transparently (as I could). I always feel I expose my emotion and what I want to say through my work... almost like standing naked in the middle of the road and everybody can see you and how this guy feels and what he is feeling. So that is more important to me if it touches a cord. I have also noticed that films of mine which have not done well at the box office, they later managed to grow in people. A film like Delhi 6, did not do very well at the box office, but it kept growing old. Some people said that you are making a film way ahead of your time but I don't think so. That was the time you want to reflect.
How were the locations for Rang De Basanti decided?
The locations are basically, have come out of the script, so when I wrote the script I wrote the description in detail, from my imagination and experience. Besides, I'm a Delhi boy, I have travelled a lot to Punjab, Rajasthan, neighbouring states basically. So the story was set in Punjab and Delhi.
The location normally emerged from the script. So it was not a sudden cut to Switzerland, or the beautiful beach or something. That I'm not pointing the finger there, but the requirement of the film was not that, you have to be as real as it gets. So whether it was the location or the clothes people wore, it was very normal.
Aamir Khan had only two pair of jeans and some six-seven t-shirts. And I said in DU normally people have that. You cant have vans and everything, that would make everything look ready-made. And they looked the part. We had very spoken lines, I gave something like a dialogue and then I said now you speak in your own way. If they needed any assistance we were all there to build it up and it all felt correct.
Creative freedom you mean.
No, there's nothing called creative freedom, or non-freedom, I have never understood the term. You have to do the job and you have to do it well and whatever it takes you to have to do that.
In the song sequence of Khalbali, the characters jumping into the lake became very visually attractive. Was it improvised on sets or was it a part of the script?
Umm, when we are in college, we used to frequently visit Suraj Kund. And those days in Delhi, Suraj Kund was the end of everything, there was nothing beyond that. It was just jungle, with deers, and ponds. After having a few beers we would bend backwards and have a bet. Who could finish the beer in one go and if we would fall down we would fall down. A lot of times we fell back into the water. It was drawn from real life. We recreated that memory from my college on screen.