The movie that pricked India's conscience

Posted in India | 28-Apr-06 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

NEW DELHI - It is not often that a movie catches popular imagination the way the Bollywood film Rang De Basanti has. On the face of it RDB could pass for another tightly scripted, witty, well-directed film about youth that was aimed at a young population. To add to its appeal, RDB stars top actor Aamir Khan.

However, well into the second half of the movie there is a twist that sets it apart and has also made it a runaway hit. Unlike more conventional movies, RDB rapidly moves from harsh reality to probe the insanity that has pricked the conscience of many in India. To add to the effect, RDB is juxtaposed with images of India's freedom struggle and freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, which have been cleverly woven into the narrative.

One of the protagonists, who is an ace fighter pilot, dies in a crash. Unlike the cynicism of Aamir and his group of college friends (which includes the pilot's girlfriend, played by the talented actress Soha Ali Khan), who think the country is going to the dogs because of corruption, the pilot has all along been the sole sane voice. He believes in his job of making the country safe for his countrymen and friends to live in peacefully. While such idealism is dismissed in banter, deep down the friends respect the pilot.

Obviously, Aamir's group is shattered by their friend's death. Moreover, to their shock, they watch in pain and anger as the country's defense minister goes on television to say that plane crashed because of the incompetence of the pilot. The minister is also shown to be taking bribes for inferior military material, an aspect that had gotten RDB into trouble with the censors and with the Indian Air Force (IAF) before the release. Fortunately, no changes were made.

Everybody knows that the Russian-made MiGs that form the backbone of the IAF have a very bad safety record due to inadequate training facilities and the absence of a well-oiled supply of spare parts. Commissions and allegations of corruption in defense deals are also very common. In the movie, Aamir and his friends take to the streets with other families whose sons have died in MiG crashes and are beaten mercilessly by the police, another harsh reality in India. Frustrated and angry, they hatch a plan and shoot the defense minister, and are in turn killed by commandos.

Director Rakeysh Mehra has said that he debated the finale for quite some time, as it could easily be dismissed as being very rash. Or, on the other hand, it could be seen as sending a message to people that they should act in the face of injustice, and he needed something very dramatic to convey that message. It seems it is the latter meaning that has been absorbed by audiences and has prodded many to take action of their own.

Social activism is the new buzzword. Urban youth, for so long comfortable in airing its angst on the Internet from the comforts of their home computers, are increasingly taking to the streets. A majority of India's population is under the age of 35 and have been witness to the first flush of economic liberalization, jobs and rising incomes. They obviously want to have a say in the future of the country.

Young engineer Satyendra Dubey (killed for taking on the mafia that controls the national highway development project) and 27-year-old S Manjunath (murdered for fighting against fuel adulteration) have become their role models. Sociologists have dubbed the flurry of activism as the "RDB phenomenon". Sanjay Kaul of People's Action, a Delhi non-governmental organization, has said: "Institutions have collapsed, and people are coming together to force the government to act."

It may be recalled that India ranks as one of the most corrupt nations of the world. "We have stopped being spectators," said Anjali Mullatti, 27, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, and a friend of Manjunath.

One immediate consequence of RDB has been in the Jessica Lal case that has resulted in calls for broader judicial reform. The country was shocked by the court's inability to convict the man accused of shooting model Lal dead in front of hundreds of people at a popular pub in Delhi. The prime suspect happened to be the son of a powerful politician who was alleged to have bribed the police who led the investigation and threatened the witnesses, who are said to have been standing next to the model when she was shot.

The Jessica Lal case exposed the underbelly of the Indian judicial system, which is heavily dependent on statements by witnesses rather than circumstantial evidence. Hundreds and thousands of criminals with money and muscle manage to influence witnesses and escape punishment.

Fired up by the message of RDB, thousands of young people in Delhi and elsewhere have taken to the streets, prominently displaying placards of the movie. A higher court took suo motto cognizance of the protests and ordered a reinvestigation. With the media highlighting the issue, the police, under severe pressure, have begun probing the case anew, even as evidence mounts of tampering, bribes and threats at every level. The Jessica Lal case could change the criminal-justice system in India forever, with the government preparing a series of amendments that will be presented to parliament.

"The young have definitely taken to the street," Neelam Katara, mother of Nitish Katara, allegedly killed by another politician's son for having an affair with his sister, said in an interview to news daily DNA. "We have not seen this kind of activism. The Jessica Lal case was the last straw."

The effects can be seen elsewhere. Clearly rattled by the people's anger against the judiciary, a court in Rajasthantook delivered a judgment within three weeks of the rape of a German scholar by the son of a senior police officer. The police, under heavy scrutiny and pressure, delivered the evidence, while the witnesses stood their ground. In the past, in a similar instance of the rape and murder of a young girl named Priyadarshini Mattoo in Delhi allegedly by the son of another police official, the main accused was exonerated, despite plenty of circumstantial evidence pointing otherwise.

In Mumbai, a quick sentence has been awarded to a police constable accused of raping a college girl at Marine Drive in the heart of the city. The police in Mumbai have also moved very quickly on the allegations of rape against the son of a prominent owner of textile mills. The judiciary has also hauled up civic agencies in Delhi for allowing the construction of illegal residential and commercial properties.

Caught in the spurt of judicial activity has been prominent actor Salman Khan, who was sentenced to five years in jail for hunting a black buck, an endangered species. Salman has somehow managed stay out on bail for now, though the punishment handed to him is reserved for hardened poachers. Perhaps a fine of a few million dollars to be used for wildlife conservation would have set him straight for life.

In the meantime, the activism bug has bitten Aamir and his co-actors in RDB. Aamir has been speaking about the need for adequate rehabilitation of farmers who will be displaced by the raising of the height of the Narmada Dam in central India. In a high-profile move, Aamir met with Medha Patkar, leader of Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada), who was on a fast unto death until the Supreme Court ordered that the construction of the dam cannot go ahead until those affected are taken care of. The government has since appointed a high-level committee to oversee the matter. Perhaps on cue, another actress, Diya Mirza, has also spoken out on Narmada.

Aamir has been quoted as saying: "Acting is one very important part of my life. But there are other aspects and roles too, my role as an Indian, as a citizen of this country who is alive to events happening around."

Indeed, RDB has engendered a new spirit, at least in urban life. Much more will be required to change many of the the country's systemic faults, but nobody doubts that the film has brought in a fresh air of hope. The results are there to see.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.