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Already a cult hit around the world and India's submission this year for the Oscar foreign language nomination, Rang De Basanti will be re-released in US theaters in March with an edit specifically for American foreign film audiences. APA interviews director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra.
The youth of India were in for a jolt when they first encountered Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's film Rang De Basanti. Their tagline reads: "A generation awakens." A pivotal line in the film declares: "There are two ways of living life. Accept the things the way they are and endure them. Or take responsibility in changing them."
When Rang De Basanti came out in theaters in January of 2006, it made 345.5 million rupees its opening week. Since then, it's been well-received globally, generated close to $9 million worldwide, become India's top-selling DVD, and even inspired a documentary about the film analyzing the "Rang De Basanti effect" -- for this politically-charged film has influenced the Indian youth culture to speak out against state policies, stage protests against injustices, and demand change.
Rang De Basanti translates to "Color It Saffron" -- saffron being a special color for India: a yellowish orange that represents patriotism, courage, and sacrifice. The story begins with a narration of a man from the 1920s serving in the British Force in India during the Indian Independence Movement. His job requires him to supervise the executions of Indian revolutionaries Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, and their contemporaries, and he speaks of how he is deeply stricken, but moved by the will of these men who so steadfastly sacrifice their lives for the betterment of their country.
Flash forward two generations, and we are introduced to his granddaughter Sue McKinley (Alice Patten), a passionate English filmmaker who discovers her grandfather's old diaries and is determined to tell the story of these Indian heroes. She travels to India with no money or plan, and enlists her friend Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) to help her. She finds her ideal actors in Sonia's friends, several carefree contemporary college boys: DJ (Aamir Khan), Karan Singhania (Siddharth Narayan), Aslam (Kunal Kapoor), Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), and Laxman Pandey (Atul Kulkarni).
From then on, the film interlaces scenes from the past with the present as DJ and his friends realize that their current frustrations with their country and governmental corruption aren't so different from the problems that plagued the revolutionaries that they are playing.
The intent of the film is to promote action. To call out the hypocrisy of pointing fingers at our leaders and their ineptitude while we sit around and do nothing. It's a universal message that isn't limited to India. It's likely that a film of such ambition would also be relevant to the young adults of America, as our generation is in danger of passively watching our government struggle as we fall into complacency and distract ourselves with superficialilty. However, a full year after its initial release, the American public -- excluding the Indian American community, who incidentally made up over $2 million (24%) of the worldwide grosses -- has yet to discover the film.
With an official submission to the Oscar's as India's entry for Best Foreign Language film, Rang De Basanti might be on the verge of making Hollywood take notice. The producers of the film have made a proactive effort to make Rang De Basanti more accessible to the US audience. The 2 hour and 42 minute film -- standard for an Indian film -- will be cut to 2 hours and 17 minutes. No more intermission.
For skeptics, and foreign film aficionados, who may raise an eyebrow at how an American edit might influence the overall affect of the film, director Mehra insists that it is merely a "time edit." Meaning, only insignificant bits and pieces are systematically trimmed from each scene, so the message and the overall experience of the film will remain the same.
Whether this will be enough to actually garner Rang De Basanti a nomination is yet to be seen, but the driving motivation of the filmmakers to make this push seems to be for a greater cause. It's motivated by their frustration that "Bollywood" films are still not taken seriously in the West. With US distribution, the filmmakers hope to ignite another kind of movement --a campaign to make audiences around the world recognize the compelling work that's been created on the other side of the globe.
APA speaks to director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra about the films' travels, the West's misconceptions of Indian film, an outsider making a film about India, and Indian Americans creating cinema.
Interview with director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
December 1, 2006
APA: Originally, when you were developing the script, the story was just about the past. Can you talk about how you came up with the character of Sue McKiney and how it evolved into a story that was also about contemporary college students in India?
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra: That's been the most revealing and most interesting part of screenplay writing for Rang De Basanti -- for me to have a very open mind and absolutely open to receiving parts and not blocking them. The earlier script was only set in the past, about the armed revolution of India. I was very happy with the story and the script. But after I bounced it off the youngsters, I realized that they were not connecting with it. As much as I tried, they were not connecting with it. Because it was not their story. What I was trying to say in the story, or what I wanted to say through the revolutionaries of the past, would have gone to waste. So we went back to the drawing board and invented the character of Sue McKinley, who is an insider and an outsider.
APA: How about the decision to make her a filmmaker of a film within the film?
ROM: That's OK. The language of cinema is essentially a non-linear language and that's the beauty of cinema -- that you can play with time, you can play with space, and you can play with dimensions. So that's the flexibility.
APA: This is your second movie. What did you learn about your personal style making this film?
ROM: My first movie was more influenced by advertising, in terms of visuals and technique. This one's more story-driven, more screenplay-driven, more character-driven, so I was concentrating more on my actors, instead of visual styling. The cinema that inspired me was from the late '50s and '60s in India, which was conscious cinema, a departure from musicals and historicals. Even the cinema out here of the early '70s has been influential, when Hollywood went away from musicals and started doing more real-life cinema. So that has been quite interesting.
APA: I read in an interview, you were talking about the international platform for Indian film, and you said that you hesitated to call it Bollywood. What do you think are the implications are of the word Bollywood?
ROM: I think it's a bastardized version of the Indian film industry. Because there is nothing called Bollywood. There's the Hindi film industry or the Indian film industry.
APA: Would you say Bollywood is a term of the West?
ROM: I think it's a ripoff off of Hollywood. And let me assure you, we don't have any hill with a sign saying Bollywood. No property would ever want to sell land to advertise it. So it's one of those things that can be avoided, I think.
APA: Do you think that definition limits Indian filmmakers?
ROM: It's like calling New York, Bombay. It's different. So you can't do that. It also loses your identity. Imagine changing your name to rhyme with something else.
APA: You've screened the film all around the world, do you do a lot of college campuses?
ROM: I get called to a lot of college campuses. I get a lot of invitations from colleges in India, and even in the US. I think the youth have connected with it.
APA: You mentioned how when you bring the film to the public, it takes on its own entity. People's have their own responses. Any reactions surprised you?
ROM: More than surprising, every reaction is a learning process. It's very interesting to see how people are looking at your movie. What angle you're looking at it, how they're interpreting it. How they're analyzing it. It's more like a learning experience. It's very interesting because you are hearing it and experiencing it first hand in front of you. So that's very gratifying.
APA: Have you found interesting distinctions between your audiences?
ROM: I have definitely found there is a distinction. Between the age groups. While the younger age group has been inspired by the film, they are ready to act in their own spheres. They want to do something. At least they talk to me like that. And for them it is more like a cult feeling. Something they want to belong to. So they find that part of the film. The older generation likes the attempt and likes the idea of the film and understands the bigger, more holistic point of view.
APA: What is the strategy for positioning the film outside of India; in particular, can you talk about how you went about cutting it down for US audience?
ROM: I've already edited it. I have half an hour cut. Because when you live with the film for eight to nine months, and you see it with the people, you realize that there are certain things that you are repeating, certain things that you can do away with. So those are the only things that you cut out. And overall, it's a time edit. When I say it's a time edit, I mean, each shot has been shaved by two frames, four frames, six frames. It adds up to half an hour. So you don't miss anything as such.
APA: So, you don't actually go back and cut out entire scenes?
ROM: Maybe one or two instances. They're also not large scenes; they're small scenes. But overall it's a time edit. You can calculate it for yourself. If in one minute, every second has 24 frames, and you're able to shave off two frames, then over one minute, you can shave off six seconds. If you can do that to one minute, for one hour etc, it kind of adds up. Although it's dogs' work, let me tell you. It's very hard. You can't get the tone of the film wrong. And it's painstakingly slow work for the editors.
APA: India submits a film for the foreign language Oscar every year, but this year, it's interesting because both your film and Water has been nominated...
ROM: Water is Canadian entry, it's not an Indian film. It's a Candian film.
ROM: Water is not an Indian film. It's a misconception. It's just the language that is Hindi. It's a Western perspective of India. It's not a film born in India. It's like American Chinese. It's not Chinese Chinese.
APA: So it's an Indian-Canadian film, would you call it that?
ROM: No, it's just a Canadian film. In India, they don't like it. People don't identify with that. It never ran in India. It didn't make any dent in India. It's not a moving story for India. Because it doesn't deal with our emotions, our aspirations at all. It's more like designing a film to please the Western people.
APA: What about your film? Do you think about the Oscars?
ROM: I think the Academy and that platform brings awareness. It brings more awareness on the ground level. It brings awareness about A) the movie itself, and B) the kind of cinema from your country. So definitely it opens doors for times to come, for people to be more receptive to your cinema. And personally for me, or for any filmmaker, you'd rather tell your story to more and more people, and it's always interesting to tell your story to people from different cultures, languages, countries, cast, and not limit yourself. That is very satisfying.
APA: At our magazine, we cover a lot of Asian film, and also Asian American film. In some Asian countries, there's a huge interest in Hollywood. But in India, it's different because you have own huge film industry. How would you gauge the interest level in American film in India?
ROM: There is an audience, yeah, but not such a huge audience because American films are mostly about America, and mostly about how they're saving the world and all that. Yes, there is a market, but there is only a 2% market, because we have a huge market for Hindi films. And a huge market for South Indian films. So in the South Indian states of India, Hindi films are 5%, and 95% are their local Tamil films. And then another south India state, there's another language. Like that.
APA: What about Indian American films? Do you guys have any interest in Indian American films?
ROM: What's an Indian American film?
APA: Well, I mean.. films made by Indian Americans. For example, do you know Kal Penn?
ROM: Yes, he was in The Namesake.
APA: Yes, so for example, a film like The Namesake about Indians in America -- in India, is that a big deal?
ROM: I haven't seen it. I know that it's been in the festivals. It depends on the film. If the film touches you, it's a big deal. If it doesn't touch you, it's not a big deal. Plus, I don't know what's an Indian American film, I have no clue about that.
APA: Well, it's still in the beginning stages, but because now that we have more generations here in America, the youth want to make their own films to talk about their own experience. Right now, it's still growing -- films made by Indian Americans, by Asian Americans.
ROM: OK. [pause] I don't see Indians in the mainstream out here anyway. I don't see them playing basketball or baseball or [being] national champions in swimming or athletics, so I don't know how they'll make movies.
APA: Well, I think that's the effort. Right now most people who control cinema in Hollywood, the people who produce and write and direct, they aren't Asian or Asian American...
ROM: No, it's not about control. It's about being part of the fabric, part of the culture. What I'm saying is, I haven't seen Indians to be national heroes out here, not heroes as in cinema heroes, but also real life heroes. So they're not [just] sports fans or scientists or so on and so forth, so once that happens, you'll see movies happening. They have to integrate themselves into this country first. I think right now the first generation has been more caught up in survival, and the second generation is trying to their identity as to what they are. Are they Americans or are they Indians? I think once they decide what they are, then they will be able to make cinema.
APA: Yea, it's interesting to watch, people starting to write things and create their own films...
ROM: It's important. If this is the country you're living in, it's important to get into the culture of the country you're living in.
APA: Last question. You talk about how this film invigorates your belief in the power of cinema, what are some films for you that have had that impression?
ROM: So many. So many I don't know where to start. In the '60s, we used to have makers like Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy and Raj Kapoor and Chetan Anand and V. Shantaram. They did some great cinema, which was at par if not better than the World Cinema of that time. Then, like everybody else, you love the work of somebody like Kurosawa and Fellini and Krzysztof Kieslowski. Their work is very vivid. Fellini is a maverick, and Kieslowski is such a simple realist. Kurosawa is a master. And then definitely American cinema out here. Scorsese is one of my favorites; there's no question about that. There's Brian de Palma, there's Oliver Stone, there's Tim Burton. There's Alan Parker, there's Sam Peckinpah. All these guys. I guess the common thing about all of them is that they're always rewriting the rules. They're not conformists. Because I think movie making is like that. That's the character. Like each individual. You are different than me, and I am different than you. How can movies be similar?
Official site: http://www.rangdebasanti.net
Date Posted: 12/6/2006