Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra writes the inside story of what triggered the film 'Rang De Basanti'

Bhagat Singh, were he alive, would have joined the State Bank of India, said a youth in Mumbai while in Delhi Mehra was asked if Chandrashekhar Azad was related to cricketer Kirti Azad

Book Cover
Book Cover

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

One of my assignments in 1996 was a docu-drama called Mamuli Ram. I was cooped up in Gujarat, in the village of Anand for almost three months. Kamlesh Pandey often dropped by.

Kamlesh and I would talk at length about the armed resistance against the British empire. Young students transformed themselves into fiercely patriotic revolutionaries and sacrificed their lives. He narrated that when it was time for Bhagat Singh to be escorted to the gallows, he asked the jailor to wait till he finished his book on Lenin. ‘Wait a minute Jailor Saab, one revolutionary is meeting another.’

Kamlesh would also talk about Bhagat Singh’s famous last lines to the jailor minutes before his last breath: ‘Hamare baad aur bhi aayenge’ (There will be more rebels after us). Many years later, I used it as the opening scene of Rang De Basanti.

After a few months, Kamleshji gave me a script titled ‘The Young Guns of India’. The story captured the essence of Indian armed resistance against the might of the British empire between 1919 and 1935.

Can the youth of today relate to this?’ I asked a friend of mine in an ad agency to help me run the script through a focus group of youngsters. We hired a small banquet hall in Parel in Mumbai and invited 30–40 college kids. To my shock, they completely rejected the idea. The MTV generation wasn’t interested in revolutions. They wanted to wear the latest denims and perfume, go out on dates, wear Nike shoes and go to the US for studies. These were the professed aspirations of young India.

I said, ‘Maybe we picked the wrong sample.’ So, I repeated the focus group exercise in Delhi. Imagine my shock when I realised that at least the yuppie crowd of Mumbai heard me out and sat in the room for two hours. The Delhi folks rejected my idea within five minutes. In fact, one of the guys asked me, ‘Was Chandrashekhar Azad grandfather of cricketer Kirti Azad?’

Another had the opinion, ‘If Bhagat Singh was born today he would at best join the Indian Army or the State Bank of India.’ Someone else objected, ‘I would rather join Citibank than the Indian Army! Why serve a corrupt nation?’ This hurt. Kamleshji too was very upset. ‘This is not happening, Rakeysh. This generation is just not getting it. Let’s work on something else.’

India’s MiG-21s fighter planes were bursting into balls of fire. These were trial flights, not war, and we were losing our young men to training! Media had started dubbing the MiG-21 the ‘widow maker’.

As for me, the MiG-21 wasn’t just another plane. Entering the Air Force Bal Bharati School gate every day, we would see the shell of a MiG-21 on the front lawn. This aircraft was embedded in my consciousness. My teachers were the wives of the air-borne warriors, the fighter pilots and their kids were my friends. The MiG was an iconic symbol of the IAF. To put things in context, I’ll refer to a brilliant New York Times article that came much later in 2013. Here’s the extract:

“The MiG is the most-produced combat jet in aviation history since World War II… The aircraft has participated in every major conflict involving India since 1963, and was the bedrock for most of the air force’s operations. However, the availability of spare parts and maintenance was a major concern for India’s ageing fleet, and the country has looked at various cheaper options in countries like Israel and former Soviet states like Ukraine. This prompted the defense authorities in Moscow to warn India not to cut corners in purchasing authentic parts."

“The Russian ambassador in New Delhi, Alexander Kadakin, said, ‘India should not be surprised if aircrafts meet with accidents if it continues to use spares from outside Russia’.” A citizen named Kavita Gadgil and her husband Captain Anil Gadgil (retired), who lost their son, submitted a petition to President Kalam to make ‘flying safe’.

In response, in 2003, Defence Minister George Fernandes undertook a 25-minute sortie on a MiG-21 in a bid to dispel fears. The minister further declared that the MiG21 is safe or why else would he have flown in it. What a charade! What enraged me further was the planted propaganda articles, which said that 45 percent of the accidents were due to human error. I was drawn back to ‘The Young Guns of India’. And the idea of RDB started taking shape once again! Kamleshji heard me out and the genius in him started ticking. Within three days, he turned the idea on its head, and RDB was born.

As soon as we finalised the script, I flew to London to meet Rahman, who was working there on a West End musical. He loved the story. Late that night, he even composed the theme music for RDB, which we used in the climax of the film five years later.

London was also a revelation of another kind. At the British Council Library, I was researching the British Raj in India for the film. One must admit that the British have preserved their records amazingly well. But then I also realised that one nations’ patriot is another nation’s terrorist. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Chandrashekhar Azad were terrorists as per British records. In my mind, the British were the oppressors.

I was consumed by the passion of bringing back patriotism. This seemed even more important, given that my initial focus groups revealed that the youth of my country did not relate to what it is like to give their life for their country.

I now had my story and had found a way to say it through the eyes of an expatriate student Sue Mckinley (played by Alice Patten, daughter of Lord Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford University and the last Governor of Hong Kong). Interestingly, the Oxford connection to the film continues with Soha Ali Khan, an alumna of the university, whose father is the Nawab of Pataudi, who captained both Oxford and India, and mother is the legendary actress Sharmila Tagore.

Sue was coming to India to make a documentary on the fearless revolutionaries she had read about in her grandfather James Mckinley’s diaries. James McKinley had served the British Empire and walked Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev to the gallows. (This was created to suit the narrative.)

His opening lines in his diary were, ‘I always thought there were two kinds of men: one who walked to their death crying and the other who walked in silence… until I met the third kind. ’

(Excerpted from the book ‘The Stranger in The Mirror’ (2021) published by Rupa)

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