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Rang de Basanti & Flash Activism



By Ritesh Mehta

Rang De Basanti (English title: Paint It Yellow; literally, Color It Saffron) was a patriotism and social change-themed Bollywood film that was released in India, the US and the UK (and other foreign markets on later dates) on January 26, 2006, India’s Republic Day. It was a critical and commercial success, and won numerous awards, including the Indian equivalent of the Oscars; in addition, it was nominated for Best Film Not in the English Language by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTAs). It earned $8.8 million in foreign box office revenue (of which $2.2 million came from the US), and an impressive $11 million in India[1]. Despite these numbers and accolades, what Rang De Basanti might be remembered for the most is being among the first Bollywood films to catalyze civic mobilization among urban Indian youth in order to secure justice in a high-profile murder case.


In Rang De Basanti (hereafter, RDB), a young British filmmaker visits India to make a documentary about five freedom fighters,

after being inspired by the entries in the diary of her grandfather who was a jailer during the Indian independence movement. She recruits five initially reluctant and happy-go-lucky New Delhi college students to play the freedom fighters, and as they dig deeper into their roles, their merriment gradually transforms into a respectful appreciation of the lives sacrificed for independence,
but more importantly, into an awareness of and frustration with the apathy among youth like themselves towards corrupt, inefficient and sometimes intolerant government, and how very little had changed in the near seventy years since independence.

When a close pilot friend dies flying a fighter plane known to be an older model purchased by the Aviation Minister in a bribe deal (this story line was inspired by true incidents), and when the Minister blames the crash on the pilot’s foolhardiness instead of admitting the plane's condition or recognizing t

hat the pilot heroically sacrificed his life to prevent crashing into homes, the friends decide to hold a candlelight rally at India Gate, a prominent national landmark and war memorial. The final act of the movie shows the repercussions when that peaceful rally is cruelly disrupted by the paid off police, and how in an act of fired ideology and unbending will to rise against the system, the friends, uncaring for their lives, take matters into their own hands. They hijack the headquarters of All India Radio to broadcast the truth about t
heir pilot friend and the shocking political machinations foreshadowing the disaster. The act costs them their lives, and yet the last scenes are poignant: not only do the friends salute the freedom fighters of yesteryear by re-embodying the revolt, but through their martyrdom strike a chord among youth across the country who come to believe that they must become the conduit for deep, system-wide change.

In fact, right before the end credits roll, there is interesting documentary-style reflexivity. The screenwriter imagines that the friends' sacrifice has in fact mobilized India's youth to stop being complacent. Statements like the one to the left were supposed to rouse audiences. And they did, in ways more than one. For now, we'll focus on some of the main socio-civic influences of RDB.


What’s notable about RDB is how its striking, youth-oriented and unusually expensive marketing campaign, in addition to its upbeat, catchy and rousing score, drove audiences, especially young college students in major metropolitan markets like New Delhi and Mumbai, to see the movie. Meghana Dilip describes this effect in the historical context of Bollywood[2]:


“While there is always the danger of popular cinema like RDB being labeled escapist, mere entertainment, and fantasy-oriented, it is very essential to understand the role it plays in motivating audiences to act in certain ways. For despite all its inanities and irrelevancies this cinema is ideology-filled and its raw material is the society of today. RDB, by focusing on the concerns of youngsters, operating from their perspective and speaking their language, conveyed the mindset of urban and educated youngsters in post-independent India. It therefore serves as a fertile ground to study issues of changing culture, identities, media consumption and audience effects among others.” (p. 7)


Dilip conducted an 'audience analysis' (a type of content analysis) by studying blogs, discussion boards and news reports. She reports that “discussion of political issues / events on Indian blogs

increased significantly for a short period following the January release of the film in the Indian subcontinent.” (p. 30) In fact, the frustrated and roused language in some of the blogs (one such blog entry seen to the right) –-  “It is an emergency wake up call for the youth in India to take the cause of freedom seriously” (p. 37); “I remain optimistic that some of this new found energy will be channeled towards nation building” (p. 35); “The society will be ruined by these evil politicians. Its time to have a Rang De Basanti type resurgence” (p. 32) –- reflected the documentary-style frustrations voiced by diverse youth in the last scenes of the film. It almost seemed that in the weeks following its release, a change was indeed in the air, and that many were unexpectedly moved by the well-narrated, heart-wrenching story and ideology central to the film.

However, Dilip echoes many commentators in the press and media when she writes that “the biggest, direct and most prominent impact of RDB was on the Jessica Lall and the Priyadarshini Mattoo murder cases, as RDB egged youngsters into highlighting the judicial injustice meted out in the above cases” (p. 39). Let’s focus on the Jessica Lall case and how RDB ultimately impacted it.


On April 29 1999,  34-year-old model Jessica Lall (left) was fatally shot inside a high-profile New Delhi restaurant, packed with 300 of the city’s glitterati. The gunman was patron Manu Sharma (right), member of the city’s elite brat pack, and son of an influential politician[3]. As is common,
the case dragged on in Indian courts for several (seven in this case) years, over which period many witnesses recanted and the murder weapon could not be found. Thus, on February 21 2006 (four weeks after the release of RDB), the Delhi High Court (the highest court after the Supreme Court) acquitted
Manu Sharma and his friends due to 'lack of evidence'.

This appalling verdict had phenomenal consequences. As Dilip writes, “Manu Sharma’s acquittal saw the launch of one of India’s most rigorous public protests and media campaigns all of which demanded that he be re-arrested” (p. 39). A sample of newspaper headlines in the following weeks –- “No one killed Jessica”;

“How India’s Rich Get Away With Murder” –- underlined the irony and increased the furor. There were numerous street demonstrations, text message campaigns and email petitions, some involving collaborations between youth and the media, some addressed to the President of India and to prominent media channels. Dilip notes the role that bloggers played in the process, if not in organizing protests then in galvanizing youth’s attitudes and pushing them to participate in demonstrations and marches.

The civic engagement event that received the most media attention was a fascinating case of life imitating art, and also the inspiration for this case study. Tehelka (itself an Urdu word meaning a tumult provoked out of a daring act[4]), an Indian weekly magazine famous for running exposes, claims to have sent an anonymous text message: “If the Jessica case has upset you, show you care.

There is a protest gathering at India Gate next Saturday, March 4 at 5.30pm. Be there. Help keep up the pressure. Demand justice.”[5] The question on the magazine board’s mind was whether Delhi’s “infamously apathetic and insular middle class… would take its outrage on the street.” And lo and behold, word spread. On March 4, about 2500 people, many of them young students, gathered spontaneously at India Gate. Jessica Lall’s sister (right; left side of the picture) addressed the gathering, and then the mike was opened to the public. Tehelka reports:


“The evening was... exhilarating... At one level, this was truly a spontaneous act of citizenship from people not normally given to acts of citizenship. A quiet rage surged through the crowd. One after the other, people of every contour took the mike: Justice! everyone demanded. Reopen the investigation. Hang Manu Sharma. Create a witness protection programme. Make criminal trials time bound. Punish hostile witnesses. Shame on parents who harbour brazen criminals.

Clean up the system. Clean up the system. Clean up the system. Poignantly, a young man took the mike and said, “I’m ashamed to tell you today, I’m a law student and in just a few months I will be part of this system.

There was no mistaking the anger, the yearning for something purer, the sarfaroshi ki tamanna. It was exhilarating to see the middle class break its insular threshold. Yet a curious undercurrent of theatricality underran the entire evening. Several people who took the mike that day referred to Rang De Basanti: at times it seemed more than the injustice itself, the film was their inspiration. It had not just intuited a latent public mood; in a curious twist, it had become the mood itself.”[6]


It is clear from the above -– and from a survey conducted by the influential Bombay Times which revealed that 18 percent of people attributed the recent upsurge in social movements to RDB –- that RDB had become a force to reckon with and had had a direct impact on civic engagement

Although, it is not clear whether Tehelka consciously chose India Gate as a rally venue because of RDB. Even if they did, the point is that individual people spread the word, and individuals made independent choices about wanting to participate.

What’s most heartening is that this event, along with the concomitant intense media attention, scrutiny and reportage, resulted in the re-opening of the Jessica Lall murder case. After that a series of events led to a stunning outcome in December 2006: Manu Sharma was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.


‘The RDB Syndrome’, as it has sometimes been referred to[7], is a classic, moving case of what I call “flash activism. ‘Flash Activism’ can be thought of as temporal, temporary, social mobilization around a particular civic issue, mobilization that may or may not have clear-cut goals and may or may not achieve these goals. What allows for the mobilization are at least two factors: (i) an existing body or group of people that are already sensitive to and roused about fostering civic responsibility and maintaining a civic ethos, and (ii) external triggering and mobilizing factors, such as media and culture, and cultural artifacts and products such as film, theater and television. In particular, when cinematic artifacts mobilize ‘flash activism’, we may refer to the process asflash fandom resulting in flash activism’.

In the case of RDB, the film’s narrative, music, marketing, and underlying ideology successfully pre-disposed its audiences into action. People became ‘fans’ of the movie, and their fandom would remain latent until an issue or external event occurred that would bring out their fandom, their passion, their reasons for being moved. A “flash fandom”, then, is a latent admiration of a cultural artifact that is deep enough to transform a fandom's pathos into ethos, or in other words, one that impacts  central values driving people’s lives. A “flash activism” then is an external event or issue that allows for the temporary, effective or otherwise, manifestation of a flash fandom.

When Manu Sharma went scot-free, people were angry. However, their anger had a channel to manifest itself with -– in this case, I want to suggest that the imagery and events of RDB allowed people to activate and act on their anger. People sculpted their latent fandom into a real-world activist demonstration. I use the word “flash” to emphasize the suddenness and the self-organization, as well as the suddenness of the self-organization. Of course, both media and people worked together in the case of RDB, but the media itself consisted of people who had been influenced by the film. Joining hands, they successfully galvanized their latent inspiration and admiration into a temporary socio-civic infrastructure that in their case was able to achieve its goals. What’s important to note is that even after the “flash” passes away, the latent affection and inspiration – the pathos – do not. Once one has worn the guise of activist, it is difficult to shed, and it is equally difficult to forget the moments, artifacts and influences that allowed us to dis-guise, or rather, reach out towards our truer or at least fuller selves.


Now, in a fascinating yet unsurprising case of art imitating 'life imitating art', Bollywood has announced t
he production of a film entitled 'No One Killed Jessica' (named after the famous Times of India headline pictured above) to bring awareness about the Jessica Lall case and its after-effects. Its Wikipedia article says that it is inspired more by the headline and its effects than actual facts about the murder case. It stars the famous actresses Vidya Balan and Rani Mukherji (pictured to the right). Vidya Balan (left in the picture) will play Jessica's sister, Sabrina Lall.

[Last updated: April 28, 2010]

[1] &

[2] Dilip, Meghna (2008), "Rang De Basanti - Consumption, Citizenship And The Public Sphere". Master of Arts Thesis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, February 2008.

[3] Sengupta, Somini. “Acquittal in Killing Unleashes Ire at India’s Rich”. The New York Times, March 13 2006.


[5] (retrieved Jan 23, 2010)

[6] (retrieved Jan 23, 2010)

[7] Saxena, Shobhan. “Campus netagiri gets radical”. The Times Of India, 11 November 2007