The Message of Rang De Basanti

1 May 2006

The block buster success of the movie Rang De Basanti forces us to re-examine the picture that media and social commentators have been drawing about India's urban, educated gen next - that of a bunch detached and disengaged from their national context and interested only in maximizing material well being. My nephew who goes to a snooty Mumbai school where the latest on Nike attracts more discussion than the latest on Narmada, says that his friends loved it and discussed it a lot. A young lady who went abroad at 17 says that she and her Indian friends in college saw it and wanted to head back home. Kamlesh Pande the writer of Rang De Basanti (RDB), says that he was surprised at the way he was cheered at a college convocation and had loads of young people who said "thank you for opening our eyes with RDB".

Several young people across geographies and income groups have articulated the message they took away from this movie as "don't just complain about the system - do something about it, find a way". I must confess that some of us oldies fretted that the killing of the minister and the glorification of it as "Azad revisited, history repeated" was encouraging people down the naxalite path of subversion. But when we asked, most youngsters said that saw it as just a symbol of action, and of course any idiot knows that violence is wrong, so could we just chill and extract the larger message from it!

They also were unanimous that for the first time there was a movie about something serious like patriotism or fixing the evils of the system we live in, that was not preachy and using yesterday's idiom. "It talks to us in our language' , "Dialogue is natural like we talk, not jingoistic", "patriotic do gooders are not shown in the 'usual' professions of cops, airforce pilots , freedom fighters". "This is the first movie that shows that even screwed up kids can make a difference". Lesson for us old folks? Topics such as personal social responsibility and patriotism are not irrelevant, it is just bad communication that made them so. The medium is the message obviously!

Why does the success of RDB both worry and energise me? Because as a market analyst who worries a lot about being blinded by the obvious and missing out on latent demand and invisible change, this is one more example of inadequate survey tools and a malfunctioning 'gut'. What else may we discover about our gen next that we have called wrong, because we didn't bother to talk to them in the right way?

I also worry because I think this shows us that in the absence of an opposite pole being created, we would be dangerously led to believe that there is only one value space, one aspect of life, that people care about to the exclusion of others - an aspect seductively celebrated by Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra and their glitzy "life is a grand page three' counterparts from the rich, popular and powerful media. We needed a "Yash Chopra movie gone badly wrong", to see that there are other value spaces that we are concerned about. It is the classical dichotomy that India faces - crumbling infrastructure, booming stock market; dysfunctional governments, smoothly functioning election machine.

And I am energized because my hope is that this shows us that active citizenry is just round the corner and just below the surface. Consumer pull, and not supply de control, is what determines the direction that a market eventually takes. I am hopeful that this as an early warning signal that a mai baap sarkar who makes empty promises wrapped up in emotional jingoism, may be under attack. Because there is a vote that creates an illusion of a difference (to what and whom?), there is what Kamlesh Pande calls 'a periodic letting off of steam so that things don't blow". However this may not be adequate any more. If we follow CK Prahalad's prescription for reading change, it is about reading a lot of weak signals together; signals, which, by themselves, can be dismissed as insignificant but collectively, give a clear message. Laloo's rout, the outcry over the Jessica Lall verdict, supreme court activism on all manner of issues, the naxalite spread, students voices beginning to rise in protest against the education minister's imperialism on reservations and more, if one were to look carefully, hopefully have a pattern to them.

Maybe the politician rulers are underestimating the fed up ness and the activism potential of the middle and upper sections of society. Maybe it has spread to the lower sections as well. Maybe what people really want first is not reservations, but for politicians to stop their habit of stealing big time at the expense of healthcare and education. And, maybe they are just waiting for a leader to come along, who wants to be disruptive and not play by the cosy rules that Indian politicians would like to believe are eternal and will never be challenged. I have no idea where this leadership will come from. Maybe from the growing number of civil society organizations. Clearly not from the gen next, young parliamentarians who are there in the finest tradition of dynastic succession that the Congress party holds holy. I am disappointed that leadership for creating a new political order has not come from our esteemed and beloved Prime Minister, who is not a hardened politician by background and inclination. My friends say "what can the poor man do". The "poor" man can, for starters, say "I have the title, hence carry the responsibility, so it is my job to do something about it". He can start by providing aggressive leadership for change, at least to the young people in parliament and some of his ministerial colleagues, and I guarantee there will be loads of us who will give up the good life and follow him to make our system work better for us and for the generation we are about to let down very badly. That is the message of RDB, isn't it?