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Moustache in the Mirror
Rohit Gupta, 22 Feb 06

180px-Bhagat21.gif In popular calendar art - ancient Indian kings, freedom fighters, and revolutionaries sport the twirled moustache. Bollywood star Aamir Khan has brought the twirl back in fashion with his last three films, as a symbol of valor and virilty. His latest offering is Rang De Basanti - about a documentary film-maker called Sue (Alice Patten), who comes from London to New Delhi, armed with a smattering of Hindi and a script.

The story of her film features four gunslinger revolutionaries in the 1930s, who are played by young turks from New Delhi. Through this filming experience, the new Indian "generation awakens," and Sue's young actors move into adulthood. The subsequent death (nay, the martyrdom) of a fighter pilot shatters their dream world. A peaceful protest by the pilot's family is attacked with tear gas and sticks. The four musketeers remember the massacre of 1919 in Jalianwala Baug. This time, the genocidal maniac attacking a peaceful demonstration is not the British General Dyer, but the Defence minister of India. They realise that the Empire is still alive, and it wants blood. All the key information, including the news of the pilot's death, comes from TV. It is on TV that the Minister says the allegations are false, and that the pilot was responsible for his own death.

Aamir weeps on the shoulders of his British girlfriend (suggested by a kiss during the bhangra dance number). "Where is the freedom they fought and died for?" he asks. Sue reads her grandfather's journal as a British prison warden, while Khan sleeps in her lap. A laptop lies open on the coffee table. For someone with no money, it's a comfortable life. The room could be anywhere in the world. Where is the freedom indeed?

Enraged at the status quo, our modern "revolutionaries" assassinate the minister during his morning walk. One kills his own father, who turns out to be, bingo - the involved arms dealer. They can't be mistaken for your everyday terrorist, can they? A podium for revolutionaries is provided by a radio studio, where the friends lock themselves unto death, although they prefer being arrested and tried. They have cups of machine-coffee to wait for the commandos. Chatting with callers on the station, while being heard all over India, they kill time. In order to restore the moral purity of the heroes of Rang De Basanti, their crime is confessed, the circumstances explained, the truth revealed. Then the commandos come and shoot the crap out of everyone. The minds of the Indian masses are now imprisoned inside a media studio (the Empire), according to Rang De Basanti.

For an instant, the calendar image of the twirling moustache becomes a mirror into history. We get a rare glimpse inside the eye of media. Alice Patten - the departing daughter of the last British governor in Hong Kong, on a rainy day in July. She's a famous photograph. Aamir Khan, the leading man - telling an interviewer, "I have nothing to say to the media. What do I say to them? The media are the most corrupt institution in the country." He says it on radio anyway.

Hundreds of films come out every year from that giant factory of dreams called Bollywood. Five features released in 2002 depicted the exploits of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, one of the four heroes portrayed in Rang de Basanti. The posters of these films were strikingly identical - a mugshot of Singh in a tilted British topi, curling the tips of his oiled moustache, his gun raised, the calendar man.

The wave of history lessons began after movie-going Indians had refused to endorse films which showed Pakistan in a bad light for the sake of on-screen drama. Ongoing political events, especially the developing amity of India with our neighbors, decided the fate of these films. Cross-border love stories had worked, but only for 50 long years. So Bollywood started making films about itself - a narcissistic wave of "cross-over" movies were released. Depicting life in the Indian film industry, they too failed miserably. Finally, one of the more consistently successful superstars, Mr. Aamir Khan - started borrowing themes from the late British Raj. The stories went into history, the war came home.

In Lagaan (The Tax), a highly successful film which went as an Oscar entry, the conflict between British masters and Indian servants was played out in a cricket field. The game being a national obsession, Mr. Khan had found a way out of the quagmire. Bollywood responded with average fare, featuring colonial costumes but little else – Devdas, Parineeta, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara and such. In The Rising (a prequel to Lagaan) Aamir Khan assumed the role of Mangal Pandey, the sepoy who sparked the Mutiny of 1857. Following the lukewarm reception at the box office of this much-hyped film, the enduring image is only that of bare-chested Khan sporting a lush, curled moustache.

Unrelated to the release of Rang De Basanti, but on the same the same day in India , something odd happens. On nationwide television, a middle-aged man stands on a podium, surrounded by onlookers. They listen patiently to his accusations against two government officers; the crowd watches. Until the man has successfully poured a flammable liquid on himself, and set fire to his clothes, they don't move. Once ablaze, they leap to his rescue, beating him with marigolds and stray pieces of cloth to put out the flames. Gopal Krishan Kashyap died this week in the ICU from extensive burns.

Having watched Rang De Basanti - it's easy to see why the news cameraman did not move to his rescue. The presence of the video camera has converted the street into a studio; nothing that happens under the gaze of the camera is "real" anymore. The news camera has become an extension of the cameraman's head. Footage has become life for an instant, as life had become footage.

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