One way I know that the world is flat is that new Bollywood movies open in my town the same day as in India. Last Friday night, my daughter Sara saw Rakeysh Mehra's strange new mainstream movie Rang De Basanti ("Paint It Yellow") at a premiere in Mumbai - one week later I saw it in East Hartford (only because I couldn't make it on the opening Friday night). This is another one of Aamir Khan's "politico-historical" vehicles, as it revisits the brutality of the British occupation of India in the first half of the 20th century. The movie revolves around an attempt by a British neophyte filmmaker to reenact the very real events growing out of the 1919 Jalianwala Bagh massacre, and the revolutionary heroes of the Indian Freedom Movement Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh. Throughout the movie there is a back-and-forth between present-day India and British-occupied India in the 1930's. Thus, most of the actors play dual roles. I must say that one of the hardest aspects of the film to swallow was accepting the conceit that the 40 year-old Khan could convincingly play a 20-something present-day BMOC (as he did 5 years ago in the much more entertaining Dil Chahta Hai). One of the nicest touches was the casting of Alice Patten as Sue, the fledgling British filmmaker (who hilariously surprises Khan with her fluent Hindi). Patten herself is the daughter of the last British governor of Hong Kong, making the casting a bit of an echo of the movie's plot.
As Bollywood fare goes, Rang De Basanti is not a great dance or music movie. Parts of the plot are predictable, and the third act is absolutely improbable. Still, this is a "serious" movie with a thought-provoking message about the hopelessness generated by modern Indian corruption. It is a fiercely patriotic movie, but in a perverse kind of way. Imagine for a moment a mainstream American movie which makes patriotic heroes out of a group of assassins who murder a corrupt Secretary of Defense. Even Hollywood wouldn't have the balls to do that, but this is precisely what Mehra offers up, and in doing so harkens back to the equally strange 1998 movie Dil Se.
Aamir Khan needs to try something else for his next foray. While still successfully evoking the impish qualities of the infamous Akash character from Dil Chahta Hai, the political seriousness of his roles is becoming tiresome and unidimensional. Clearly a talented actor, this is not one of his better roles.
There is no doubt that the movie leaves you thinking. But it is not a great movie. It has many of all the right elements, but as a mainstream effort, it also has many ridiculous moments that leave you scratching your head -- problems with narrative continuity, a suspension of reality, and a kind of overblown political message. Unlike most Bollywood movies of the last few years, Rang De Basanti requires a great deal of thoughtfulness from its audience, but fails to deliver the goods.