In the winter of 2005, a nervous Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra stood inside a government-run auditorium at Madhav Rao Scindia road in Delhi, his voice shaky, his legs unsteady. Rang De Basanti, the director’s second film, featuring an impressive ensemble that included Aamir Khan, had been cleared by the Central Bureau of Film Certification (CBFC), then headed by actor Sharmila Tagore. But the filmmaker had hit a bigger hurdle. The movie had to get approval from the Indian Air Force (IAF), which the film looked at with a critical lens. The IAF had specific demands that would all but take the meat out of Mehra’s film, which was about a bunch of Delhi University students who have a moral awakening after acting in a documentary about freedom fighters.
Members of the Air Force, along with the then-Defence Secretary, had already watched the film once at the Raksha Bhavan and expressed their displeasure over the makers’ decision to call MiG fighter planes ‘MiG fighter planes’ and the Defence Minister well, ‘Defence Minister’. They asked him to replace the real names with something else.
“Do I call the MiG plane an Atlas Cycle?” Mehra, who was on the verge of tears, lamented to his team. His producer, Ronnie Screwvala, consoled him and informed the IAF, in writing, that they would not be making the changes. The Air Force shot back, arguing it’s only a matter of a ‘little dubbing here and there’. Fittingly, team RDB refused. The film was about standing up to the establishment, not bowing down to its arbitrary diktats. They were prepared to go to the court if the Air Force stood its ground, even if that meant delaying the film by six months.
While the stand-off went on, CBFC chief Tagore had an idea, albeit a risky one: why not show the film to the Defence Minister himself? It was a time, Mehra recalled, when the CBFC stood up on behalf of filmmakers. An appointment with then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee was sought and received. The venue would be at a...