An ambitious melding of history, politics, romance and patriotism within the parameters of a commercial Hindi movie, "Rang de basanti" reps a major step up by writer-director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra ("Aks") in his sophomore feature, and a largely successful attempt to push the Bollywood envelope. Starting as one movie and gradually morphing into quite another, story of a bunch of young fun-lovers finding a cause worth fighting for translates into meaty entertainment, though not of the exotic kind that attracts most western Bollywood fans.

An ambitious melding of history, politics, romance and patriotism within the parameters of a commercial Hindi movie, “Rang de basanti” reps a major step up by writer-director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (“Aks”) in his sophomore feature, and a largely successful attempt to push the Bollywood envelope. Starting as one movie and gradually morphing into quite another, story of a bunch of young fun-lovers finding a cause worth fighting for translates into meaty entertainment, though not of the exotic kind that attracts most western Bollywood fans. Big-budgeter opened strongly in Indian plexes late January, with legs still to go.

The nationalism at the heart of many mainstream Hindi movies is different here from that found in Indo-Pak dramas. “Rang de basanti” — an old anti-Brit revolutionary slogan, literally meaning “Paint It Yellow” — is concerned with pride in one’s own country rather than border tensions.

Film is surprisingly tough on contempo Indian values and corruption, with the young protags reckoning India is still a “shit hole” that’s failed to capitalize on its half-century of hard-won independence. Later reels broach the issue of the West taking upon itself to police non-western revolutionary causes and automatically branding any combatants as “terrorists.”

Script runs two timelines side by side, finally joining them at the end. One (sepia-tinted) is set in ’20s British India, during the uprising by Punjabi revolutionary Bhagat Singh; the other (in color) in modern-day Delhi, among college students.

After a pretitles sequence in which a Brit officer, James McKinley (Steven McKintosh), is impressed by the bravery of a hanged revolutionary, film switches to London, 2002. McKinley’s granddaughter, Sue (Alice Patten, daughter of Hong Kong’s final governor, Chris), finds her project for a movie based on his diaries has been canned, so she jets to Delhi to make her own low-budgeter about the revolutionaries, snappily entitled “The Young Guns of India.”

Through her local contact, Sonia (Soha Ali Khan, sister of well-known thesp Saif Ali Khan), Sue meets an array of students she tries to rope into her movie. Leader of the gang, and the cockiest, is Daljeet (Aamir Khan, from “Lagaan”), known as “DJ.”

In between all the fun and games, Sue starts literally to “see” the friends as Bhagat Singh and his associates. But after finally convincing them to join her project, the production is plagued by snafus and infighting.

Biggest problem is that the kids can’t identify with their forebears’ do-or-die patriotism. But when Sonia’s fiancee, air force pilot Ajay (Southern Indian star Madhavan), dies in a crash caused by high-up corruption, the group rapidly becomes politicized, with fatal consequences.

What starts out as a white-girl-goes-to-India yarn ends up as a full-bore Bollywood action-drama, with Sue long ago sidelined. However, across 160 minutes and with well-drawn characters, the transition seems natural enough.

Main flaw, which weakens the climax, is that the movie remains disengaging at a personal, emotional level, despite likable perfs by most of its leads. Khan, playing much younger than he is, is charming in a considered way as playboy DJ. For the time she’s on-screen, Patten, 25, makes a delightfully fresh impression as Sue, and handles her Hindi dialogue with aplomb. Supporting cast is peppered with reliable vets like Om Puri, Kirron Kher (as DJ’s mom) and Waheeda Rehman.

A.R. Rahman’s typically rhythmic songs are propulsive but unmemorable. Other tech credits are of a high order.

Rang de Basanti

India

Production

A UTV Motion Pictures release (in U.K.) and presentation of a Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra Pictures production. Produced by Ronnie Screwvala, Mehra. Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Screenplay, Resnsil D. Silva, Mehra, Kamlesh Pandey, Prasoon Joshi.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Binod Pradhan; editor, P.S. Bharati; music, A.R. Rahman; lyrics, Joshi; production designer, Samir Chanda; costume designer, Loveleen Bains; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital/Ghaurav Digital), Hitendra Ghosh; choreographer, Vaibhavi Merchant; action director, Allan Amin; special visual effects, Pankaj Khandpur; assistant directors, Michael Ward, Sunil Pandey. Reviewed at Cineworld Feltham, Jan. 26, 2006. Running time: 160 MIN.

With

Aamir Khan, Siddharth, Atul Kulkarni, Kunal Kapoor, Sharman Joshi, Alice Patten, Soha Ali Khan, Madhavan, Kirron Kher, Om Puri, Waheeda Rehman, Anupam Kher, Steven McKintosh, Mohan Agashe, K.K. Raina, Lekh Tandon. (Hindi dialogue)
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more