Rangeela came at us in waves. First Rangeela Re landed on TV and everyone went crazy about Urmila Matondkar. Then, as song after wondrous song released, everyone was talking about A.R. Rahman and his first original Hindi soundtrack. Then Asha Bhosle, singing Tanha Tanha like she hadn’t aged since the 1970s. And finally, on 8 September 1995, Ram Gopal Varma’s film released, and people couldn’t get enough of Aamir Khan’s streetwise tough, or tapori.
It’s hard to explain to those who didn’t experience it first-hand how exciting the run-up to the release was. Director Vasan Bala, 16 when the film released, remembers the feeling of elation coming out of the theatre. “We hadn’t seen the Bombay lingo done this way since Amar Akbar Anthony. We knew guys like Munna from our own lives, we could relate to him. We had gone in looking forward to the music and seeing Urmila—Aamir we did not expect." (Bala included a musical tribute to the film in his own Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.)
Twenty-five years on, Rangeela is a time capsule of mid-1990s styles and trends—not just Rahman’s music but Ahmed Khan’s choreography and Manish Malhotra’s styling. Through the story of an ambitious backup dancer, Mili (Matondkar), who must navigate her first brush with fame and the attentions of two men, her tapori friend Munna (Aamir Khan) and film star Raj Kamal (Jackie Shroff), it crystallizes the post-liberalization mood in India, an exciting array of dreams and choices to be made. To mark its 25th anniversary, here are 25 reasons to love Rangeela.
1. Its opening credits combine the film's two worlds
Rangeela is a near-constant explosion of colour and sound but its opening credits are restrained. Framed against a black background, each name is accompanied by a still image of an old movie star (Madhubala, Dev Anand, Amitabh Bachchan). Instead of a composed score, we hear the sounds of Mumbai: traffic plying, buses honking, dogs barking, the crash of ocean waves. It’s a canny juxtaposition of the two states this film exists in simultaneously—the glitzy world of Hindi film and everyday middle-class Mumbai.
2. 'Rangeela Re'
The first shot in Rangeela is of a girl in boots and a colourful dress by the roadside peering into a bioscope (which explains the downward-scrolling vintage stills in the opening credits). She flings out her arms, stands up, throws on her hat. As the beat kicks in, we see her high-kicking her way down the street in slo-mo, her short dress flying. There’s a sharp clap, followed by Asha Bhosle, her voice unaccompanied except for percussion, singing Yaai re, yaai re, zor laga ke naache re. If you were young and impressionable then, this song resembled something like freedom. Everything—Rahman’s music, Ahmed Khan’s choreography, Matondkar’s exuberance—came together like a mighty wave.
3. It's the ultimate post-liberalization film
Few films captured the headiness of post-liberalization India like Rangeela. Brands pop up in lyrics (Cadbury, Amul, Horlicks, Complan) and in conversation (MTV). A stable government job isn’t the dream; instead, as Mili sings in Yaaro Sun Lo Zara, she wants a car, house, TV, video player, fancy clothes, bank balance. The wide world is within reach: Khaled’s Didi and Michael Jackson’s Jam play in the car and on TV, a flying sofa takes Munna and Mili on a trip to New York in a song. The consumerist ebullience is encapsulated in the frank question posed to Munna in the track of the same name, “Mangta hai kya (what do you want)?"
4. It brought AR Rahman to Bollywood
By 1995, Rahman was already a star outside his native Tamil Nadu thanks to the Hindi dubs of Roja, Thiruda Thiruda (story by Varma) and Kadhalan. Having delivered one classic that year in Bombay, Rahman followed it up with Rangeela, his first original Hindi soundtrack. Danceable and electrifying, it signalled a new era for Hindi film music. It earned Rahman his first Filmfare award for Best Music Director; he won four of the next seven.
In his memoir, Guns And Thighs, Varma described Rahman’s symphonic sound. “If the melody is the story, the various instruments and the way they are recorded, played and their inter-volume levels and tones are like art direction and cinematography." Listen to Tanha Tanha, with its lush synth, flute and piercing vocal, and you'll know what he means. But Rahman could also strip a song down to its basics. He uses the faintest of basslines in Yaaro Sun Lo Zara, which gives Udit Narayan’s voice a freedom that matches Munna’s boasts.
5. It launched Ram Gopal Varma's Hindi film career
Varma started out in Telugu cinema in 1989, a stellar run which included his debut, the action film Siva, the Sridevi-starrer Kshana Kshanam and the horror film Raat. By the mid-'90s, he was looking to break into Bollywood, not the easiest thing for a southern director. Rangeela’s commercial success and cultural impact allowed Varma to embark upon one of the most influential, unpredictable and ultimately frustrating careers in Hindi cinema. He pretty much created the modern Hindi gangster film with Satya and Company and, through the films he produced, gave a leg up in the industry to everyone from Sriram Raghavan and Anurag Kashyap to Jaideep Sahni and Shimit Amin.
6. It got everyone talking like a tapori
The best scenes in Rangeela involve Aamir Khan’s tapori and his colourful, speedy, uniquely Mumbai way of speaking. Munna’s lines, written by Neeraj Vora and Sanjay Chhel, jump across grammar and language barriers with impunity. “Ye area mein apun world-famous hai (I am world-famous in my neighbourhood)," he growls at a banana-seller. “Uska bad luck hi kharab tha (his bad luck was rotten)" is his summary of his friend’s difficult life.
Munna is at his most free-flowing when he has an audience, like when he loudly protests a policeman searching him for movie tickets, which he’s selling in “black". “Kya masti hai, yeh toh zabardasti hai (what’s going on, this is unnecessary)," he freestyles while parking the tickets in the cop’s cap, adding that people who trigger riots and stock market scams go scot-free while blameless citizens like him are picked on.
7. It won Asha Bhosle a new generation of fans
One of A.R. Rahman's superpowers is an unerring sense of who would be right for a particular song. For the two solo female numbers, Rangeela Re and Tanha Tanha, he tapped Asha Bhosle. Then 61, Bhosle adjusted her voice to suit the 21-year-old she was singing for. “When I have to record a song for a film, I ask for the heroine’s name and then sing, keeping her face and personality in mind. Like I knew for Rangeela I was singing for a dubli patli si ladki (thin girl)." The instant popularity of the tracks revitalized Bhosle’s career.
8. Dance like everyone's watching
The 1990s were a rich time for choreography, with Farah Khan and Shiamak Davar marrying MTV flash to existing Bollywood styles. Ahmed Khan was Saroj Khan’s assistant before Varma told him to take over the film’s dances (Saroj Khan choreographed Tanha Tanha; both are credited). There’s a profusion of styles across the numbers, from the conventional star-and-backup-dancers of Rangeela Re (albeit with a crackling energy) to the Broadway stylings of Mangta Hai Kya and the freewheeling Yaaro Sun Lo Zara. Khan won the Filmfare for Best Choreography, quite an achievement in the year of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Madhuri Dixit dancing up a storm in Yaraana and Raja.
9. It changed Aamir Khan's image
With a few exceptions like Raakh, Aamir Khan had been playing wholesome romantic leads since he started out as an actor. By 1995, he was clearly looking to toughen up his image, appearing in the cop drama Baazi and the gangster film Aatank Hi Aatank. But it was the fast-talking, soft-hearted Munna that allowed him to branch out into the even tougher tapori of Ghulam and the complex antagonist of 1947 Earth.
10. It's a Middle Cinema film at heart
Despite all the surface flash, Rangeela is basically revved-up Middle Cinema. “I remember seeing Chitchor seven times...," Varma wrote in Guns And Thighs, “and the simplicity of narration that I learnt from it was pretty much what shaped my vision of Rangeela."
Varma took from Basu Chatterjee’s Chitchor and Rajnigandha the idea of a spirited girl caught between two fundamentally decent guys. Mili’s family—sharp mother, sardonic brother, loopy father—is also Chatterjee-esque. The father’s story about travelling in the same bus every day as his lost love could be a scene from Chhoti Si Baat. And it may not be a coincidence that the central character is called Mili—there’s a 1975 film by that name by Middle Cinema exponent Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
11. Munna at the movies
On the shortlist of great scenes in cinema halls is Munna and Mili’s trip to the movies. Mili’s there to watch Kamal, Munna is only interested in turning everything into one-man theatre. He walks into the hall talking loudly (the movie has begun), asks for the fan to be switched on, teases the old man in the seat behind. When he puts his foot up on the seat in front, its occupant protests. “Tu pair dekh raha hai, picture dekh raha hai (are you looking at my foot or the movie)?" is Munna’s memorable response. There’s a scuffle, and Munna and a furious Mili are ejected from the hall.
12. Its female lead has all the agency
Rangeela is Mili’s story—it’s her dreams and struggles that drive the narrative. Munna and Kamal are options she gets to choose between (though she doesn’t know Munna is an option till the very end). We learn that she sat thrice for class X and it isn’t clear if she studied beyond that, but her family dotes on her and is supportive of her filmi ambitions. No one remarks on how she dresses, or her going on dates with taporis and movie stars. It’s an escapist fantasy, but an empowering one.
13. Most of its songs are conversations
The conversation song, once a staple of Hindi cinema, is rarely in evidence today, a casualty of the reduction in lip-synced numbers. Rangeela is a reminder of a time when such songs were built into the fabric of the narrative. Many of the film’s tracks are structured as one character responding to another, and Mehboob does a deft job writing lyrics that could almost be dialogue. In Mangta Hai Kya, Mili offers to show Munna great wonders; he responds saying he just wants her love. Mili and Kamal’s fantasy selves drive each other crazier with each line in Hai Rama. But the pinnacle of the conversation song is the Socratic dialogue of Yaaro Sun Lo Zara, with Munna sharing his carefree philosophy (“no TV-video, no suiting-shirting") and Mili countering with her own visions of contentment (“bank balance makes days and nights colourful").
14. All those cameos
As befits a film about film-making, Rangeela has a wealth of cameos. Choreographer Saroj Khan turns up, uncredited, as a dance director. Young Aditya Narayan raps his own lines in the opening number. Madhur Bhandarkar, then an assistant to Varma, plays a crew member on Mili’s film. Shefali Shah, so memorable a few years later in Varma’s Satya, is the starlet Gulbadan; her pushy mother is 1950s star Shammi. The film’s cinematographer, W.B. Rao, in his cowboy hat, acquits himself well in a few comic scenes. But the most memorable cameo is the one-scene turn by Rajeev Mehta, playing the hotel waiter calmly responding to Munna’s demands.
15. The tapori in the yellow suit
On his birthday, Munna picks Mili up from her home for a surprise outing at a hotel. He’s dressed in the colours of a Mumbai taxi, an open yellow shirt and pant, black vest and shades—to his mind, high fashion. There’s wonderful comedy in his demands once they reach the restaurant—“idhar ghuma na (swing it this way)," he says, when told the air conditioner is on—and his exchanges with an English-speaking waiter, but also an indication that Munna isn’t one to adjust his behaviour and will stick out in the new world Mili is destined for with her signing as a lead actor. This is underlined by the appearance of Kamal, whom Mili walks off with, leaving Munna with his huge lunch order.
16. Manish Malhotra's minimalist glamour
From knotted tops and hot pants to printed skater dresses paired with boots, the Matondkar look from Rangeela became a rage, imitated by young girls across the country. The film was also a game-changer in the way the industry approached costume design. After the success of Rangeela, Filmfare instituted an award for costume design, with the film’s designer, Manish Malhotra, winning the trophy. “It was the coming together of different energies. Ram Gopal Varma, a fabulous director, had the vision of Rangeela. Then there was Urmila, who was willing to change and work hard to achieve that. I wanted to do something new as well," says Malhotra.
On being approached for Rangeela, he travelled to Hyderabad to meet Varma. “For the first time, a director was narrating the entire subject to me and I was completely blown away. What he narrated was exactly what he made," recalls Malhotra. As the film came together, the team realized they were on to something special. However, what stamped the success of Rangeela was the way the clothes from the film could be seen everywhere. “With Rangeela, a more minimal but effective wear came into movies," explains Malhotra. It was a mix of a real and a glamorized look. “To me, fashion is colour. So, there was the tangerine dress in Tanha Tanha and the red chiffon dress that Urmila was wearing while running on sand, to the athleisure outfit when she was dancing."
He is all praise for the way the costumes were used in the film, and Varma’s openness to new ideas. For Hai Rama, Malhotra suggested exotic saris, and Varma immediately agreed. “In the portions shot in Rajasthan, I have given a drape-like feel to gadhchola and bandhini, making them tight and fitted. In a dance sequence featuring Aamir and Urmila, I have used hay and beige. Ramuji liked black, beige, ivory and off-white," says Malhotra. Many of the trends are back in vogue, especially the peplum-cut dress, both printed and plain, and athleisure in yellow and neon colours. “One only hopes that a film like Rangeela happens in one’s career," says Malhotra. “And in my case, it actually did happen." —Avantika Bhuyan
17. Sex, or something like it
With its heroine a girl-next-door who’s comfortable in figure-hugging dresses (but isn’t judged for this), Rangeela was labelled dangerously sexy on its release. Actually, none of the characters talks about sex or seems to have experienced it—not unusual for Hindi cinema in 1995. That said, things heat up as the film progresses. Matondkar’s attire and demeanour in the songs with Shroff—part of the film within the film—are frankly erotic, as is Varma’s gaze. Hai Rama seems to have got its title from what parents might say when they see Matondkar and Shroff circling each other like animals in heat.
18. It becomes a whole other film for a minute
There’s a sudden cut from the light-hearted bickering of Mili’s household to a scene that couldn’t be more different. A plaintive flute melody plays as we find ourselves in Kamal’s house, looking down on the city. The mood is ominous, the lighting sparse like a noir—we could be watching Jackie Shroff in Parinda. “It looks like the stars from heaven are on the ground," he says, “a house behind each star, each home with its own story. But it all looks the same from here." As a glimpse into the life of a lonely superstar, it makes perfect sense, but the abruptness (it’s over in less than a minute) and the tonal change make it seem like a fragment from a whole other film.
19. Real life in the background
With much of the film shot on the streets of Mumbai, it’s not surprising that real life creeps in at the edges of the frame. In the rap section of Rangeela Re, you can see passers-by staring up at the shooting (one of them has his head turned around while driving a scooter). And in Yaaro Sun Lo Zara, the people drying clothes on the rocks by the sea in the middle distance as Matondkar dances in the foreground don’t look like extras but, rather, ordinary Mumbaikars having an unexpected brush with cinema history.
20. It's a film about dreams and dreamers
This is a musical filled with literal and figurative dreams. The opening number, Rangeela Re, turns out to be Mili daydreaming (when she wakes up, she scolds her mother for interrupting her little fantasy). Other songs are dreams too: Munna hallucinates Mili in his visions of Mangta Hai Kya and Kya Kare Kya Na Kare, and Kamal seems to imagine the heavy-breathing Hai Rama. But there are also practical dreams: Mili working as a dancer in the hope that she will one day be famous; Kamal selling escapism by the reel; Munna’s friend, Pakiya (Rajesh Joshi), selling tickets in black to get his sister married.
21. Movie-mad Mumbai
From Munna’s dus-ka-tees entry scene outside a “houseful" theatre to Mili’s dad constantly singing film songs, from the squabble over seats at an industry screening to onlookers wisecracking while a shoot is in progress, Rangeela is an affectionate (and accurate) portrait of Mumbai as a city where real life is inextricably linked to the movies.
22. A film with no villain
Varma wrote that Rangeela had a problem which no one but Aamir Khan realized, that “if Mili was a nice girl, Munna a nice guy and Jackie also a nice guy, there was absolutely no drama anywhere". This makes Rangeela’s final act somewhat unusual—the film relies on its characters and charm rather than plotting to get over the finish line.
23. It's a prime example of pre-kiss Bollywood
Rangeela would have been the ideal film to break mainstream Hindi cinema’s unspoken ban on the kiss. But it holds back. There’s a cut away at the exact moment of a kiss between Mili and Munna in Mangta Hai Kya. A movie slate blocks a possible kiss during the shooting of a scene with Kamal and Mili. There are near-misses in the otherwise torrid Hai Rama and Pyaar Ye Jaane Kaisa Hai. It would be a far less likely Aamir Khan film, Raja Hindustani, which would break the ban a year later.
24. Mehboob's lyrics are underrated
In praising Rahman, people often forget the other half of Rangeela’s music: Mehboob’s lyrics. Yet, without his wordplay and wit, the songs wouldn’t be nearly as memorable. He was as adept at writing in the tapori style on Kya Kare Kya Na Kare ("aisa bolega, saala, waisa bolega") or the brilliant back-and-forth of Yaaro Sun Lo Zara as he was with the tripping-off-the-tongue lines of Tanha Tanha ("koi saathi nahi tera yahaan toh ye koi baat hai").
25. It's aged better than 'DDLJ'
Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge also released in 1995. It was a far bigger hit than Rangeela, and has been as influential, if not more, in the years since. Yet, seen today, Dilwale seems stuck in an archaic value system, one in which women are judged for drinking and getting a little wild and conservative fathers must be won over. Rangeela doesn’t judge, and for all its '90s trappings, is an easier film to relate to.
This piece appeared in Mint Lounge on 5 September 2020.