Mangal Pandey - The Rising

Over the course of the history of Indian films, us desis have evolved our own rating terminology. These include "it's ok," "timepass" and "don't expect anything." This is in addition to the usual "good", "great music!", "xxx Khan is wearing cool clothes in the movie, yaar!" and "big in Chennai!" Okay, I made up the last two but, on a more serious note, there is a phrase I do use: "honorable effort." This refers to Bollywood films, often by directors who made a name for themselves on the art film circuit, that attempt to tackle worthwhile issues yet are too flawed to earn a "good" rating. A good example is Thakshak, directed by Govind Nihalani of Ardh Satya (Half Truth) fame. Page 3 is a more recent illustration. The Rising, helmed as it is by former art house darling Ketan Mehta (Mirch Masala, Maya Memsaab), barely escapes falling into this category. It is a rousing effort with epic aspirations that is ultimately marred by the little things. It's a good, but not great, film.

How best to bring well known events alive for an audience? That's a key challenge faced by a historical epic. How do you hold an audience's interest over a story for which the ending is already known? One possibility is to get the ending over with first and retrace the steps that led up to it. Nine Hours to Rama tried this approach, starting off with Mahatma Gandhi's assasination. When The Rising opens and we see Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan) getting ready to be hung, my first thought was the film was attempting the flashback approach, since anyone familiar with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (or the first Indian War of Independence) will know that's how Mangal Pandey met his end. But Ketan Mehta and writer Farrukh Dhondy have other ideas and, just before the signal is to be given, a messenger comes running with the news that the executioner is nowhere to be found. No local will hang this man. The execution is stayed and we are left with sufficient doubt so as to focus on the proceedings that follow. A nifty twist.

Rewind to a skirmish in Afganistan in 1853 where we see the bravery of sepoy Mangal Pandey as he rescues officer William Gordon (Toby Stephens) from certain death, becoming gravely injured himself in the process. As both men recover, we see the disparate way the East India Company treats its officers who are housed in tents vis a vis the native Indian soldiers who are left outside. William is powerless to help Mangal but he does gift him his own gun for protection. Thus, a bond starts to form between the two men. By 1856, the division is housed in Barrackpore in Calcutta and Mangal and Wlliam are becoming inseparable. But there are clouds looming over the horizon regarding the origins of the grease used for the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles. A combination of cow and pig fat, it is equally abhorrent to the Hindu and Muslim sepoys who must bite down on them as part of the loading process.

One of the interesting curveballs the film throws at us is that it's agenda is not necessarily anti-colonialism. Sure, there's talk from the British officers about the "burden of the white man" but it's all intended to justify the policies of the British East India Company. Those were all about profit - specificially, draining as much wealth as possible from the Indian countryside. This involved forcing the farmers to grow poppy seeds which then could be sold to China as part of the opium trade. By paying the farmers fixed prices and using the Indian sepoys to keep them in line, the Company reaped huge dividends. In that sense, most of the film is more about the evils of capitalism, monopolies and globalization. That the film includes a sympathetic British character and points out some good accomplished by the Company, namely the banning of sati, supports this notion. It's the profit motive then that ultimately leads to the uprising as the Company tries to cover up the origins of the grease because replacements would be too costly to the bottom line. The sepoys, smarting at their inferior treatment, finally have had enough.

That Mangal Pandey is able to raise these issues in an entertaining manner is its biggest strength. However, a number of nits ultimately prevent the film from rising to its potential. First, Mangal Pandey himself is just not sufficiently well developed. Though well acted by Aamir Khan, we really have no information on his background and he remains a cipher. Whatever dramatic license the script takes, namely his relationship with the prostitute Heera (Rani Mukherjee), is controversial and arguably unnecessary. On the other hand, the character of William Gordon is much more well rounded - perhaps because it is completely invented. Next, the device of having some fellows on an elephant chanting out "mangala, mangala" at periodic intervals serves no discernible purpose and can get annoying to boot. Additionally, some of the song sequences, particularly in the second half, are unnecessary and impede the flow. Also, the climax and ending of the film somehow left me unsatisfied. With a title like "The Rising," I was expecting more on the actual rebellion but the film just ends with the incidents that triggered the whole thing. Finally, a small fashion blooper nearly took Shari out of the film - she noticed that Heera's nails were manicured in the French style, quite in vogue currently and, therefor, unlikely to be used by someone of that era in India. All in all then, the film could have been much more. But, if it serves to remind folks that there was much more to India's fight for independence than one half naked fakir, it will have served its purpose.

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- October 11, 2005 9:56 AM // Bollywood , Film , Review