How's my Luck now?

Reflections, views and descriptions during my stay at IIM Lucknow from July 2004 to March 2006

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Location: India

Saturday, August 13, 2005

'Mangal Pandey: The Rising'

I watched this much-awaited movie with the gang in a stall seat (with paan stains on the back of the seat in front of me), at Novelty theatre in Aliganj. We had been forewarned that the film fell below the high expectations of people. And we found that this was quite true.

What can be the motive(s) of a director in choosing a historical topic for a film? There can be many: the dramatic: catching the pulse of a people in the midst of great upheaval or portraying the hopes and struggles of a nation, etc.; the narrative: telling an interesting historical episode in an engrossing way; the glorifying: making heroes and heroines out of historical figures; the allegorical and/or didactic: hoping to convey morals and lessons from history; the revealing: busting popular myths and setting the record straight.

This motive is very important because it drives important decisions, perhaps the most important of which is: whether and how to fill in the gaps that we find in existing historical records. And it is here that this film stumbles. The motive, as professed by Ketan Mehta and by Aamir Khan, is both to glorify Mangal Pandey as the first martyr in India's quest for independence, and to convey the message that it is just not right for an economically and militarily more powerful nation to subjugate a weaker one. Mangal Pandey's history is not exactly well documented, and the gaps are filled in a typically 'mainstream' Hindi film manner.

According to what I read recently, it is rather doubtful how important a status Mangal Pandey's action enjoyed among the revolutionaries of 1857. In all probability, he might be an accidental hero, a person with greatness thrust upon him. Here he is shown to have a conscious and well-developed political ideology (democracy) and a conception of India as a nation. He is shown to have been forced by circumstances (the leakage of the revolutionary plan and subsequent expediting of the Queen's Regiment from Rangoon to Barrackpore) to take the kind of action that he did. I thought this was absolutely vital information, and if this is the true course of events, it is really curious how our school history textbooks painted Mangal Pandey's action as totally rash and one having adverse effect on the revolutionary plans of Nanasaheb-Tope-Laxmibai. I really don't know which one is true.

It is a well-known fact that Pandey was hanged secretly a few days before his scheduled hanging by the British. But a public hanging is shown here, with Pandey bellowing 'hallaa bol' as his final words. This seems designed more to inspire jingoism than anything else.

The performances from Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens (who plays Captain William Gordon, a Britisher sympathetic to the Indian interest) are very good. Aamir Khan does come up with an intense performance and creates the fearless and true hero image that was sought to be conveyed. Toby Stephens' effort in learning Hindi must be appreciated, and this is a memorable effort. The courtroom scene at the trial of Pandey is very well done by him. The ladies, Rani Mukherjee and Amisha Patel, have a token presence for a few scenes each. So all hype about their roles is to be neglected entirely.

The biggest howlers committed by the director are in the songs department. One very badly timed song (the Holi song), one unconvincing mujaraa, even an item number. A. R. Rahman's effort also does not seem particularly inspired, producing insipid tunes, particularly for the mujaraa, which has seen some of the best tunes in Hindi cinema. Instead of using traditional UP Hori folk tunes for the Holi song, he uses a garba-like beat, a surprisingly elementary mistake. Only the title chant of 'Mangala, Mangala' carries some spirit and is picturised well, with singers mounted on an elephant.

The redeeming features of the film are the performances by the two main characters; the obviously sincere effort that has gone behind the making of the film; the sets; some good cinematography in showing the landscape on the banks of the Ganga, the advancing Rangoon regiment, etc.; the revelation of British corruption and opium trade carried on by the East India Company; the sheer cruelty and injustice of the British, etc. All in all, a film with its share of big flaws, but worth a viewing nevertheless, for it is like balm in these times of absolutely stupid films like 'Maine pyaar kyon kiyaa?'

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