Friday, August 12, 2005

Mangal Pandey 

Luckily for Ketan Mehta, the international audience for his Mangal Pandey: The Rising would not know (or care) about a small chapter in Indian history, and Indian audiences couldn’t care less about anything if they get their money’s worth of entertainment. So he can merrily mix a lot of masala with his history lesson and probably get away with it!

Mehta tries to bung everything into a giant cauldron -- song, dance, spectacle, battles, romance, emotion, heroism — and stirs it with patriotism. This is the kind of light ‘pop’ attitude that works these days, and with the star power Aamir Khan commands, Mehta is home dry.

To sit through the film without spluttering in disbelief, you have to forget that it is based on historical fact, and enjoy its unabashed Bollywood-isation of history. Then you can believe that a British officer (William Gordan played by Toby Stephens) can wrestle in the mud with an Indian sepoy, drink bhaang with the ‘natives’, live with a high caste Hindu widow (Amisha Patel), he picked up from the sati pyre, and have a Johnny Mera Naam style one-on-one bhai-bhai fight with Mangal Pandey, when there’s supposedly a battle raging a few metres away! You can even believe that the Brahmin hero, who has no problems with casteism or the sati system, and objects to biting a bullet greased with animal fat, will consort with a nautch girl.

It is a bit much that Mangal Pandey not just triggers a revolution, but also ends up as a warrior, visionary, saint, railing against untouchability and imperialism– a pre-Gandhi Mahatma. It must be some kind of political conspiracy that history books don’t give him his correct place in the pantheon of freedom fighters. Maybe, now they will, with the face of Aamir Khan to prove that Mangal Pandey was truly a hero.

If it is just entertainment, then, of course, there’s no problem if Mangal Pandey does not react when a girl is sold in the bazaar, but does a filmi hero like rescue act when the same girl, now a prostitute (Rani Mukherji) is being forcibly dragged home by a British officer. This angers the loutish Brits so much that they brutally beat him up, and possibly start the fire that ends with a nationalist movement. For someone who goes about repeatedly attacking the ‘goras’ (though he does work in the East India Company’s army, lives off their salary and shoots at unarmed Indian peasants), they seem to be quite lenient with him—allowing him to go around dancing with gypsies or singing Holi songs.

It can’t denied that Mehta and his writer Farrukh Dhondy have fun with the material, and turn out a movie that has sporadic highs. The plus points being Aamir Khan’s muscular, blazing-eyed portrayal of the character, though in the acting department Toby Stephens grabs top spot; Himman Dhamija’s cinematography; the opening execution sequence which gets the audience in the right emotional mood; the way the Mangal Mangal ballad is used; the neat ending that ties up the story with the future.

Go expecting to see a piece of Bollywood fluff and you won’t be disappointed. Expect a historical epic, and you’ll come out wondering if Mangal Pandey really had secret conferences with Tatya Tope, or if he actually said “Halla Bol” before he was hanged!


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