Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Mangal Pandey: The Rising

'Mangal Pandey: The Rising' is, at heart, a rollicking masala mythological, albeit one where the figure being deified is a human one, and the 'religion' is patriotism. I think a lot of the discussion of whether it is a good film or not, apart from the discussion of its technical (de)merits, production values, acting, etc., misses the mark because it treats the question of whether this film is serious history with more importance than it deserves. In fact, this is popular myth-making at work, not an exercise in academic history. Compare this with Aamir Khan's last pseudo-historical outing, Lagaan. That, of course, was more straightforwardly a fantasy, whereas this one is ostensibly imbued with a grain of truth and based on a real character and real events. However, this is less important a distinction than it might seem. Lagaan, too, was set in a particular period and milieu, so that it could be judged on the accuracy with which it recreated its period. Such is, of course, also the case with the Rising. However, the more substantive point I'm trying to make is that it doesn't really matter, beyond the basics of getting dates and places right in the case of the Rising which was not important in the case of Lagaan, that Bhuvan in Lagaan did not exist and that Mangal Pandey did, and that the cricket match did not happen (ah, but it could have!) and that the events leading up to the Mutiny did. To the extent that we know a little about Mangal Pandey's life and some incidents in it, it is probably important for the film to try not to deviate too much from the bare bones of the story, and it does not. However, it is actually redundant to discuss whether the rest of the film is faithful to history (i.e., for example, to ask whether there was indeed a bhang episode, or a mujra, or whether Rani Mukherjee's character existed (perhaps, instead, one should ask: could it, or could she?), except in the general sense of not playing too fast and loose with the known facts about the environment. The reason is that so little is known about Mangal Pandey that if one were to try to make a film that stuck to the little that is known, it would not last very long. Thus, it is important to realise that it is inevitable that the film will deviate from the 'known facts', and it is also important to understand that what the filmmaker is trying to do is to essentially encapsulate a particular 'type' of person or persons in a single character who will allow larger points to be made in a way that would not be possible in a big-budget piece of popular cinema without resorting to what I will call, for want of a better word, mythologisation. It's perfectly fair, of course, to question whether the intentions of the filmmakers are realised, and what might also be worth discussing is what we think of what they're trying to do in the first place.

The Rising is a pretty typical example of the process of taking the outlines of a historical story and padding it so it comes to encapsulate the themes the makers are interested in exploring, seen through the prism of a couple of larger-than-life characters. In the case of 'The Rising', the story of the Revolt of 1857 is essentially framed as a conflict between an expansionist, mercenary East India Company and its Indian subjects, as filtered through the experiences of a British officer and an Indian sepoy. While weaving the story around what little is known of the contours of Mangal Pandey's life (such as his firing at his superior officer, trial, and hanging), what the scriptwriter has done is essentially use whatever is known about the Mutiny and the events leading up to it to flesh out the skeleton provided by Mangal's life. In fact, the extent to which the scenes and pivotal moments in the film correspond to known details as reported in official accounts of the Mutiny surprised me. Even the scene where the sweeper accosts Mangal and tells him that he, too, will lose his caste because he's going to be biting cow-fat-laden cartridges is reported in official military accounts of the events leading up to 1857. Of course, the real Mangal Pandey had no part in this particular episode, so what the script does is essentially portray Mangal Pandey as an 'every-sepoy', a sort of archetype of the low-ranking native infantryman in the Bengal Army. This is what I mean when I say that what the film, like all films of this genre, does is to mythologise a historical figure. In the film, Mangal Pandey represents all soldiers of his kind, and eventually a sort of Indian 'everyman'. This is exactly in the tradition of films of this sort, and there is therefore little to be gained from arguing about the exact correspondence of details of Mangal Pandey's life as shown in the film and his real life. It doesn't matter. What matters is whether the character of Mangal Pandey is sufficiently successfully mythified so that he does in fact come to represent the situation and aspirations of the 'little people' of the period. I think that it does, and that in doing so it succeeds in getting the audience to empathise with this mythic forbear of their own modern selves.

What the film also does, fairly successfully, is to segue into a delineation of the birth of nationalistic feeling. This is a difficult task to accomplish without become unduly preachy while at the same time remaining gripping. Here, perhaps, is where the ambitions of the filmmaker and the supposed historical basis of the plot diverge most radically. It would be hard to argue convincingly that the real Mangal Pandey was a 'nationalist' in the sense that we now understand the term. Certiainly, he could not have had the understanding of the flaws of autocratic rule and the idea that a post-colonial India was going to be a democracy, as is suggested in the film. Yet the point of making a film such as this is to be able to address these loftier, broader themes in a way that is still comprehensible to its audience. Just as Pandey becomes an Indian 'everyman', he also becomes a vehicle for exploring the birth of a national identity - realistically, an identity that was both mediated by religion (hence the emphasis on the cow/pig-fat), essentially inclusive, and most importantly, defined by what it was in opposition to - the British, or at least the rule of John Company.

This transition, mediated through the growing self- and political awareness of Mangal Pandey's character, from someone who is aware of racism and the injustice of colonial rule on a personal level, to someone who sees its wider ramifications for his entire society, is the crux of the film, and apart from some of the delination of the Company's excesses being a little too simplistic, I think the film handles it well. It does well, also, to avoid overt jingoism by emphasising the injustice of the institution of colonial rule by retaining to the end its sympathetic portrayal of the Gordon character. The personal is political, of course, but it's important always to avoid reducing the political to the personal, and here, for all its many flaws (misplaced, intrusive songs, some historical bloopers, some amount of preachiness, too many underdeveloped sub-plots), Mangal Pandey: The Rising succeeds fairly well, as it does in taking its target audience(s?) on quite an enjoyable ride through India in the mid-nineteenth century in the process. Seen as essentially a non-denominational mythological and not as either a strict historical (what Hindi film, with its carefully-staged dance sequences, or indeed what Hollywood fgilm, with its swelling background score and strategically-chosen set-pieces, can claim to be realist?), the film is pretty successful in doing what it sets out to do. Still, it must be admitted that those looking for a straightrforward history lesson would be well advised to take it with a pinch of salt.


Blogger Three drinks ahead...as always! said...

Couldn't agree more, SomeOl'Guy! :)

11:35 PM  

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