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Mangal Pandey - The Rising

Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 08/13/05 01:10:50

"'Mooch' ado about The Rising!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It would be unfortunate if the talking point of ‘Mangal Pandey- The Rising’, featuring Aamir Khan after an absence of four years since his ‘Lagaan’, will be the ‘mooch’ that Aamir decided to grow for the film. Atleast that was the focal point pre-release! But ‘Mangal Pandey’ is much more than that. It is a robust telling, in a grand style, of the 1857 Indian Mutiny and its central character. Whether Aamir Khan needed to put in four years into this project is debatable, but his headlong immersion into the role he’s essayed is unquestionable. This is Aamir at his peak. And thankfully, ‘Mangal Pandey’ also marks the return to form of Ketan Mehta, one of the true talents of our industry. That it happens to be his pet-project, something he’s had at the back of his mind for over twenty years, extracts the best out of him.

Mangal Pandey- The Rising, released to international audiences as The Rising- Ballad Of Mangal Pandey, is a wonderfully rendered opus that cleverly manages to sieve fact and fiction. After all, history is nothing but a fable agreed upon! Farrukh Dhondy is helped in this endeavour thanks to the little known life about the first rebel in the Indian freedom struggle. Dhondy pounces on this license and gives us an array of supporting characters; Heera(Rani Mukerji)- a desolate orphan sold into prostitution, Jwala(Amisha Patel)- a widow rescued from suttee, Sorabji(Sohrab Ardeshir)- a Parsi opium dealer, and a local untouchable(Atul Kumar) in addition to others. These characters do not add much to the story per se, but their presence sets up crucial moments which help take the story forward. In fact, the script is so smooth that one experiences the transition of Mangal Pandey from just another sepoy serving the East India Company’s army to an irate individual aware of the suppression that the Indians have been forced into and determined to oust it. It reminded me of Kamal Haasan’s magnificent Hey Ram, a film that managed to make the viewer travel with the character and experience his inner struggle. Like Hey Ram, The Rising also uses overt sexuality as an allusion to the events running parallel. Metaphors and symbolism abound in The Rising, and a discerning viewer will happily indulge in deciphering them. One of the most obvious and the best is a track involving an Indian wet-nurse(Mona Ambegaonkar) who feeds the child of her English mistress and leaves her own baby bereft of milk. Her dilemma acts as a brazen metaphor to the reckless plundering of India’s wealth by the British.

The Brits came to India as traders. Their tactful appeasement of the omadhaun kings and the spineless defiance of the country folk allowed them to become masters. The Brits set up the East India Company and governed every possible facet, forcing the farmers to cultivate opium which they sold to China. They used Indian men in their battles against empires of the world. It is during one such battle in 1853, Afghanistan that Mangal Pandey(Aamir Khan) saves the life of Captain William Gordon(Toby Stephens). They develop a strong bond- Gordon speaks Hindi, engages in mud-wrestling with Pandey and even sympathizes with the locals while Pandey entrusts all his faith to the word of Gordon. When Gordon convinces Pandey that a batch of new cartridges aren’t smeared in the fat of cows(sacred to the Hindus) and pigs(sacrilege to the Muslims) as popularly believed, Pandey agrees to bite it. Gordon himself has been fooled into accepting a lie by his seniors, and when Pandey learns of the truth his relationship with Gordon gets strained. Pandey challenges the British supremacy and a sequence of events, before and after, lead to his utter disobedience of the English powers. These include- a racist Hewson(Ben Nealon) beating up an Indian waiter that Mangal intervenes in, an order to shoot rebelling opium cultivators and Hewson demanding Heera to sleep with him. These carve the freedom fighter in Mangal, only to culminate with the final nail of the kartoos scandal.

The film succeeds in arousing nationalistic sentiments without getting jingoistic. William Gordon’s character has been written with great care, so as to present a saner side to the British who would all otherwise fall into the stereotypical category of moustache-twirling villains. If anybody does any moustache-twirling, it is Mangal Pandey! Stephens plays the part of Gordon with an ebullient assurance. His grasp of the Hindi language is amazing. Not only does he mouth his lines perfectly, he says them with the right emotions and expressions. He clearly looks the more comfortable actor in his scenes with Amisha Patel(awfully inept). And he steals the thunder from Aamir Khan as well! Yes, ironical as it may sound, in a film about an Indian’s resistance to the English it is an English actor who takes the cake! Aamir Khan has clearly put in all in the role. His presence, his walk, his eyes arrest our attention. One wishes it wouldn’t take another four years to see him on the screen again! Rani Mukerji is wasted, but with this role she completes her iridescent quest. She has now performed every clichéd role possible, and all with great aplomb.

The Rising is a technical achievement par excellence. Farrukh Dhondy’s script is provided with worthy dialogues by Ranjit Kapoor. Sreekar Prasad edits out the rough edges to an otherwise perfect narrative. Himan Dhamija captures everything on a huge scale. His cinematography deserves to be witnessed on the big screen. The huge scale has been provided by Nitin Desai’s flawless art direction. Minute detail has gone into the recreation of the age, including a matchbox of that time! Desai is a definite shoe-in for all the production design laurels come awards season. Lovleen Bains does a tough job of designing the costumes. One wishes that she wouldn’t have challenged the audiences to ignore the plunging necklines and heaving cleavages, and concentrate on the proceedings! A.R. Rahman gives an understated score which may not be popular but serves the purpose. Besides, the title track is absolutely spell-binding.

Ketan Mehta achieves his dream. But his dream comes tainted with the needles inclusion of songs, which the international audience has been spared of! I hope that Indian audiences learn to accept films without songs. On an aside, I was seriously troubled by the catcalls during any scene involving a female character. And this happens at every screening of every film. Not only does this reflect badly upon our general image, but it also makes one wonder if a majority of the Indian men are sex-starved animals high on pent up libido!

Mehta’s ‘Mangal Pandey’ is another addition to an already impressive oeuvre of films out of Bollywood this year. The unnecessary songs, hindi narration by Om Puri(again only for Indian audiences) and the irresistible temptation to cast Tom Alter(something that ‘Lagaan’ managed to overcome) forgiven, ‘Mangal Pandey’ is a complete epic with the right amount of history and legend. And that’s a fact!

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