Aamir Khan is one of the most versatile actors in Bollywood today. His last movies were Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, both were blockbusters, with the former even nominated for the Oscars for the best Foreign film category. He has displayed enough versatility with such ease that you forget you are watching Aamir on screen, and start to believe in the character he portrays, be it Bhuvan in Lagaan, Akaash in Dil Chahta Hai or even Raj in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. He is my favorite actor, and if there is any Indian film to watch, I make sure it is his.
One such film is The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey. Coming out after four years after his last film, many people awaited with bated breath for The Rising. The expectations were sky-high and I was certainly expected to be blown away. So. What’s the verdict?
4 out of 5.
The Rising is a historical film set in 1857, about Mangal Pandey who works as a sepoy (native soldier) in India under the Great British East India Company. The sepoys and the British army fought together against the Afghanistan warlords, and it’s at the end of that war where Mangal saves the life of Gordon, and they become very good friends.
The British East India Company has been ruling India for 100s of years, and we see that they also started the Opium trade in this region (something to think about before accusing the Afghanis for growing Opium!) The Company is basically a moneymaking machine, at the cost of the lives of the ‘black dogs’: the Indian sepoys.
An untouchable (outcast) in the village hears about the new gun cartridges covers being smothered with the fat of cow and pig. What’s the big deal? These cartridges need to be opened with the mouth, and that would mean the Hindus would have to taste cow meat, and the Muslims would have to taste pig meat, which would be offensive to faiths. The British army successfully covers it up for a short while. Captain Gordon assures them, albeit without his full knowledge, that the cartridges are free from such fat, and Mangal trusts him and bites into the cartridge. But then the Indian sepoys figure out the truth by seeing the factory where these cartridges are made and Mangal feels betrayed. Thus begins the revolt against the British. The Rising begins with a simple revolt against the British Army into a full fledged fight for freedom.
Other subplots that are shown here are merely issues that existed in India in 1857. We see an Indian woman breast-feeding the British women’s babies for money, and yet unable to breastfeed her own children. We see women being sold as prostitutes, and one such is sold to a woman who runs an upper class brothel for the British army. This particular prostitute, Heera, develops a love relationship with Mangal. We see the issue of burning brides, otherwise known as Sati, where a bride is burned alongside her husband who is dead. Captain Gordon saves this one particular bride Jwala and brings her home. These are issues shown to depict India as it was in 1857.
The movie takes a turn when Mangal tells Heera, the prostitute, that she and other women should leave him alone and go sell their bodies to the Britishers, not to the Indians. Heera tells him: “We may have sold our bodies, but you sepoys have sold your souls.” Mangal is hit hard, and soon after, he realizes that him and other sepoys are basically being used. Alongside the realization that he has been lied to, by his friend Gordon (who was not aware at the time of the reality), about the cartridges, Mangal and his friends decide to stand up for their freedom. Thus begins the uprising, and the eventual mutiny.
A. The songs:
There are three songs in this movie, and all three slowed down the pace of the film. The “main vari vari” song clearly looked like a masala song to keep the viewers happy in a traditional Bollywood style. The holi song was used to depict the two forbidden love affairs. While they were meant to further the narrative, it actually slowed down. When the third song came, a lot of people got up from their seats to take a break. Even the title track was annoying to me. But having said that, credit has to be given to AR Rehman for creating music that actually sounded like as if it were in 1857. It’s a matter of taste and understanding that we are witnessing 1857 in India where music may not have been as technical as it is today.
B. The Comedic scenes
Since not much is known about Mangal Pandey, the comedy scenes in the movie seems to be forcefully added in between the more serious parts. While some comedic scenes are required to balance out the heaviness of the film otherwise, having a cross eyed man as a comedy stint didn’t cut it for me. They should have stuck to the more pleasant comedy between Mangal and Gordon that came more naturally, like the prank they play on one of the army officer.
The movie needed some re-editing. Some parts slowed down the movie, and you wonder when the uprising will start. Half way through, people were literally glancing at their watches, wondering where the Rising was.
Technically, this film cannot get any better. So much detail has been paid to recreate the India of 1857. Gas lamps, the architecture, the costumes, and even the telly-graffe (telegraph) is talked about. My favorite scene of mine was when Mangal meets Heera on the balcony, and the gas lamp flickers, and you see that flickering effect on their faces. It added a great touch of realism in the movie. It was also very symbolic, as these two people were getting to know one another. As everything is not exposed in a flickering light, their emotions and feelings are not entirely exposed at the time.
Characters were developed really well, and while you questioned the shortness of the roles of the women in this movie, you have to understand women in Indian in 1857 were merely at the subjugation of the men- they were merely objects. The roles of the three women were very under-played: the breast-feeding woman, Heera and Jwala, the burning bride victim. Even the British woman who takes a liking to the Indian culture disappears half way through, when one expected for there to be a love story between her and Captain Gordon. Otherwise, generally each character did their job well, even the British actors.
Like I said, not much is known about the true story of Mangal Pandey, but the story is an inspiring one. One of attaining freedom. The narrative is quite engrossing, and you completely forget that you are watching this movie in a theatre in 2005, and for the three hours of the movie, you are completely immersed in the world of India in 1857. The setting, people, clothing, lighting, every little detail made the difference. The way they have shown how all the Indians collaborate, get rid of their differences and unite as merely Indians is simply amazing. The gradual build up is very convincing and quite captivating. How all the different districts, and kings and queens are informed of the movement for freedom is awe-inspiring. This whole movement for freedom is the highlight of the movie. (It makes me wonder why the Muslims cannot unite, or even the Arab countries cannot unite. Because in unity, they all stand as one power, and that is enough to overthrow whoever is invading you. I think you can apply this story to any person struggling for freedom, be it the Palestinians or the Iraqis, it will appeal to those who are interested in attaining freedom from their invaders. On a larger scale, this movie could also be an analogy for how the Iraqi people feel with the US invading their country. I also think history has shown that an invasion can never be successful, and those who do it by butchering people are doing it at the cost of lives- like when Americans butchered the Red Indians.)
The movie did a tremendous job of depicting India in 1857. The characters all stood out, and you never saw these actors as actors, but as the characters they play on screen. Even the British actors did a good job of pronouncing the Hindi words well. Gordon did a great job, and I enjoyed watching him act.
I cannot say more about Aamir. He did a tremendous job of totally transforming himself into Mangal Pandey. The whole time I was watching Mangal Pandey perform and not Aamir, and I think that is a true success of acting.
Rani Mukherjee did what she had to do, but she played the part very convincingly. Some of her dialogues were hard-hitting, and they stand out.
Amisha Patel was a big let down, since all she had to do was act scared as the bride saved from the burning pyre.
Toby Stephens did a very good job; he displayed a sense of warmth and sympathy for the Indians, but is overpowered by the more powerful, racist colleagues. His dialogue delivery in Hindi was also convincing enough. He did an amazing acting of being able to get the right facial expressions when he spoke Hindi—he did not have a bland expression on his face at any given time.
III. On A Side Note:
Towards the end, we are shown old footage of what India was like, and how the actions of Mangal Pandey started a movement of freedom, carried on by Gandhi as well. It eventually led to the freedom of Indian from the British, 90 years after Mangal Pandey died. A part of India was created into Pakistan.
The narrator mentioned that this independence created the largest, bloodiest, mass displacement of people ever in history. Millions and millions of Muslims moved from India to Pakistan, and millions of Hindus moved from Pakistan to India. I have made attempts to ask my grandparents of what they went through what we call Partition. They don’t tell me much, as I can understand that it’s a very painful and disturbing memory for them.
And it’s really amazing to think that a certain man named Mangal Pandey started this movement for independence. I think we Pakistanis and Indian have to take the time out this independence day to be thankful for all the people who sacrificed their lives so we could be independent, and live in the freedom that we live in today.