By Rajiv Rawat
21 August, 2005
A strange North American silence seems to have descended over the Bollywood film, The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, a historical epic depicting the Indian sepoy uprising against their British masters in 1857. The year's most anticipated Indian film, with an unprecedented number of UK and North American screenings in mainstream movie theatres seems to have been completely bypassed by North American film critics.
In the week following its August 12 opening, none of the major newspapers nor the alternative weeklies in the US and Canada had reviewed the film. The fact that the film could only be screened in specialty theatres in most urban areas didn't help, but other films in this category seemed to have been diligently reviewed. Indeed, one of the few articles to appear was an AP story that related the experiences of white tourists enlisted to play extras in the film! However, the movie itself was not reviewed. Only Variety entertainment magazine seems to have picked up the movie, giving it a glowing thumbs up.
While this is somewhat indicative of how the Northern American media is gravely disconnected from the cultural milieu of most ethnic minorities, it is also disturbing because the Rising has a powerful anti-imperialism message resonant of the current American hubris in Iraq and the brutality and bloodshed it has entailed. The movie's depictions of what the British call the mutiny and what Indians call their first war of independence, also retains strong social commentary that shapes the awakening of the main character and leads him from servitude to outright rebellion against his former masters. The nature of the racist and capitalist oppression of Company Raj (India was then ruled by the East India Company) is also explored evocatively, as are the ambiguities of culture and religion in the fight for freedom.
In the UK, some British historians have pilloried the film for depicting the British East India Company in such a bad light. Even the Conservative Party and right-leaning newspapers have stepped into the fray, demanding an explanation over why the UK Film Council helped fund the film. Beyond the imperial apologia, their indignation may stem from the fact the victors are no longer solely writing the history books, and that subaltern views are finally getting the chance to be so vividly expressed in the mainstream. The indignation may also stem from the fact that the film offers a powerful rebuke to recent attempts by hawkish neo-conservative scholars and politicians to rehabilitate imperialism, a trend that has reached the highest levels with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs recent objectionable statements at Oxford extolling its virtues. The hue and cry over historical inaccuracies was also contested by Toby Stephens, the English lead in the film who expressed a "shameful ignorance" about the East India Company's record in India, a record that is at best glossed over, and at worst, whitewashed in British history.
Indeed the issue of historical licence has been trumped up to discredit a profound examination of the nature of corporate colonial rule. On one hand, the residents of Pandey's hometown of Ballia have objected to the depiction of Pandey's love for a dancing girl in a knee-jerk socially conservative fashion. They are also upset that the hometown wasn't mentioned in the film, although other towns have laid claim to being the birthplace of Mangal Pandey as well. Unfortunately, this minor offence misses the point illustrated by the relationship where the prostitution of the body is compared to the prostitution of the soul as in the case of the sepoys. For historians, the alleged historical distortions are also somewhat of a red herring. One has only to survey the great majority of historical epics to realize that cinema has long been tinkering with facts to suit the exigencies of producing compelling plots. With the short time allotted to a film, it only makes sense to weave important events together or even create composite characters and plot devices to address the larger points that the director wishes to make about his or her primary themes. Moreover in the case of Mangal Pandey, it is made clear from the outset that the film is a ballad and not the definitive story, in keeping with the Indian oral tradition.
What may further divide the critics and fuel a media campaign against the film is its uncompromising political message. The themes of Hindu-Muslim unity as well as strong social commentary on untouchability and prostitution will probably grate on chauvinists' nerves. Aamir Khan who plays Mangal Pandey and is also one of the most respected and popular actors working in India, has made the film's anti-imperialist message abundantly clear. In recent interviews, he drew a direct link between the behaviour of the East India Company and the United States which is acting like a colonizer in Iraq, Afghanistan, and before in Vietnam (interesting aside, the East India Company's red and white striped ensign is the direct inspiration for the stars and stripes). The film's economic critique is also strong, with a notable opium subplot proving very useful in illustrating the company's corrupt practices in the name of the "Free Market." The associated firing on villagers who violated the Company's monopoly over opium production was reminiscent of infamous massacres like Bloody Sunday in Ireland, Fallujah, or even Sharpeville in South Africa that touched off waves of rebellion. Mangal Pandey's Scottish officer friend also explains how the Company can be described as Ravan, Indian mythology's most notorious villain, except that instead of ten heads, the Company has a thousand all stuck together by greed. This is capped off by a song (and dance) about commodification, entitled "Takey, Takey" where everything including human beings and love itself could be bought and sold.
Fortunately, the film itself is technically and aesthetically brilliant, a point that can hardly be disputed by even the most hardened critics bent on savaging the film. Moreover, some of the jarring aspects stem from the layering of a historical epic on a Bollywood frame that is not usually given to contemplating serious political matters. However, even this risky blending of genres was attempted to ensure the film reached a wider audience in both the Subcontinent as well as internationally. At the very least, the film succeeds on the back of its outstanding leads, Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. While on these grounds alone it's a great movie, important messages about oppression and freedom, collaboration and resistance are what make it an instant classic, and thus a dangerous film to the powers that be.