The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey

(Dir. Ketan Mehta 2005)

I started watching this film on television, having no idea what it was about. In common with almost all Indian films it contains several song and dance sequences that have little to do with advancing the plot. The scenery is quite pretty and some of the buildings used as locations are beautiful (although a little out-of-period in appearance – buildings that would have looked new or newer back then look old and shabby). It starts with a flash-forward to near the ending of the story, and we see preparations made to execute a prisoner. He is a handsome muscular dignified magnificent specimen, so he has "hero" written all over him.

It then became clear what the film was about: the 1857 Indian Mutiny. The simple fact is that most people seeing this will not know the details of what actually happened and will accept much of what is shown as history. Of course they will know that specifics of dialogue and so forth are invented, but the emotional impact of the message of the story has power, and so there is a responsibility on the film makers to use this power wisely and fairly.

The film then commits several terrible acts of inaccuracy. I will concentrate on one: a rumour is spread that pig and cow grease are used on the cartridges issued to troops, and this displeases the Hindus (cows) and Muslims (pigs). It is historically true that the RUMOUR of this existed and contributed to the starting of the Mutiny, but the film then goes on to tell the audience that the rumour was true. In historical reality it really was just a rumour. The cartridges were waxed. Hollywood and Bollywood seem very comfortable with portraying the British as incompetent and evil and here we see this lazy scripting at work again. The East India Company did make a big mistake in not taking the rumour seriously, but it was not so stupid or so evil as to actually use pig or cow grease on the cartridges.

H/Bollywood might be forgiven for a certain amount of artistic convention with characters etc. (in this film, the lead characters in the story also happen to be best friends, having saved each other's lives in the past etc.), but it really should not take liberties to the point when the story is just a lie, nor should it, as here, make political points at the end of the film, dressed up as history. The film ends with a statement that Mangal Pandey as portrayed was a real man (the real man was very ordinary and claimed in court to have been under the influence of drugs when he did what he did), and that the Mutiny was really the first war of Indian independence, throwing off the yolk of subjugation and exchanging this for happy freedom. Historians will differ in their interpretations and emphases of the past, but it ought to be pointed out that the East India Company ruled India as a far more prosperous, advanced, arguably just, and certainly peaceful place that it had found it. Also, the instant that India gained its independence, it was rent into parts, with Pakistan and what later became Bangladesh splitting away, and a tremendously bloody civil war flared up in which vastly more Indians died than did at the hands of the British, and more people were displaced than at any other time in history.

I am sick of one lot of rulers replacing another lot's being shown as "freedom" in films. Braveheart did the same - I am unconvinced that the Scots fighting for the "freedom" to be subjugated by a slightly different set of feudal lords really did themselves much good.

There are so many interesting themes in human interaction and history to be explored. It is a shame that films like this always tell the same few tales over and over, and reduce everything to a few stereotypes. The Indian Mutiny would make a good setting for a film exploring the nature of good rule, the power of rumour, the importance of religious tolerance, or the randomness of historical events, but instead we get the standard farm-boy becomes hero, kills black knight, rescues maiden, fights the Evil Empire story. This works in Star Wars largely because Star Wars is so self-consciously legend. In the setting of historical events that still today have political implications, it is pernicious.

The film looks good, has reasonably decent performances in it, and a few scenes with lots of costumed extras, but it is far too long, too familiar and too low-brow. The heroic British officer in the court room scene is made to rant and yell for the sake of drama. How much more powerful and fair the scene would have been if he had spoken calmly. History records that after the mutiny, the trials held were very fair and threw out most charges of rape that were reported against white British. There was no savage retribution - quite the reverse. That is another interesting story here ignored.

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