This season's politico-historical-film controversy is likely to emanate from Ketan Mehta's Mangal Pandey a.k.a The Rising when it releases in June this year. I have my reservations about the plot, essentially because it poses a serious question: is this going to be a fair depiction of Mangal Pandey or just a fictional exaggeration?
First, what do we really know of Mangal Pandey? His story has been a important footnote in Indian history textbooks, which portray him as the first revolutionary, a brave man who sparked off the rebellion of 1857 leading to a larger War of Independence rocking the Victorian empire. Now, how much of this are we really certain of? That the biting-the-bullet incident actually took place, there seems to be no dispute. That there was a mutiny, there is no questioning. But did Pandey actually play a central leadership role; what part bravado and what part randomness?
A book called The Proudest Day: India's Long Road to Independence (Anthony Read and David Fisher) questions this claim. Matter-of-factly, the authors state that (and I paraphrase from memory, so this may be a little inaccurate - I merely mention the gist) Mangal Pandey was actually under the influence of bhang when he attacked superior officers and wasn't really in his senses. The principal reason does seem to have been the serious infringement of religious sensitivities by being asked to bite the animal fat coated bullet, but the actual intent comes out as far from noble - merely the act of an greatly disgruntled soldier (like the stories of a CRPF jawan and others like him temporarily losing their heads in extreme frustration).
This incident seems to have coincided with plans among leaders of certain groups to raise the flag of rebellion in opposition to the occupying British. Again, inspite of all the accounts you read, you will discern that some part of this attempt was to regain lost influences and a return to old feudal structures. It becomes more political than nationalistic. Here, I don't doubt the bravery & military prowess of names like Tantia Tope, Nana Saheb of Peshwa, the Kunwar Saab and the Rani of Jhansi (leaving aside the debate on their methods and documented massacres). These people were rulers or generals or leaders of their own little groups and commanded the clout to gather their people together in fighting a common enemy. But I find it hard to believe this of Mangal Pandey, who seems to have been an ordinary sepoy and seems to have merely lit the fuse of the growing resentment against the imperialistic & condescending East India Company by his open flouting of discipline. Perhaps this was used well by leaders to fan the simmering rage among the people.
(Now, do I have to completely believe the account of some Englishmen of whose antecedents I have no idea of? No, I shouldn't swallow the accounts without being sceptical, but I have no grounds to reject this thesis yet. Nehru's Discovery of India indicates that "an outburst" was not part of the larger plan, but says nothing specifically about Mangal Pandey. I wonder what Savarkar's account of the same says about this episode. I would like to know if there are any other accounts of this episode; I could find none on the Web that went beyond a laudatory character sketch.)
There is the issue of the choice of description: "Mutiny" vs "First War of Independence". It seems to me that it was both - there was a well-documented mutiny and there was a genuine attempt to fight the British. What the result would have been if the Indians would have won is left to speculation. But denying that either happened is incorrect, as incorrect as saying that only one of these happened. But where does Mangal Pandey fit in? Was he an inadvertent revolutionary, the spiritual spark of the Mutiny or a true Independence warrior?
Coming back to the film, there is no doubt that we will see Mangal Pandey invested with the best that humanity can offer. Brave and fair, intelligent and forthright with hardly any weaknesses. Partly the problem lies in the choice of lead star. That Aamir Khan is playing will, I think, automatically lead to the above (and I'll be the gladdest if I'm proved wrong). The trouble is that Aamir Khan has never yet exhibited the broad range that people have attributed to him. He is a pseudo-thinking actor and it's tough to say how he got that label. He's a talented actor, but I have never seen his roles characterised differently, only the situations change (read Paanch paise worth on Aamir for some more musings on this topic).
The synopsis of the film is that Mangal Pandey befriends a British officer, romances a young lady and raises the banner of revolt. So we will definitely see an erudite Mangal Pandey, holding his own with and against Toby Stephens and generally being representative of the harried and oppressed Indians of the time who did not surrender their dignity. Hmm... where did we last see this? Let me see... Bhuvan?
The point of this post is not to run down Mangal Pandey or be critical of Aamir Khan's
acting styles. The point is that the film will most probably not be sold as a work
of fiction. We would like to see another account of one of our forefathers
giving the fira.ngs a generally nasty time, and even better, it would all be quasi-real.
Toby Stephens saving
Rani Mukherjee Ameesha Patel from Sati? Could have happened. So where are these
re-interpretations of history based on? I wish Farrukh Dhondy, the scriptwriter, will
For some reason, I'm uncomfortable with such characterisations where there is so much doubt. I perhaps wouldn't be making such a point of a film on the Rani of Jhansi. Of course, historical films have always been errant and highly sympathetic to their protagonists. But especially when Aamir Khan provides a sketch of Mangal Pandey, more people are going to believe him outright than not.
And questioning it will probably invite the wrath of a few people.
[PS(1): BTW (biased opinion): I think the music of the film is going to be special!]
[PS(2): I would like to be corrected/informed about any points made above]