Thursday, August 11, 2005

Expectations 'Rising'

So, Mangal Pandey finally releases. Being an Aamir Khan film junta has high hopes, and expectations.

Films based on historical characters, however, can be tricky. Remember Asoka? Not only did Shahrukh and Santosh Sivan fool around with the spelling of his name, they screwed around with the basic story and character.

Ashoka is known to us all as the Emperor who was so repelled by the death and destruction caused at the historic battle of Kalinga that he renounced war and embraced Buddhism.

But that portion never got its due prominence in the film as reel after reel was wasted in unfolding the love story between Asoka and some imaginary princess played by Kareena Kapoor. (I went back home and dug up an ancient Amar Chitra Katha to confirm that fact - the princess never actually existed!).

As Oscar Wilde once said: Any fool can make history, but it takes a genius to write it. To that I would add, it takes an even bigger genius to film it.

The only truly watchable and yet authentic biopic I've seen is 'Gandhi', whose life and thoughts were very well documented both in his own writings and those of his contemporaries.

While staying true to the key events in Gandhiji's life, Attenborough managed to add drama, emotional depth and cinematic sizzle to produce a moving and memorable motion picture.

Fact vs fiction
The point I'm making is that historical films work when they somehow manage to fit our pre-conceived notions of how the character actually existed. And yet add some elements which raise the effort above documentary, to the level of a film.

In the case of Mangal Pandey, the beauty is that while the name of the character is familiar to every schoolkid, no one knows much about the guy. So you can embroider all the fiction you want onto the facts and probably get away with it.

As director Ketan Mehta himself admits: "There is not much historical data available about the life of Mangal Pandey except for the episode when he sparked off the revolt. However, a lot has been written about the life of the cantonment and the cultural atmosphere of those days. Besides lots of legends involving him have been passed over the generations. So Mangal Pandey is the mix of this written and oral tradition of history.'

History as you like it
Of course there are many versions of the 'truth'. A book by Oxford educated historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee asks: Mangal Pandey: Brave Martyr or Accidental Hero?

The author claimed Pandey was an ordinary sepoy who, under the influence of bhang, committed a reckless act for which he was hanged. Mukherjee's analysis examined whether Pandey really was the heroic figure history had made him out to be, or just a soldier who happened to get lucky.

The book had its share of controversial statements such as: 'Nationalism creates its own myths. Mangal Pandey is part of that imagination of historians. He had no notion of patriotism or even of India. For him, mulk was a small village, Awadh.'

It also went on to claim that Pandey's action was contrary to the spirit of insurgency: 'A rebellion is a collective will to overthrow an oppressive order. Pandey acted alone; he was a rebel without a rebellion. The name Mangal Pandey meant nothing to the sepoys who raised the revolt in 1857.'

And that too, is quite believable although hardly inspiring...

We've already internalised Mangal Pandey 'the hero' through school history textbooks. Now, with the release of this film the legend has been sealed.

Mr Mukherjee may well be right but it hardly makes a difference!

More than a Mutiny?
Besides the curiosity generated by the Aamir Khan factor, the producers are cleverly playing the patriotic card:

"India. 1857. The British called it the Sepoy Mutiny but for Indians it was the First War of Independence", says the official website.

Of course there was no concept of 'India' as we know it then... We were just a rag-tag collection of princely states.

The primary trigger for the uprising was the belief that pig and beef tallow was being used to grease cartridges. So it was more about protecting one's religion than fighting for your country.

The question is, had the British been more sensitive to such cultural issues - as multinationals are today - would they have been spared the events of 1857?

I'm waiting to see how Mangal Pandey - the film - tackles these issues. Will his rebellion be accompanied by patriotic exhortations - the kind which we associate with the freedom struggle that followed?

Or will the film stick more closely to the facts: that he unwittingly set off a chain of events (Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rani Laxmibai, Tatya Tope etc) which came to acquire some semblance of a 'war of independence'.

Personally, I hope the film makers err on the side of subtlety and don't make it a 'Bharat Mata ki jai' kind of film!

We'll know which way the biskoot crumbles - tomorrow.


  1. Shahrukh Khan looked more like an NRI Asoka in the movie. Actors need to realize that without much script and dedication, they are taking cinegoers for a ride.

    With the best of world's movie available at one's neighbourhood, its is foolhardy to attract the viewers without putting in genuine effort. Mangal Pandey seems to have been made keeping the Western audience sensibilities as so far all efforts are being made to woo the Western Press.

  2. review from Locarno

    having seen the promos...i am not going in tomorrow with a lot of expectations.

  3. Ashoka when generally pronounced in Orissa(Kalinga), is Asoka. To me it was a nice movie screwed up solely because of the songs. The love story would have worked if it wasnt streched that long with songs here and there. The rest of the movie was very good.

  4. It is rightly said that we would like to look up to the heroes as we were taught and told about them. Asoka was diluted to a far-fetched rigmarole. I was expecting to see more of Asoka's transition to a more sober character and it was equally apalling to see the movie covered none of it effectively.

    Only hoping that Mangal Pandey stands up to all the hype that has been engendered. Again as you have written, I'd like nothing to be anachronous keeping in view what the initial motives and intentions of revolt were because I believe there hardly must be a notion of India as a whole in the initial stages of the struggle.

  5. Sunny Saxena writes "Ashoka when generally pronounced in Orissa(Kalinga), is Asoka."

    Hmm..the S of Orissa and the Sh of Bengal. Which is why, as the old joke goes, when the Bengalis sang 'God shave the Queen', the Oriyas cried, 'Same, Same'

  6. the love story between Asoka and some imaginary princess played by Kareena Kapoor. (I went back home and dug up an ancient Amar Chitra Katha to confirm that fact - the princess never actually existed!)


    But apparently, there might have existed a Kalinga girl called Kaurvaki, who may or may not have been a princess, and who may (or may not) have been Ashoka's second or third wife (don't remember which....I read this in some paper from the ASI which talked about some inscriptions found from that era, that indicate some such story). So the movie took some distant speculated fact, and wove a love-story around it. :-)

    History is one of those things that changes every moment, depending on who's talking about it, and which voices are loudest :-)

    Of course there was no concept of 'India' as we know it then... We were just a rag-tag collection of princely states.
    Rag-tag of princely states, true.....but "no concept of India", false.

    Indian texts clearly define "bharatavarsha", and extend boundaries (in early vedic texts, it was the land of the 5 rivers, over time, it extended to cover the subcontinent (Kalinga, Dravida, Paschima...).

    Arab travellers clearly defined "sindh" (from which we get the name India...), which included the ports of Gujarat as well as the southern ports like Calicut. In a recent visit to Italy, I saw the map rooms of the dukes of Venice, which clearly marked out the map (as India), in what later became India of the raj. These maps were from the 13th century. So, clearly, culturally and historically India as an entity (though not necessarily a single united country) existed.

    That said...this whole concept of nationhood and nationalism leaves me very uneasy.

    And it also distracts from the main reason for this post....the movie.

    I sure do hope it's good........4 years without an Amir Khan movie....better be worth the wait.

  7. The songs on [v] are yuck though. As yuck as those of Asoka. I will bet my ass it is going to be a dissapointment.

  8. I am going to watch this movie mainly for Aamir and Toby. Trailers were ok.

    Liked that one shot - of Aamir rising from behind the steps. Slow, steady, Awesome !

    Songs were not impressive at first hearing; but catches on after repetation. Energetic. 3 of them are good, in this order.
    1) Dekho aayi holi
    2) Mangal mangal
    3) Main Vari Vari

  9. The Rediff Review seems to give it a "better than good rating"

    anyone watched it yet? I will do it tomorrow

  10. Its a bad movie. I have done a review of it at my blog.

  11. I went back home and dug up an ancient Amar Chitra Katha to confirm that fact - the princess never actually existed!
    Asoka was one overrated, hyped movie where the actual issue and story never got importance/relevance and it was reduced to a mere Bollywood love story. People that time, made a hue and cry and spoke more of the liberties taken by SLB in changing the story of Devdas, where Paro meets Chandramukhi but never really bothered to talk against the changing of the actual life of a great Indian Emperor Ashoka in the movie.
    You need fiction, little drama to make a movie, but change the entire story/ characters for that ?! I just hope Mangal Pandey too does not resort to that.
    By the way, Aamir is blogging here:

  12. I liked this post of yours a lot! I'm curious to know what you think of the movie after watching it...

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  15. The movie Asoka, was based on an historical character but in the beginning of the movie, the introduction clearly mentioned that this movie is not based on fact,it is a romanticized version of the story.
    Asoka was a commercial film, it's main aim was to "appeal to the masses", which it did.
    the love story of Asoka has been added to the story to make it more commercial.No one really cares about the fact that kaurvaki didn't exist.
    If you are looking for history,if u want to watch a documentary, THIS IS NOT A FILM FOR YOU.
    BUT, if you are a fan of the Hindi film industry and if you understand the essence and need for this industry then you will enjoy the movie.

    I do not understand the need for critics, in fact i feel the whole idea is WEIRD.
    A film is a piece of art, it is an expression, how can it be good bad or great.It can just be. Yes, art just is.
    Every artist has something in his mind when he paints, now that idea is art, how can that idea be classified or examined?

    Majority of the people in India, are poor, they just aren't ready to see the reality.Hindi films give them an escape, they give them hope that things can work out.
    That is the essence of Bollywood.
    That is why we "need" it.

    Not so many people know about our glorious past, if some not-so-realistic movie can at least make them see a part of it, i think its great.
    I think the movie was nice,i think all the movies you talked about were nice.I think people like you need to stop being so judgmental.
    If Hindi cinema is not your cup of tea, then don't watch the movies.

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