Thursday, August 11, 2005
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.