THE RISING: BALLAD OF MANGAL PANDEY. Director: Ketan Mehta. Players: Aamir Khan, Toby Stephens, Rani Mukherjee, Amisha Patel. Music: A.R. Rahman. Theatrical re-release (2005).
What outsiders refer to as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 may very well have been the first salvo in the struggle by Indians to break the colonial yoke. The story of Indian freedom fighter Mangal Pandey, a lowly Indian foot soldier who instigated an insurgency against colonial rule, despite having captured the Indian imagination historically, has received surprising little attention on the big screen. In the hands of director Ketan Mehta (Maya Memsaab, Bhavni Bhavai), this story of male bonding, set at the height of British rule in India, emerges as a worthy epic tale of heroism and sacrifice.
Set at a time when the East India Company ruled India with an iron fist, The Rising traces the life of Pandey (Khan) as he develops a friendship with Capt. Gordon (Stephens), a superior officer, whose life Pandey saved during an earlier Afghanistan campaign. Pandey’s unique bond with Gordon—and Pandey’s life—are jeopardized when Pandey uncovers a plot by the Company to distribute to Indian soldiers ammunition tainted with animal fat—a religious and dietary taboo for both Hindus and Muslims.
As Pandey sets in play his own little tryst with destiny, there are fascinating minor elements that gel. The Indians secretly attempt uniting the always-bickering Indian princelings in a show of arms against the Brits. If not for good weather and a stroke of luck in the logistical delivery of reinforcements for the Brits, India’s history would have taken a vastly different turn.
Where the writer Farrukh Dhondy stumbles is the stereotyping that abounds on both sides of the struggle. The Brits, for the most part, are portrayed as conniving, scheming, and divide-and-ruling while the Indian soldiers are almost uniformly portrayed as brave warriors. The Brits’ reputation is single-handedly salvaged by Stephens’ Col. Gordon, who struggles with his conscience to obey orders while defending Pandey. Gordon’s link to India, a land he admires, is put to test after he rescues a beautiful young widow (Patel) from the clutches of relatives bent on “sacrificing” her in the practice of sati (widow burning).
While A.R. Rahman’s musical score lacks the full-throttle punch he delivered in Lagaan, there are bright spots. The title song, sung onscreen by anonymous troubadours traveling on a mighty elephant that is both larger-than-life and acutely indifferent to its surroundings, carries a repetitious, ominous chant that eerily foreshadows Pandey’s fate.
Ultimately, it’s Khan who shoulders the burden. Khan’s Pandey is a complex man, both virulently angry at the Brits and also reluctant to raise his sword against an empire. Khan successfully channels both the agitated leader of a nascent insurgency—he seldom smiles—and the romantic figure that connects with Heera (Mukherjee), whose unflappable spirit, despite her being a sex slave, attracts Pandey. In the hands of Mehta, Pandey emerges as an enigmatic figure who, even after 150 years, resonates marvelously.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast