I really wish Ketan Mehta had fictionalised this just a little more. Especially, towards the end.
The build-up throughout the film made me expect a heavy duty well-orchestrated war scene in the end, instead he cuts to still shots of school text book illustrations of the war.
That is the biggest disappointment of Mangal Pandey, which has been wrongly hyped as the desi Braveheart. The very comparison with Braveheart does make Mangal pale, but that’s only cuz Ketan refused to change history, after having taken liberties to add a lot of fictional characters and sub-plots.
Hence, to begin with, Mangal Pandey is a film best watched without any expectations whatsoever. Once you’ve removed all preconceived notions, the phenomenal hype surrounding the film and the fact that it took two years in the making and 18 months for Aamir to grow his hair, and get set to watch it with a clear mind, without any prejudices or expectations, you surely will be surprised.
Mangal Pandey is a pretty neat film. It is very good Indian cinema, with its melodrama, ‘yeh dosti’ bonding between the heroes, songs that could have been done away with and an item number. So if you’re going in thinking a period film should not have any of this, you are surely going to be disappointed. Some of my friends did not like it because it was very pop.
I for one, am glad that Mangal Pandey is made for us — the dominant Indian sensibility, rather than simply catering to the white audience (that apparently has more money to offer the film than we do, given the overseas clout Aamir weilds).
Add to the fact that the story of Mangal Pandey in itself does not provide for elaborate war scenes. It was just a rebellion, where one man stood his ground. Might not seem significant after having heard and watched many large scale films on freedom and independence, but that’s where it helps to understand Indian history and place Mangal Pandey in the context of the freedom struggle. The first ever recorded account of an Indian rebellion was his. The first ever vision of a truly Independent India was his. This film basically shows us the balls he had to take on the East India Company, in spite of knowing he was outnumbered 1: 3,00,000!
So what he exactly did might not stretch more than maybe three separate acts of protest. There sure might have been other unsung heroes. But the fact that Mangal did make his protest heard, is what makes his story significant. To bring to the forefront these three episodes of bravado, Ketan Mehta creates an elaborate setting during the first half of the film — the way of life in a country ruled by the East India Company, the rapport Indian soldiers shared with the Indian-born Brits (the sub-plot involving an Indian maid breast-feeding a white infant serves as an excellent metaphor for the state of affairs) and the events that led to the making of a rebel.
Ketan Mehta is a highly under-rated director. More than Varma, he has to be the original Indian maverick filmmaker. Look at his range.
The Rising — Ballad of Mangal Pandey, 2005; Aar Ya Paar, 1997; Oh Darling Yeh Hai India, 1995; Sardar, 1994; Maya Memsaab, 1993; Hero Hiralal, 1988; Mirch Masala, 1987; Holi, 1984; Bhavni Bhavai 1980; and Toote Khilone, 1978.
The fact that most of these films are very different from each other shows us the repertoire of the master craftsman. One person made the raw and rustic Mirch Masala, the slick and stylish ‘Oh Darling Yeh Hai India’ and the politically correct docu-drama in Sardar and now a fictionalized kitchsy Mangal Pandey!
I even loved the mega-budget musical ‘Oh Darling Yeh Hai India’ (it ran just a week or two in the city, so you’ll be excused for asking for not hearing about the film). Imagine, here was a man who had the balls to make a full-fledged contemporary musical with political overtones.
Though a section of the audience will find the film sensual, a lot of the Indian audience is likely to find it crude and voyeuristic in its depiction of women.
But again, Ketan could have made Mangal Pandey in the same sensibility as Sardar and I’m glad he used a very mainstream Bollywood sensibility. Like the note at the beginning of the film says:
Legends are born when history meets folklore.
I’m glad this is not in the realistic mould but roots itself in the folkish, with a very “popish” modern feel just so that you know that the situations and circumstances are very relevant in today’s world where America controls operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a world of MNCs monopolising trade and finding slaves in every country around the world.
Next the performances:
Aamir: First rate (though I wish he had got rid of his boyish voice which jarrs with the manly-get-up!)
Toby Stephens: As Gordon, seems more convincing than Mangal, with his head in tact on his shoulder.
Rani: Shows plenty of cleavage, adds some glam and is super effective in that one scene when she says: “Hum toh sirf jism bechtey hai, aap toh apni aatma bechtey hai” (“We only sell our bodies to the Brits, you sell your soul,” she tells Mangal, the sepoy)
Amisha: Has nothing much to do, but kiss Toby and have that single tear drop during the ‘matter’ scene with him.
Om Puri: As the narrator, lends the film so much of credibility, as he translates the English scenes for the junta.
It is pretty hard to believe that the guy Farookh Dhondy who wrote Kisna (the worst film ever) wrote this too. He’s pretty adequate, or maybe cuz I really dreaded the idea of him writing for this much-awaited film.
Himman Dhamija’s frames and Nitin Desai’s art do bring alive the world of 1857, full points to them for making the film technically sound. The thing with A.R. Rahman is that he comes up with these awesome songs that there was no way Ketan Mehta could’ve left them out of the film.
And the end of the film, you’re just left wondering: Damn, I wish there was that war-scene! Would’ve made it so complete!
Instead, Ketan shifts to a minute long b/w docu reel on the freedom struggle and the subsequent Indian independence in 1947, as a realization of Mangal’s dream of a free nation ruled by its people.
Verdict: Must watch.
Post script: Leave your expectations at home. They could be sometimes be unfair and too demanding.