An unlikely hero

Print edition : September 23, 2005

Aamir Khan as Mangal Pandey. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Despite the media build-up, The Rising, the great Aamir Khan comeback, turns out to be a damp squib.

IT has it all - patriotism, heroism, songs, dances, romance, violence. And there is none of the usual excesses straining credibility, no pointless digression, no drowning of the action in endless singing and dancing in fairytale settings. Yet, The Rising did not click. The great Amir Khan comeback that the media had been building up has turned out to be a damp squib.

But what had one expected anyway? A film about a historical character, of whom nothing is known beyond his one act of defiance, a character that most people have not encountered outside their school textbooks. A film about a `hero' who has left no record of his life except his one act of doubtful valour under the influence of bhang; a film that must necessarily fall back on myths and fiction in the absence of facts to flesh out its narrative of rebellion. And if, somewhere in this maze of myth-making, the logic of the central action faltered, the story was bound to fall flat on its face. Which it did.

There were, of course, too many liberties that had been taken with fact. There was probably no other way. A film made for the box-office cannot deal with grey areas and a film like The Rising is obviously centred around heroic action. If history does not provide enough clues about that action, the scriptwriter will have to make it up. If historians seem hesitant to attach any great importance to the actual action, or attribute to it momentous consequences, then the film-maker will have to do all that to justify his whole effort. One cannot, presumably, make a feature film about Mangal Pandey that says history does not quite know what moved him to mutiny when his fellow sepoys in Bengal chose to remain more or less quiet; or that there is no evidence that his action had any bearing on what happened in the summer of 1857 in north India. One cannot make such a film because that is not what audiences would expect, and because it would not hold up as a dramatic script. Historical enigmas are not always good movie material.

Mangal Pandey's angry gesture had a context, a background of collective fear of a deeply religious people that a way of life was at stake. But, as Rudrangshu Mukherjee says in his book Mangal Pandey: Brave Martyr or Accidental Hero?, history has recorded nothing else about him that can be used to reconstruct an individual and locate his springs of action. "The only thing of importance that was learnt in the trial was that Mangal Pandey was twenty-six years old and had been a sepoy of the Bengal Army for seven years. His conduct had always been good and until 29 March [1857] there was no charge against him of any misbehaviour to sully his record."

Rudrangshu Mukherjee's book sketches the context of Mangal Pandey's action. There is, of course, nothing very new in it. It is a well-known story of conflicting values, of fears of a way of life being threatened by the presence of white men, of rumours feeding that fear and a prophecy that the firangi raj was about to end. "But," Mukherjee says, "a context is not an explanation. We still do not know what made Mangal Pandey act the way he did. The context was operative for all the sepoys in Barrackpore but only one individual acted; the others merely watched, though some may have tacitly encouraged him. But it was that individual act that entered history, and it is this act that cries out for an explanation. It is here that the historian hits a wall."

It will not, of course, do for the film-maker to hit a wall. So we have Mangal Pandey as a hero in The Rising, slowly awakening to his mission, transforming himself from a loyal soldier to a leader standing up for his rights and those of his countrymen. History is a casualty in the process, but when has myth-making cared for history anyway? So we have Mangal Pandey planning a revolt against the British with Tantia Tope and Nanasaheb. The central action in the story of Mangal Pandey - his shooting at two British officers - is blown up into a major, if rather lonely, confrontation with an entire regiment of white soldiers. And his hanging is shown as setting off the unrest of 1857.

None of this has any basis in history. The revolt of 1857, it is well known, passed Bengal by and Calcutta [now Kolkata] was then too excited with the flowering of the 19th century Renaissance to have any use for mutinous sepoys. Mangal Pandey's lonely act on March 29 did not move the Bengal Army to mutiny. There is no evidence that he was in touch with Tantia Tope and Nanasaheb or that his act inspired the revolt in Meerut on May 10, a good one month after his hanging. There is also no evidence, contrary to what the film shows, that the last Mughal Emperor, the 82-year-old Bahadur Shah, had agreed to take on the leadership of the revolt before the mutiny started. The unrest of 1857 began as a mutiny by sepoys in the British Army, and it was only after it had spread to the countryside that dispossessed landlords and disgruntled former rulers came forward to lead it. And Bahadur Shah had no option but to give the endorsement of his name to the revolt after mutinous sepoys from Meerut knocked at his doors in Delhi.

EVEN if one is willing to overlook the liberties that Ketan Mehta's film takes with history, its script does not stand up even as a wishful fantasy. The atmosphere that the film evokes is colourful, whether or not it faithfully reconstructs mid-19th century Bengal. The hills in Barrackpore are a little startling, but even that can probably be winked off as permissible Bollywood flamboyance. However, the action moves slowly and the dialogue is indifferent. But the main reason probably lies in the kind of hero the director has chosen.

Despite the many liberties with fact, the film-maker had little choice but to locate Mangal Pandey's motivation in deep fears of losing caste, of being forced to break caste taboos, of changes that might sweep away the existing social relationships. It is an emotion that belongs to a different age. Much of India is still moved by similar emotions, but not the kind of audience that Ketan Mehta's mega-budget film targets, and not with the kind of intensity that Mangal Pandey and his fellow sepoys must have experienced them.

One of the reasons that the revolt of 1857 failed was that it was not a forward-looking movement. It sought to perpetuate the old inequities, the old prejudices and the old social and economic power relationships. But these are sentiments hard to sell to a modern urban audience.

A statue of Mangal Pandey unveiled by the Army at Barrackpore near Kolkata on August 12.-JAYANTA SHAW/REUTERS

Hence the final transformation of Mangal Pandey in the film as a rebel with a vision of the future, a man who has risen above passionately held caste taboos. It is not a convincing transformation. Whether the greased cartridges of 1857 were actually treated with cow and pig fat must remain one of the great mysteries of history. Ketan Mehta's film takes it as a basic premise that they were. Yet, his Mangal Pandey says at the end that it was not the greased cartridges he was fighting against, but something more intangible. He links his own act to the "awakening of Hindustan" against foreign domination.

There is nothing in the film before that final, perfunctory transformation to make it convincing. Rudrangshu Mukherjee would say there is nothing in history either: "Mangal Pandey had no notion of patriotism or even of India. For him mulk was his small village in Awadh; his watan, a small plot of land that his father and forefathers cultivated. To bestow patriotism on him is to wrench him away from his own time and context. If love for his country drove him, he would not have become a sepoy in the first place." But then, such a man is not a hero. Ketan Mehta has tried to make him one, and the result is boring.

The hero of this film is a conscious agent acting as part of a plan to launch a movement. He strikes a heroic posture till the end, and is aware of the import of his action. But the Mangal Pandey of history said in his trial that he acted under the influence of bhang and that he did not know what he was doing at the time, but that he acted of his own free will. He declined to name anyone as having instigated him. Rudrangshu Mukherjee's interpretation is that there was obviously no point in getting anyone else in trouble because Mangal Pandey had not been promised any reprieve if he turned approver.

"He chose to remain silent because, one way or another, he knew his own death was certain. His show of solidarity - if solidarity it was - was determined by his circumstances. What would he gain by speaking? What was the point of making some of his brothers-in-arms suffer the fate that most certainly awaited him? There is no evidence to justify the view that this sepoy was a martyr and hero who decided to die with honour, betraying none of his conspirators, and expressing no regret or remorse."

But a tragic hero, of course, must rise above his own defeat and a necessary component of his inner triumph is the ability to look back on his deed without regret or remorse. So we have Amir Khan twirling his moustache as the charges are read out to him, without answering a single question. That, presumably, is meant to convey defiance. It only succeeds in looking a trifle ridiculous.

To give his Mangal Pandey a human face as an individual, Ketan Mehta has brought in the inevitable romantic interest. Rani Mukherjee puts up a spirited performance as a courtesan. But the relationship with Mangal Pandey is much too run-of-the-mill Bollywood stuff (with even the inevitable sindur at the end) to be convincing.

This is a good time to make a movie about a historical character. The years after 9/11 have seen a remarkable interest in history. There has been a sudden deluge of books on history written not just for the scholar but also for lay readers. Mangal Pandey, however, is a rather unfortunate choice for the kind of film that Ketan Mehta tried to make. He is better suited for books of the kind Mukherjee has written, an exercise that can afford to take a hard look at what he did and retain the right to conclude that it was not heroic action. It is a useful book, too, for school textbooks, sketchy that they are, very often depict Mangal Pandey as the man who started the revolt of 1857. The urge to seek out heroes in historical characters at a time when the image of politicians as leaders is sadly battered is understandable. But it does not really help. And sometimes it does not even make good cinema.

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