Movie Review - Mangal Pandey: The Rising

By Subhash K Jha, IANS

imageFilm: "Mangal Pandey: The Rising"; Starring: Aamir Khan, Toby Stephens, Rani Mukherjee, Amisha Patel, Kirron Kher, Mona Ambegaonkar; Director: Ketan Mehta

You have to hand it to Aamir Khan. He does deliver a "polished" performance. From head to toe, he's tanned in what looks like a light shade of boot polish to play that marvel from the freedom movement, Mangal Pandey, who, it is rightly believed, pioneered India's long struggle to liberty from British rule.

Often the script's searing and vicious vagaries get more oppressive than the brutal "Gora Log" (white people) who stand around in costumes that seem to have just been bought off the shelf. Wearing their red uniforms in a display of subverted Nazism, the colonial brigade in "Mangal Pandey: The Rising" (shouldn't that have been The Uprising?) is like a drill for a play on uniformed travesty.

There is no lived-in feeling to the characters, specially the white-skinned ones. Cosmetic colonialism was just fine in Manmohan Desai's "Mard" where the mighty Bachchan had towered over the sneering foreigners like a charismatic colossus.

But here? We credited Mehta with more subtlety than is obtainable the entire peppery red-and-pastel length and breadth of this patriotic whipped-cream of a yarn.

Frequently, the build-up within a sequence is of far more consequence than its culmination and final motivation.

Specially problematic is the Aamir-Rani liaison. The courtship, mimicking the Devdas-Chandramukhi relationship (he flinches when the prostitute tries to touch him) lacks essential verve.

Rani's character of the prostitute is completely inconsistent with history and with the film's mood. One minute she's being auctioned in the market place, much to the disgust of a British woman, the next minute she is doing a pouty, lip-biting bosom-heaving "mujra" (courtesan's song) in Madame Kirron Kher's elaborately done-up brothel (a touch of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Devdas").

Rather than play the prostitute's character for poignancy, Rani makes Heera saucy and playful...a kind of Babli (the frisky character she played in Bunty Aur Babli) of the flesh trade.

Surprisingly, Amisha Patel's briefer cameo as Jwala comes off comparatively well. The sequence where the British officer Gordon followed by Mangal, rescue her from being burnt alive during the barbaric sati ritual, is shot in exquisite tones of white, blue, orange and sepia. She later has some truly tender moments with her white saviour.

You wish there was more of the Jwala-Gordon relationship rather than the just mandatory love scene (albeit done aesthetically) where a lone tear rolls off the rescued damsel's eye.

Appealing visuals do not constitute a powerful narration. Ironically, Gordon comes across as a far more tenable and magnetic character than Mangal Pandey. The conscientious white man's colonial dilemma is brilliantly etched by Toby Stephens, an actor we have seen little of but would love to see more of in future. This is the first time that a foreigner in a Hindi film gets applause without the audience knowing what he says!

Aamir's moustache, hair and bulging eyes do all the talking and screaming for his historical character. Whether it is a blemish in the script, characterization or the actor, we don't know. But Mangal Pandey comes across more as a cardboard hero than a true martyr of independence. His climactic hurrah where he is shown single-handedly taking on a raging battalion of British men is deftly shot, but swiftly shot down by the inconsistent editing.

The scenes written to spotlight Mangal's heroism are utterly ludicrous. "I AM Hindustan" -- Aamir pompously pronounces to the princely gallery of supporters. He sounds like a kid at a toy store playing patriotic games.

Lacking a sense of intrinsic irony and utterly devoid of modesty, Aamir's Mangal Pandey is a surly, self-important comic-strip super-hero, rendered shadowy and inaccessible by the actor's inability to connect history with cinematic heroism.

Aamir's Mangal Pandey is martyr trapped in limbo.

Unlike "Lagaan" (a film to which Mangal Pandey bears absolutely no resemblance except the superficial) where the protagonist often stood in the shadows of the screenplay's hierarchy to finally emerge the single conqueror of screen space, in "Mangal Pandey..." Aamir never quite gets there. Shadowy, he remains.

There are awesome crowds of immaculately dressed supporting actors and junior artistes surging forward in a show of nationalist solidarity. Even Rani Mukherjee gets on a horse to participate in the climax (can't have the distributors complaining about her absence, can we?) They look like spillovers from a cricket match at the end of "Lagaan".

What gets your goat is the wince-inducing moments of vulgarity. A peasant operates the hand-held fan for a sleeping British woman with groaning and repeated masturbatory movements...A man auctioning the prostitute Heera offers to pull down her ghagra for better customer satisfaction....Throughout, the cleavage quotient is much too large.

Alas, the narrative lacks true voluptuousness. You appreciate director Ketan Mehta's strong sense of epic sweep and his remarkable joy in arranging characters in a seemingly spontaneous spatial harmony. Nitin Chandrakant Desai's art work and Himman Dhamija's cinematography add to the film's look of poised extravagance. But they don't signify the special blend of the epic and epicurean which sets historical text into an inviting cinematic context.

Faroukh Dhondy's script is more kitschy Bollywood than an actual chronicle of history. And that amazing director Ketan Mehta is hell-bent on eradicating the image of an avante garde by designing that opulent oddity known as The Big Bollywood Extravaganza.

End-result? A film that's more hysterical than historical, more corny than captivating. There is no dearth of brilliant cinema in Mehta's film - no mistake about that. But if you're looking for the director's incredible flair for blending socio-political comment with colour and spice, then go for Mehta's "Mirch Masala" or "Bhavni Bhavai". There, folklore met a feisty flavourful narrative in a sweeping synthesis.

In "Mangal Pandey..." the synthesis is sometimes sythentic, sometimes sympathetic, and occasionally pathetic. That feeling of witnessing a wondrous eruption of a slice of history is sliced into compartmentalized kitsch. A.R. Rahman's songs don't help stem the tides of disappointment. Rating: 3