Last month McDonalds had to pay out lots of money to Hindu and vegetarian groups because they had been using beef fat in their French fries and keeping it a secret (they haven’t changed, by the way, so if you’re a vegetarian who gets fries at Mickey Ds while your carnivore friends chow down on Big Macs – oops). Today that sort of stuff leads to law suits – a hundred and fifty years ago it led to an armed uprising.
Mangal Pandey: The Rising is a rousing epic that recounts the birth of India’s independence movement. In the 1850s India was ruled by the Dutch East India Company, and their army was largely made up of sepoys, native Indian soldiers. It’s astonishing to think about – a corporation running an entire country – until you open up the newspaper and read about American politics. At any rate, the Company has total control over the Indian subcontinent and is celebrating a hundred years of rule when they introduce a new rifle that fires a new kind of cartridge. Rumors hit the sepoys that the cartridges, which they must bite to use, are greased with beef and pig fat, making the idea of putting them in your mouth horrifying to both Hindus and Muslims.
Mangal Pandey is one of the sepoys, and the best friend of Englishman William Gordon, who has spent half his life in India and considers that country his home. When Gordon assures Mangal that the cartridges go nowhere near fat, the sepoy uses it – but soon it is discovered that animal grease is indeed used. Enraged, Mangal leads the sepoys in an uprising that cannot hope to succeed. And we know from the beginning of the film, where Mangal is led to the gallows (as well as even a cursory knowledge of world history, you goddamn isolationist American ignoramuses), that it doesn’t. But all revolutions need martyrs (and I know I am getting out of hand with the parentheticals here, but it’s interesting that the rebellion that began the crumbling of the British Empire, which would be complete with India’s independence in 1947, didn’t actually have any real martyrs. There are those killed at the Boston Massacre, but even a little bit of reading about the incident will let you know most of those guys were drunken douchebags and the whole thing was an accident. Not really ideal martyrdom circumstances), and the death of Mangal Pandey ignites a flame that Gandhi would carry over the finish line 90 years later.
There are a lot of things that are remarkable about Mangal Pandey: The Rising, chief among which is the cinematography. It’s a gorgeous film, drenched in color and beauty. From scenes with a thousand troops massing to a simple close up of the face of the rapturously lovely Rani Mukherjee, director Ketan Mehta and his DP Himman Damija have triumphed, breathing splendor into every frame.
Like all the great epics, Mangal Pandey: The Rising takes a huge, sweeping story and puts a human drama in the foreground. Here it’s the friendship between Gordon and Mangal. In fact, I may be soft pedaling it as a friendship. These guys – well, they spend lots of time kind of peering into each other’s eyes. I know, I know, the brotherhood of battle and the love of men and all that, but jeez. Aamir Khan has a fiery presence as Mangal, and Toby Stephens, who plays Gordon, looks exactly like a young Richard Chamberlain. It’s sort of spooky. And it sort of kept making me think this was a miniseries.
As did the running time. Mangal Pandey: The Rising runs a very full two and a half hours. The story is fantastic, and you barely feel the running time until there’s a dramatic moment, everything freeze frames and the word “Intermission” comes up on screen. Suddenly you realize you have a lot more to go.
Which isn’t a bad thing! Again, I fell in love with the movie and with the story. I was completely wrapped up in the 19th century India that had been created. I was happy to float with the sumptuous visuals. But this being an Indian film, there are a number of songs, and this being a big budget film in general, there’s a pointless love subplot or two as well. I didn’t mind the songs – in the beginning they didn’t get in the way of the film. Our heroes didn’t break into song, but every now and again some guys on an elephant would come through the film and sing about whatever was going on. It was the sort of scenes where music could be accepted – at a marketplace bazaar, for instance. In the second half of the movie, things change. First of all, with the new awareness of the running time you realize each song is making the movie drag on longer. Secondly, Mangal starts singing and dancing.
I wasn’t sure if I liked that at first. Then I realized what was happening. The first half of the film is like some sort of Merchant Ivory film, and that’s because Mangal is really a subject of the British. He’s a white guy wannabe. But in the second half he discovers his Indian nationalism and he begins taking part in the long running Bollywood staple of song and dance numbers. When Holi, the Festival of Colors, where Indians run around throwing brilliantly colored powder all over each other. It’s the kind of thing that makes you realize how generally dull Europeans are, and here it creates a wonderfully garish continuity from the time period to modern Indian film.
Mangal’s rebellion is doomed from the start, though. As he and Gordon go back and forth – while Gordon has gone increasingly native (he’s the only white who takes part in Holi, and his bitterness at the Company’s policies is palpable), he can’t support his friend’s crusade. Things finally come to a sword fight as an entire British regiment from Rangoon comes to back up the small group of white Company soldiers.
It’s here where Mangal Pandey: The Rising becomes a great film. I had been really enjoying it until then, but at this scene Mangal makes an impossible last stand. It makes you want to jump to your feet cheering, seeing this lone man take on a thousand redcoats. It’s a triumphant moment of humanity unwilling to bow under the yoke of oppression.
Cut down by about a half an hour, Mangal Pandey: The Rising, would be unstoppable. Even at this slightly bloated length it’s an electrifying testament to the unstoppable power of the individual to make a difference.
8.8 out of 10