‘Mangal Pandey The Rising’ is not so much a delineation of the life sketch of the revolutionary martyr Mangal Pandey as it is about the rise of individual and collective consciousness in Indians to wrest back their lost freedom from the British just about the time when the East India company was completing its hundred years of rule over the country.
The movie doesn’t go deep into Mangal Pandey’s life. It rather concentrates on the transformation of a man from a sepoy fighting for the British to the first revolutionary to raise arms against them – at one occasion single-handedly against a whole regiment.
The atmosphere of the mid 1850s is recreated with utmost conviction. A watercolor lithograph morphs into a panoramic view of a riverbank and the movie transports you into the mid nineteenth century.
The movie begins with a shackled and bruised Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan) being led to the gallows. The hanging, however, doesn’t take place and the story goes back into flashback as a British officer reminisces his memories of Mangal and all that he stands for.
The officer is William Gordon (Toby Stephens), a low-ranking officer whose true-but-bitter opinions about the East India Company are not met with approval by his seniors.
It happened that Mangal Pandey saved Gordon’s life during the Afghan battle and the two have been friends since then – sharing friendly fights in akhada, going tipsy on Bhang, singing songs and playing pranks on another cocky British officer.
Small incidents that mark the rise of the revolutionary in Mangal Pandey dot the story. For instance, the beating of an Indian servant by a British officer and Mangal’s coming to his rescue. And later, Mangal rescuing a prostitute (Rani Mukherjee) from the same officer. Only this time, Mangal gives the officer a sound beating.
The story does paint the British in bad light. With the sole exception of Gordon, every other British officer and General look down upon the Indians. Only Gordon is shown as having humane qualities. He saves a young woman (Amisha Patel) from becoming Sati at the funeral pyre of her husband, gives her shelter and eventually falls in love with her. He is the one who stands by Pandey whenever other officers try to nail the hot Indian revolutionary down.
But things change with the introduction of new cartridges that are laced with cow and pig fat. Since the sepoys in the regiment are supposed to bite the cartridge and tear it with teeth before loading the gun, the soldiers in the regiment – comprising of both Hindus and Muslims – refuse to use the new cartridge.
Gordon assures Pandey that there is no animal fat in the cartridges. Taking his friend’s word, Mangal volunteers to use the new cartridges and bites into them. Days later, the truth comes out. The cartridges turn out to be laced with animal fat.
A devastated Pandey ends his friendship with Gordon and begins planning an uprising with soldiers from another regiment and with support from influential figures like Nawab Azimullah (Shahbaaz Khan) and Tatya Tope (Deepraj Rana). Pandey’s angst against the British and his determination to fight back his freedom from the colonial rulers gets so strong that he single-handedly stands to fight against a whole regiment, only to be martyred later.
‘The Rising’ treads the fine line between realism and Bollywood escapism. The excellent cinematography (by Himman Dhamija), production design (Nitin Desai) and costumes (Lovleen Bains) authentically recreate the ambience of India of 1857. The songs in between provide the pleasant succor when the proceedings in the story get grave. The music by A R Rahman is below his usual standard. Only one song Mangal Mangal (three versions of it) make any impact. The rest – excepting Rani’s Mujra song – serve as mere fillers.
Aamir Khan brings out a brilliant portrayal of Mangal Pandey not just by his longhaired and mustachioed looks but also by reflecting the simmering intensity of the character.
Toby Stephens is simply exceptional in his convincing performance as William Gordon. Only his skewed Hindi accent stands out as a sore thumb.
Rani Mukherjee and Amisha Patel have marginal roles. Yet the two ladies deliver strong performances. Coral Beed’s cameo as Emily Kent has little relevance to the story.
Considering the high expectations that are being attached to the film, ‘The Rising’ turns out to be a finely made movie, but not exceptional. Director Ketan Mehta must be complimented for credibly recreating history and showing first sparks of the revolution that culminated into Indian freedom almost 90 years later.
And as Mangal Pandey himself puts it before the movie’s end – his struggle is not because of the cartridges but for a larger movement for the Independence of India.