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Published August 12th, 2005 | by Raam Tarat

The Rising Review

Classification: 12A Director: Ketan Mehta Rating: 3.5/5

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was the first uprising against the East India Company, and subsequent Imperialist rulers. The Rising tells the story of the spark that led to the mutiny which lasted over a year, taking thousands of lives in the process. That spark was better known as Mangal Pandey, and the mutiny is often described as India’s first war for Independence.

The Rising begins with a fierce manoeuvre against the ‘Turks’ in latter day Afghanistan where Mangal [Khan] a sepoy rescues his British commanding officer William Gordon [Stephens] from enemy hands. Their ensuing friendship and loyalty perplexes their peers, but transcends rank, race and creed. The introduction of the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle, and its new kartoos (cartridges) threatens to throw this alliance into turmoil. It has to be cut by one’s teeth prior to loading, but is greased with cow and pig membrane, sacrilegious to both Hindu and Muslim sepoys. Pandey (trusting Gordon) literally bites the bullet, in turn risking defilement, and a slight issue develops into a full-scale indigent rebellion. This blood-stained mutiny led to the dissolution of the East India Company, with Queen Victoria installing the ‘Empire’ in its place…

The Rising is a mixture of chronicle and folklore, a myriad ballad on Mangal Pandey – an elusive character in Indian history. Mehta seems to have had the right intentions, yet there seems to be an unnerving sense of something lacking. Maybe if cut differently it would have made more sense, had more resonance; but as it is – it seems a tad muddled. There is little or no precise knowledge about Mangal Pandey. All that was known of him was that he shot at his superiors in an inebriated (opium induced) state, before trying to shoot himself. Now Mehta along with scribe Farrukh Dhondy has taken tremendous licence in creating a back-story including his dalliance with a prostitute, the origins of the conflict, Gordon’s affair with a widow, and William Gordon – period. Most of it incidental, with little or no historical precedence.

Dhondy [former commissioning editor at Channel 4] has been clever to imbibe many astute commentaries, themes and ideologies [read sly and subtle digs] regards colonialism, the free market, capitalist regime with contemporary political resonance. Yet although powerful and impassioned, the story itself doesn’t have the structure or required momentum to fully flesh out this sweeping epic. And when almost three quarters of this ‘biopic’ is left to the writer’s imagination, the hand must be extremely sure and steady… Truth is stranger [and usually thanks to detail] much more authentic and interesting than fiction, but that we will never know.

Many have taken umbrage to this interpretation, whilst others have stated Mangal Pandey didn’t deserve his status / this screen-time. Brave martyr or accidental hero? mutineer or non-entity? as according to trial reports he was heavily “under the influence…” at the time of apoplectic encounter. Fortunately or unfortunately [depending on your perspective] the movie is more Aamir Khan than Mangal Pandey as our mythical hero gets lost in this translation.

Khan’s performance is simply formidable, as he returns from his 4 year hiatus. Having delivered an inimitable double-punch in 2001, in the form of the Oscar-nominated Lagaan and the path-breaking Dil Chahta Hai < both National Award winners > he simply fires up the screen with his searing eyes, his fierce moustache and flowing locks. He has the ability to say so much, without saying anything at all – with an intensity seldom seen on screen. Stephens is fantastic as sensitive Scot Gordon and plays his part with gusto and integrity, and more than matches up to Khan’s screen presence. The film is successful in showing deference to the viewpoints of both men, highlighting again the inner turmoil they feel in their disparate ways. But whilst both characters are finely etched out, Gordon’s compatriots pretty much carry a one-dimensional view, i.e. tyrannous and Nazi-like colonials. The same can be said of many of the characters; under-developed and leaving many loose ends. Musical interludes by A R Rahman [Bombay Dreams, forthcoming Lord of the Rings musical] are superfluous at times, yet a welcome retreat at others.

Many films have tried and failed to become the ultimate crossover Indian or ‘Bollywood’ movie, leading to a widespread acceptance of the genre. In the recent past we’ve had many movies which promised so much regards being able to engage an elusive western audience. Devdas which debuted at Cannes [out of the festival section]; Santosh Sivan’s Asoka [distributed by Metrodome]; Monsoon Wedding – a huge success, but hardly Bollywood, and Bride & Prejudice – a Holly-Bolly hybrid that didn’t sit too comfortably with either audience. Lagaan met with critical acclaim, but failed to garner this together with commercial success worldwide, like crossover phenomenon Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Unfortunately The Rising is unlikely to make that transition complete.

The film is a swash-buckling epic full of pomp, passion, tyranny and joy, with earnest attention to period detail and powerful performances from the pretty leads. There is much colour and a certain integrity, but it doesn’t have the flow, coherence or consistency of a Lagaan. The film lacks emotional depth, but has an ace in the form of lead protagonist Aamir Khan, whom lifts proceedings with his rabble-rousing and magnetic persona. He convinces as Pandey, and his imprudent mutiny becomes all the more plausible due to the veracity of his performance, and his undeniable charisma.

Essentially Pandey was a symbol of freedom, and this – an intelligent history lesson on a figure that (intentionally??) pioneered India’s protracted struggle to liberty. From minor standoff to national uprising, this is a colourful and compelling telling of a small part of Indian history – facts aside. Despite its flaws, an interesting if entertaining take on Imperialism, Allegiance and Freedom.

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