(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: This 2005 film tells the story of the roots of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India done as history writ large. This colorful epic tells the story of the friendship of an East India Company soldier and his commanding officer who reluctantly find themselves on opposite sides of India's nascent conflict to throw off British rule. Mangal Pandey becomes the father of his country's independence movement ninety years before India finally became independent. This is a serious film based on true events but with just a little more singing and dancing. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

[The mutiny is also known as India's First War of Independence, the Great Rebellion, the Indian Mutiny, the Revolt of 1857, the Uprising of 1857, and the Indian Rebellion of 1857.]

While staying within the conventions of Bollywood films, THE RISING: BALLAD OF MANGAL PANDEY proves to be as colorful a historical epic film as KHARTOUM and some of the adaptations of Kipling, but here the British are the villains and the Indians are the heroes. The story is told in flashback from the day that Mangal Pandey (played by Aamir Khan) is to be executed by the British army for instigating mutiny among the Indian troops.

While the British East India Company fights in Afghanistan, Sepoy (or Indian soldier) Mangal Pandey saves the life of Captain William Gordon (Toby Stephens). The two become close friends. Gordon seals the friendship by giving Pandey his pistol. Ironically it is a gun that will separate them. The British are importing and arming themselves with the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifles. Loading the rifles requires adding the gunpowder, which was provided in greased cartridges that had to be bitten to open. In a controversy that still has not been settled today the belief spreads among the Sepoys that the cartridges were greased with beef and pork fat. The Hindus lose their caste position if they taste beef, and the Muslims may not taste pork. The East India Company takes the high-handed position that soldiers must do what they are ordered to do even if using the cartridges goes against their religion. Gordon is told simply to deny the rumor and Pandey, trusting his friend, makes an example of himself by demonstrating in front of a company of Sepoys his faith in his friend. When evidence is found that the rumors about the grease prove to be true Pandey feels betrayed by the man he treated as a brother. This new outrage added to pre-existing discontent among the Sepoys fans the fires of rebellion.

The production is colorful, but perhaps the color shown most often is the bright red of the British uniform. To get in some different bright color and more song opportunities we have a long sequence of a Holi spring festival. This is the festival of color highlighted by the custom of people throwing handfuls of brightly colored power at each other. (One wonders if it is historically accurate that the brightly colored powder was so available in 1857.) I suppose the sequence is a sort of semi-comical relief from the otherwise serious and straightforward plotline.

Occasionally one is not really sure of director Ketan Mehta's intentions. The British policy seems absolutely negative except in one sequence in which Gordon breaks up a Suttee ceremony of widow burning, saving the life of the widow. Presumably that that action is intended to be shown in a light favorable to the British but as the one positive aspect of British rule shown, it is not clear. Because elsewhere the film is anti-British, to the point of being a polemic, this one breach is puzzling. The British East India Company is excoriated for dealing in human slavery. But later one of the slaves is in a Bollywood production number of dubious taste in which she sings "I am a slave of your charms."

A utilitarian touch is notable. This film is in English and Hindi. But when there is a scene in English that is important to the plot the distinctive voice of the distinguished Indian actor Om Puri narrates explaining in Hindi what is happening. This is occasionally almost word-for-word what the dialog tells us, but it is a reminder that this film is made for a Hindi-speaking audience who may not be fluent in English. (Also, subtitles on the DVD are available in seven different languages of India as well as in English.)

This is a big, spectacular film that may even be an education for American audiences. We see little historical spectacle from Hollywood these days and hopefully Bollywood will help fill the gap. I rate THE RISING: BALLAD OF MANDAL PANDEY a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper