FACT AND FRICTION
Real history rubs uneasily against a make-believe story, but Aamir Khan almost makes it work.
AUG 14, 2005 – WE FIRST SEE AAMIR KHAN in Mangal Pandey when heâs about to be hanged â but we donât actually see him. We see his feet, shackled in chains. We see him from the side (his much-celebrated tresses hiding everything above the neck). We see him from above, from behind. Only then do we see his face â and itâs framed by the noose. This sequence initially teases us with the enigma of the man, then instantly establishes him as a legend, a martyr, a… hero.
And yet, Mangal Pandey isnât your average Hindi film hero. For one, he doesnât have a widowed mother, clad in white â heâs alone; a throwaway bit shows him making rotis all by himself â and, more interestingly, heâs coloured in shades of grey.
If Mangal intervenes on an act of sati, itâs to save not the girl, but his friend, Officer William Gordon (Toby Stephens), who rides to her rescue and gets trapped amidst angry Hindus. If Mangal pounces on a randy Brit harassing the gorgeous prostitute Heera (Rani Mukerji), it isnât knight-in-shining-armour business. (Why, this staunch Brahmin, unsure what her jaat is, flinches when she merely tries to touch him!) Heâs mad at the British for making him shoot his own people; itâs that pent-up anger heâs venting. Even when the familiar rise-against-the-Raj story is set in motion by the introduction of cartridges greased with cow and pig fat â offensive to Hindu and Muslim soldiers, because the bullets have to be bitten â Mangal is upset only because, having tasted cow fat, heâs become an untouchable, an achhoot within his community. Thatâs the root of his rage, not some overwhelming anti-British sentiment.
From that, to becoming a proponent of democracy, a patriot who proclaims, âAazadi ki jung shuru ho gayi haiâ? â thatâs one hell of a leap. Ending with archival footage of Gandhi and Nehru, the film suggests that they realised the âaazadi ka sapna jo Mangal ne dekha tha.â? Itâs his dream, weâre told â but thatâs exactly where Mangal Pandey stumbles, in showing how one manâs personal agenda grew into a nationâs political consciousness, how his dream resulted in democracy. âWhere history meets proud folklore, there legends are born,â? trumpets a title card at the beginning, and while the folklore part â the timeless friendship-love-revenge themes involving Mangal, Gordon, Heera, and Jwala (Amisha Patel) â unspools entertainingly enough, the history part comes unstuck.
Mangal Pandey is packed with painstaking research about the British Raj, and some of this is absorbingly woven into the story â when the public auction of Heera leads to the insight that the whites bought themselves exclusive whores to avoid disease, or when the native operating the pankha lusts after his memsaabâs creamy legs, hardly heeding her petulant commands to speed up the fanning. But more often, the information â sorry, The Information â is awkwardly shoehorned in. Someone exclaims how beautiful a bunch of poppies is; bang, thereâs a lecture on the opium trade of the time. Worse, Om Puriâs non-stop drone of a narration threatens to transform the film from historical fiction to The History Channel.
Yes, itâs important to anchor fiction with fact, but why are the once-great new-wave filmmakers â first Benegal with Bose; now Ketan Mehta here â proving so tedious with this, making it feel more like coursework than cinema? Thereâs a scene where angry women fling cow dung on a villain; replace the dung with chilly powder, and youâre reminded of Mehtaâs own Mirch Masala, which magnificently put together fiction and period fact. Why has he increasingly abandoned those strengths and sensibilities for those of mainstream cinema, whose heart-before-head appeal clashes directly with his head-before-heart aesthetic?
Thereâs a terrific visual of thunderclouds gathering on the horizon, presaging the stormy segments in the post-interval half â the outdoor shots are exquisite, with the light-filled, water-coloured look of impressionist paintings â but those clouds could just as well signify how Mehta has rained on AR Rahmanâs musical parade. Only Takey Takey (which says everythingâs for sale, and shows Heera being sold) and Al Maddath Maula (an equivalent of Lagaanâs O Paalanhaare, invoking a higher power at an hour of need) have some sort of context â otherwise, the songs, though terrific, land on screen with all the grace of an axe-blow to the neck, with little regard for whatâs before, whatâs after. The various versions of the rousing title number are wasted on a bunch of elephant-riding sutradhars, who appear with jack-in-the-box suddenness and disappear equally alarmingly. You could argue that song-and-dance is just our way of telling stories, but thatâs an art, and not everyoneâs an artist in that regard. If I wanted to see a group of gypsies fanning the flames of the heart â as in Rasiya here â Iâd watch Pardesi from Raja Hindustani. Why do I need Ketan Mehta for that?
Luckily, Mehtaâs talent for characterisation and conflict is intact. (Well… somewhat, if you ignore the number of Evil Brits who appear to have grown moustaches only so that they could twirl them while inflicting indignities on the natives.) The women are essentially in cameos â the mandatory love angles involving them barely seem to interest the filmmakers; they interest us even less â so the filmâs emotional appeal is mainly from the men. Stephens is wonderful as a man torn between honour and heart, and he works so well with Aamir, their friends-torn-apart-by-ideology storyline plays like Namak Haram set during the British Raj. And Aamir, expectedly, walks away with the movie.
He rousingly plays to the gallery â while spouting (80s Dharmendra-style) dialogues like, â(East India) Company ko jalaa kar raakh kar doonga,â? or while spitting on a Brit despite being battered to bloody pulp, or while rallying his reluctant, outnumbered troops with a fervour youâd associate with Henry V at Agincourt, thundering, âWaqt aa gaya hai marne ka ya mar jaane ka.â? But itâs the quieter moments that take your breath away â his disappointment on discovering that the information Heera has for him was obtained from someone she slept with, or his reaction when Heera approaches him with sindoor… The latter, frankly, is a bogus moment. (Theyâve had one song, two bits of dialogue â suddenly theyâre soul mates!) But when Aamirâs eyes well up with tears, when his mouth twists into a half-grimace-half-smile, you buy his sincerity even if you donât buy the scene. You buy into his Mangal even if you donât entirely buy into the movie.
Copyright Â©2005 The New Sunday Express