Friday, June 17, 2011

Mangal Pandey: The One Aamir Khan Doesn't Talk About

No film is without some controversy; it’s impossible to make a product that will please every single person. Even in a seemingly innocent inward-looking romantic comedy, the casual use of ‘Bombay’ instead of ‘Mumbai’ can lead to big headlines and apologies to major political figures. With historical films, the controversy often gets ramped up to extreme measures - “He didn’t say that,” “She didn’t do this,” “You left out this important event.” And when that historical film is about a revolutionary and also a long-awaited Aamir Khan film... well, then you have Mangal Pandey: The Rising, the next part of my Box Office Poison: Revisiting Flop Films series. (Do you like the series name?!)

Mangal Pandey arrived in August 2005 amidst a sea of controversy and sky-high expectations. Since 2001 and the massive success of both Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, Aamir Khan had retreated into his personal life but that doesn’t mean the public lost interest. The media breathlessly reported on everything. He took a sabbatical; he got divorced; he signed another film and spent eighteen months growing out his hair to be authentic to this new role. He grew a giant moustache and shaved it off and was spotted around Mumbai with his new lady friend while the media speculated on their marital status. (Did they?! Will they?!)

As the months drew on and the film grew in public imagination, the hype could no longer sustain itself with a finished product. It turned to
backlash. Like vultures drawn by the smell of fresh meat, media talking heads and interest group spokespeople began attacking the not-yet-released production. There were the rumors of editing problems and re-editing and that the filming was done but the final product still wasn’t ready. Mangal Pandey’s descendants threw a big stink over a rumored kiss in the film. Finally, the choice of the Lorcano Film Festival in Switzerland for the film premiere raised the hysteria to a fever pitch - the chattering classes were convinced Aamir was selling out to the West and Hollywood and they decided en masse that Mangal Pandey was not a film for Indian audiences.

When the film finally did open, audiences stayed away in droves. Reviews ranged from lukewarm to scathing and everybody found something to pick on. Outraged British historians called the film
nonsense while Indian historians called it treasonous and Uttar Pradesh threatened to ban it. Protesters smashed shops and delayed trains full of merchandise. Producer Yash Chopra was taken to court (and not in one of those frivolous ‘Munni and Sheila are bad influences’ suits) and in a very unusual occurrence, the film’s screenwriter, the venerable respectable multiple English-literature award winning activist for racial equality Farrukh Dhondy, penned a scathing rebuttal to a piece by Bollywood trash talking queen Shobbha De in which he calls her a pornographer and mocks her for getting Manoj Kumar’s name wrong.

Curiouser and curiouser: she says the costumes for the film seem to have "emerged from Manoj Kapur's attic." I don't happen to know who Manoj Kapur is, but wonder if he really does have 'an attic'? Does he live in Amsterdam? And why does he keep clothes from 1857 in this raftered treasure-chest?

(Seriously, go read
the full thing.)

When an esteemed literary figure climbs into Shobba De’s mud wrestling ring, you know that all bets are officially off.

To this day Aamir Khan refuses to mention
Mangal Pandey: The Rising. He has erased the entire incident from his filmography and I don’t blame him. It’s experiences like this that make one understand why producers tend to err on the side of sainthood when depicting historical figures, especially krantikari.

But what of the film in question?

Mangal Pandey: The Rising is a highly fictionalized account of the incidents leading up to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which saw the sepoys (South Asian soldiers in service to the British government) rise up against their British overlords. Most of the real Mangal Pandey’s life is a mystery but what we do know is that Mangal Pandey was a sepoy stationed at Barrackpore. On the afternoon of March 29th, 1857, he had the bugler call the men to the assembly, took his weapon out to the parade ground, and began shooting down white officers. Mangal Pandey then turned his gun on himself but failed to take his own life. He was hanged for inciting mutiny on April 8th.

The film takes that event and places it in a rich narrative context. This fictional Mangal Pandey is an upper caste Brahmin, reluctant hero, and deeply unhappy man. We are introduced to him through the eyes of Captain William Gordon (Toby Stephens) whose life he saves on a battlefield at the Khyber Pass. Through the first half of the film, we’re shown the morally bankrupt Company men, the poisonous local superstitious and traditions, and the thin web of class and caste that connects everyone. There is a very natural and subdued quality to the scenes. An
desi nanny takes care of a white woman’s baby. Captain Gordon and Mangal Pandey play a prank on a mutually hated colleague. Captain Gordon rescues a woman who is going to be burned as a Sati by her relatives. A bunch of village men sit around and gossip. There is a village fair. Mangal becomes infatuated with a nautch girl. The clerk is accused of scamming the Company. And all the while whispers spread about these new cartridges that are smeared with beef and pork fat - and you have to bite them to use them.

Captain Gordon assures Mangal that there is nothing to the rumors - that
he has been told by his superiors that the cartridges are safe and that the Company respects all religions. Mangal trusts in their friendship and he bites the cartridge. While Captain Gordon’s friendship can be trusted, The Man cannot be and the when Mangal realizes that he had inadvertently bitten down on beef tallow, he is furious. We leave the first act with Mangal breaking up with Captain Gordon. Their friendship is over.

The second half of the film takes all the exposition of the first half and lets it loose. A combination of military maneuvering and brinkmanship brings us to the recreation of Mangal Pandey’s famous armed showdown with a platoon of white British soldiers. The film ends as you expect, with Captain Gordon staying with his friend until the end. (I have to admit that I cry every time I’ve seen this film.)

While I sincerely enjoyed this film, I can understand why it would have been a let down to audiences expecting
Lagaan 2: Bhuvan Kicks British Butt While Having An Awesome Mouche. For one thing, the production values of the film are no where near the quality of Lagaan. The “town” set is basically one road that is always shot in one direction. The fair set seems cheap and the some of larger scale “battle” sequences seem underdone. As if there was too much vision and not enough money. Instead of the lush picturizations of Lagaan, the songs in Mangal Pandey are done in a more naturalistic way and the way they’ve been shot on a human scale. That’s a good way to describe most of the film, which never reaches the sweeping grandeur of Lagaan.

Another disappointment to those coming in expecting another
Lagaan is the character of Mangal Pandey who is much more human than Bhuvan. Mangal Pandey is not a pleasant guy. He has a superiority complex and takes his high-caste status very seriously, rudely beating an ‘untouchable’ who comes across his path. He can be really crabby and disdainful to those who don’t meet his high standards. He doesn’t lead as much as chide men into action. And Mangal Pandey doesn’t forgive easily. These things all play into some really wonderful character growth for Mangal as he loosens up a bit and discovers things aren’t always as black-and-white as they appear. But Mangal never touches the pure goodness of Bhuvan.

I think the human scale of the film really makes the events that happen more meaningful. Mangal Pandey doesn’t act out of an altruistic desire but out of an insulted ego. He had no problems working as a
sepoy and if the cartridge incident hadn’t happened, he probably wouldn’t have continued to work happily as a sepoy, not questioning his place in the Universe. It’s when Mangal is knocked off his perch that he discovers the truth of what the out-caste had told him earlier in the film: Under the British, we’re all ‘untouchable.’

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Captain Gordon and Mangal Pandey. Captain Gordon is an unusual character for an Indian film, in that great care was taken to show that even within the British ranks there are issues of class. The British are not a monolithic entity and there is one really poignant scene where we see Captain Gordon at a dinner party hosted by wealthy Mr. Kent. The old boys were singing an old public (i.e. private) school song but Captain Gordon doesn’t join in. When Mr. Kent’s daughter questions him about it, he is forced to explain that he went to the local parish school in Glasgow - not someplace fancy like Eton. You can also hear his status hit the floor. So, you have Captain Gordon at the lowest rungs of the British system feeling quite at ease with Mangal Pandey, who is at the highest reaches of the Indian system and vice versa. They understand each other: Mangal is kind of a drama queen and Captain Gordon is really forgiving.

Of the other characters in the film, most are kept as rough sketches. Rani Mukerji and Ameesha Patel as the love interests of Mangal and Captain Gordon (respectively) are not really given large amounts of screen time although they both make a striking impression. The trader played by Sohrab Ardeshir and the nanny played by Mona Ambegaonkar also really made the most of their brief screen time.

As for the complaints about the historical accuracy of the film, I come down firmly on the side of screen writer Farrukh Dhondy.
Mangal Pandey is not a documentary and events and characters were added to suit the narrative. The overall arc of the story is important not the nuts and bolts of who said what. What is history anyways but the molding of a narrative out of the jumbled events of real life. We change history all the time to suit the ideals of the present. In Mangal Pandey, Farrukh uses the few threads of the real Mangal Pandey’s life to weave together a story that talks about fairness and the human condition; the cruelty of capitalism and the randomness of one’s class (or caste) status.

Did the British burn a village over poppy farming? Does it really matter? There were many cruelties that played out during that time and people suffered - it just so happens that burning a village is more cinematicaly interesting than depicting the bankrupting of a village through forced poppy farming. The result is the same.
Did Mangal Pandey keep company with a prostitute and perform the dreaded lip-lock with her? We don’t know that he
didn’t. And I like that the character of Heera was a prostitute for the British. It means she gets to zing Mangal with a line about only selling her body, while he has sold his soul as a sepoy. His gradual association with her just shows how much of the notion of class and caste he is shaking off. We’re all equals.

One thing is for sure, the film was
not directed at Western audiences. What makes that clear is the voice over narration from Om Puri. There are no lengthy sections of English dialogues and when a group of Englishman does get together to talk, they get out maybe one or two sentences before Om Puri butts in and repeats everything they are said in Hindi. It’s a clunky mechanism and I have the feeling that it was a last minute addition. I would love to see a recut version of the film with longer scenes in English and the annoying narration gone - or at least a DVD option to turn it off.

I think it was probably inevitable that
Mangal Pandey would be a flop. The long wait for the film combined with the towering success of Lagaan meant that it would have taken some sort of miracle to live up to the hype and this small-scale human-sized film just didn’t fit the bill. But it’s not a bad film - despite its flaws - and I hope that one day Aamir will feel comfortable embracing it again. Mangal Pandey is a endearing character in his grumpiness and maybe Aamir will find enough Mangal within himself to forgive the film, like Captain Gordon, for being flawed. We’re all only human after all.

And with that, here are some pretty pictures!

From the beginning we have our theme... blood and coin.

This is no spoiler - the film opens with a hanging. We're introduced to Captain Gordon and Mangal Pandey... the two best unlikely best friends.

This little gag worked much better than the Om Puri ponderous voice-over... Director Ketan Mehta has a nice eye for little humanizing moments like this.

Like delving into the fantasy life of the servant pulling the fan... we're all human.

The neighborhood men gossiping...

The pained face of the nanny...

The trader...

Mangal bathing...

Hewson beating the waiter for accidentally touching a white woman - Mangal Pandey steps in.

Only to beat a outcaste for accidentally running into him.

Mangal is mad at Captain Gordon for standing idly by while Hewson beats the waiter but you can't keep two friends apart. Mangal and Captain Gordon just need to hug it out.

Remember before everybody got botoxed and nipped and tucked? Aamir Khan is a charismatic man!

Captain Gordon thinks so, too!

There you go, boys! Hug it out!

Heera for sale at the fair.

Mr. Kent's daughter is disgusted - slavery was banned in the Empire but here...

... and then I love this look they give each other, a variation on 'bitches be crazy.'

Rani Mukerji is fantastic and made me really miss her.

Kirron Kher plays the house madam.... Also, it's a disturbing fact that if you search for "Kirron Kher cleavage" this scene shows up.

Captain Gordon stopping a sati... does he feel so strongly after being scolded by Mangal for letting Hewson beat the waiter?

I loved this scene with the rescued widow hiding under the bed. Ameesha Patel

The gypsy dancers of "Rasiya" show that homoeroticism isn't just for men! This song is really sultry and way more grown-up in its sensuality than the Munni or Sheila's of the world.

Anybody know who the girls are?

Mangal Pandey becomes a reluctant leader.

And the final show down. Aamir's crazy eyes are fantastic. You can see him go from manic to resigned.


theBollywoodFan said...

I know this film is Aamir's least successful in the last decade, but I *love* it, probably as much as anything that is not Lagaan or TZP, which I liked better, of course. Drove four hours to see it on day one, and enjoy it now on DVD, too. 0:)

The difference in production values of this and Lagaan might just be a reflection of the filmmaking styles of AKP and YRF. We see it in every movie they make, I think.

I do wonder if Aamir trying to distance himself is as much because of the personal issues he faced in the four years it took to get another film done. I wouldn't discount that.

Oh Rasiya IS super-hot! One of the dancers/singers is Sophia Haque, don't know the other.

Did you really Google "Kirron Kher cleavage"? :P

And while on period films that are historically inaccurate -- and in the case of the film I'm about to mention, probably irrelevant -- have you seen Veer yet?! =)


Filmi Girl said...

@thebollywoodfan Veer is next on my list... and no I didn't google it!! I was looking up different things about the film and saw that somebody uploaded a video to youtube of Kirron Kher Aunty Cleavage!! Ha ha ha! Now I guess people will find this post, too.

That's a good point about Aamir's personal life. I bet it has some hard memories associated... I think it's fantastic, though. It's crazy when you think about all the outrage it generated!!

maxqnz said...

MP didn't really leave much of an impression on me, all I really remember is main vari vari, even though it's one of only 2 soundtracks I bought. I think it's almost a shame that there was such intense, unreasoning reaction to the film, because that gives Aamir the perfect excuse not to discuss it even if (as I suspect is at least largely true) the main reason is that its failure is an affront to his colossal ego.

Sal said...

Agreed about Rasiya - SUCH a good song. I really liked Aamir in this; this one and Rang De Basanti are the only performances of his (in the last decade at least) that I really LOVE (as opposed to "appreciate the hard work and skill of". Also, the film did really well in its opening weekend, I remember. It set a new record or something. So money-wise ,it isn't a flop, per se, if I am not mistaken. But yes, there was a major backlash against the film, and Aamir did quick and savvy damage control with Fanaa.

Sal said...

Also, major LOL at maxqnz's last comment.

maxqnz said...

Thanks, Sal! I wasn't being that nasty - I don't think "shy and retiring" goes with "successful actor/director/producer" at all, not just with AK.
A certain narcissistic egotism seems to be a requirement, especially for onscreen talent, which likely also helps explain all the nasty spats between the big names

Yunus Perveez said...

... Why were you googling "Kirron Kher cleavage"? :-)

Filmi Girl said...

@yunus I wasn't!! I happened to be looking up the film to see if there was any behind the scenes stuff and saw more than a few people had uploaded images of Kirron Kher with that title. :D

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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