Monday, January 29, 2007
21.Mangal Pandey (Hindi)
Here's a little about the two sides of the story. First the Sepoy Mutiny - The English version (Victorian version) calls it one of the most dastardly acts ever perpetrated on women and children at that time, when, on the banks of Ganges, the rowdy sepoys butchered men, women and children alike, after luring them out of their safe houses in Kanpur promising a safe passage to Allahabad on river boats, as a truce settlement between the two sides. The dismembered bodies were supposed to have filled up a deep well near-by and the English press called for an equally bloody vengeance over an incident, so trifle and trivial as grease over bullet cartridges. The second version is called The First War of Independence in March 1857. Cartridges were greased with cow and pig's fat, a fact which completely flew in the face of both the Hindus' and Muslims' religions, and the soldiers were ordered to bite the cartridges to let the gun powder out for the new Enfield rifle model. The soldiers revolted for the first time against the company, triggering many such uprisings from Rani of Jhansi, Nana Saheb and eventually from the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Even though eventually crushed with an iron foot, the incidents that took place in the first few months of 1857 let out the first battle cry against imperial rule. The fact is that the bullets were indeed greased at first by animals' fat, but as soon as the religious aspect came into picture, the authorities were sensitive enough to direct that the cartridges be used by British troops alone and that the sepoys were free to grease them up with vegetable oil. The order came a bit late for the mutiny, not before completely ruining the fate and fortune of East India Company's interests in the nation, followed by an abrupt handover of reigns and control to the crown of England. That's the two sides of the coin and Mangal Pandey figured somewhere between.
A movie is the last place one should be looking for facts and checking for figures, even when it comes to biographies. Gandhiji's life wasn't completely filled with satyagrahas, fasts and long marches. In the spaces between them, lied the actual facts somewhere - his constant inner struggle to conquer lust, his bitter fights with Kasturi Ba right until her end, his obsessiveness for perfection and his compulsive desire to change every one around him according to his ideas in his mould and many such. It is an interesting fact that while drawing a portrait, broad strokes account for much of the picture, while the minute, subtle strokes only enhance the detail of what has already been drawn. Attenborough's "Gandhi" is thus a movie that is based on Gandhiji's life and events than an accurate portrayal of his life down to the minutest detail including all the character flaws. It is to the spirit of the person that the movie pays homage to and if accurate depiction, brutal honesty and bitter truths are what are really wanted, there are always newspapers and books. That said, some lives really lend themselves nicely for the right dramatic moments, emotional punches and upliftment of the spirit, to be immortalized on celluloid. Coming back to "Gandhi", it would be decided that a march be taken from the Sabarmati ashram to nearest port city, Dandi, where the Indians under the leadership of Gandhiji would make salt and oppose the new salt tax levied by the British.
The scene where thousands and thousands join the march (captured brilliantly through the eyes of a little kid over a huge tree's top), like little rivulets joining a huge stream, is one of the most important and dramatic moments in "Gandhi". Similarly the scene where Gandhiji would enter the courtroom and the entire court, including the English lawyers and the English judge, rise in honor of the man in the loin cloth. No other words are needed to enhance the emotion. Moments as those would move the script on auto-pilot. Sadly, after all the years in the making and after all the crores poured into the making, Mangal Pandey lacks such gripping moments and all the dramatic points that were intended to rouse the passion (and almost cheer for the hero) tend to fall pretty flat. The problem does not lie in the script, the problem does not lie in the making, the problem lies with the person, Mangal Pandey. A little known hero in the few pages of the history, whose only claim to fame was standing in front of the cannon and baring his chest, while dis-obeying the order to bite the tarnished cartridge, the obscurity of his life in the pages of history, forced the makers into padding the life of Pandey with the regular drama moments of a regular hero. (This statement is in no way a belittlement of the great legacy of Pandey, but an indictment of the script that tried to force a two and half hour movie on a single known incident reported in the history books). If the long (in fact, very long) disclaimer at the beginning of the movie, claiming that the movie is in fact only inspired by certain events in Pandey's life, and that licenses have been freely taken, (like creating Toby Stephen's William Gordon, Pandey's English friend, character), is indeed taken seriously, "Mangal Pandey", the movie, even fails on that front, to script a good patriotic character's life.
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Idolizing a character is one extreme - turning the character into near God, showing the character in nothing but benevolent light, creating a halo around it and almost deifying it. Trivializing it is another - bringing the character (however historic and important it might be) to a pedestrian level in an attempt to humanize it and putting a flawed face to it, to generate identification and sympathy. The script of Pandey falls in the latter category. In an attempt to commercialize the venture (and not make it a near documentary), the unnecessary characters of the prostitute with an default heart of gold (the heroine), the obligatory good English character mirroring Pandey's position in the English ranks (the relationship between Pandey and Gordon in an eerie way reminds of "Uncle Tom's Cabin", the controversial Harreit Stowe's novel about segregation and slavery in America), and the even more obligatory English villain officers. The thread bare nature of the heart of the script, that Pandey was the first hero to rise against the company, obviously forced the makers to make all these choices allowing every possible clichéd commercial caricatures surrounding a regular hero to creep into it. Again, the question needs to be asked - is it the problem with the script?; the answer comes, it tried every possible way of narrating a hero's story in its own sincere way; is it a problem with the making?; gorgeously shot and with beautiful set pieces all around, it is quite difficult to find fault with the making; the buck finally stops at the choice of the subject that the makers have found to bring to the celluloid. With so much little know about him, without resorting the usual tricks of the trade, there seems to be no other way of making a movie of such kind, which poses the one final question, why make this movie at all?
Sohrab Modi's "Jhansi Ki Rani", made in the 50s, about a little bride wedded into a royal household, begetting a child and a huge kingdom, and waging war against the company tying her little kid to her back in the battle field, offered much more promise and many more options, from an under-dog standpoint, from a lone female in a man's world standpoint, from a rise of a voice against the tyranny and hegemony standpoint, than this over-inflated and over-bloated paper hero. If all the greats before Ketan Mehta, who brought to the screen the many legends of Indian history moving the audiences and raising them to their feet, left alone this first hero of Indian resistance, looking at "Mangal Pandey - The Rising", it has to believed that they left this story alone for a reason!