Thursday, February 24, 2011

Response to the Mangal Pandey

The disclaimer in the beginning of the movie Mangal Pandey: The Rising suggests to the audience that its portrayal of history should be taken metaphorically as social commentary instead of literally as established “facts.” Lois Krieger, the author of “History written with lightning,” argues that “film can show history as it was,” bringing the past to life in moving images in a way that serious written work cannot.

In this essay, as a response to Sarah’s post, I will attempt to explain the relevance and the necessary existence of cinema in a modern context and how it complements written history rather than falsely representing the “true past.” The notion that a historically fictitious film can “show history as it was” is dangerous. Not only does this undermine the importance of a visual interpretation of history, it implies that certain untrue facts about past events can appear to be true to the movie viewers. In this case, historical film can potentially rewrite history.

Professional academic historians constantly challenge the “accuracy” of historical films because “it is not the responsibility, nor the interest, of an artist to document historical reality,” and films are intended to give the audience what they want “regardless of the degree to which this necessitated a distortion of historical facts.” This broad and overly generalized analysis suggests that historical films are not made to accurately depict history. Instead, they are just purely motivated by profits, catering to their intended audience’s wants and expectations. Sarah, in the conclusion, believes that historical film should be subjected to a more rigorous standard of accuracy. She states that the audience should question the intent of commercial film and its aim for maximization of profit. I disagree on the basis that this does not consider or acknowledge the benefits of motion pictures.

Historical films, even when loosely based on factual events, give the public access to knowledge and information usually controlled and made available only to intellectual elites in research universities. Unlike a written work, a movie does not require its audience to be literate. What the real Mangal Pandey did or did not do are constantly contested and contradict by newly acquired facts and research. He may or may not be the hero that was portrayed in the movie.

Mangal Pandey: The Rising is a moving picture about the legend of the real Mangal Pandey. In addition, it represents historical events through the lens of popular culture. Even though there are certain social messages (i.e. anti-capitalism, anti-free-market, socio-political-economic inequalities, etc.) that the movie tries to convey, these sentiments already exist in the hearts and minds of those who chose to go see this movie.

In other words, historical movies both help shape and reflect the public’s perspectives and attitudes toward the present reality. For example, in the scene where Gordon criticized the free market, the term free market is a modern term with modern implications. The movie reflects modern social concerns; its portrayal of the past is through a nationalist and socialist perspective. Art, after all, can be life imitating art.

Mangal Pandey is a hero in his own legend. The movie uses his character to emphasize individualism, the notion that it only takes one person to stand up and initiate social and political change against the cruel oppressor and colonizer. It also juxtaposes tradition with modernity. The British saw themselves as saviors to the backward and primitive Indians (white men’s burden), bringing them the “benefits of modern governance, scientific progress, and above all justice.” In exchange, they subjected the people of the entire Indian sub-continent to generations of life in servitude.

In the film, Pandey expresses fondness for progressive and modern ideas and his desire for system of government that functions to serve the interests of the people, just like the one in England. He and Captain Gordon risk their lives to save a girl defying the traditional practice of widow burning. As a Brahman and a sepoy, Pandey embodied the struggle to balance traditional practices and beliefs with modern and progressive thinking.

In a more overarching theme, the movie also showcased the evils of privatization and the drive for profits. As Dr. Dujovny pointed out in class, the events on the past in Mangal Pandey seem to reflect and speak more about the present. The East India Company was depicted to resemble a modern mega-corporation, the octopus that has its tentacles in everything— for example, the national and local governments, the police, and the military.

Based on these examples, I would conclude that written historical works are neither superior nor inferior to historical films. Instead, they complement each other. Each has their own purposes. Historians are responsible for finding out the truths about history. Meanwhile, movie directors bring the past alive in the public’s eyes, giving it meaning in contemporary society and making it relevant to the future.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mangal Pandey

Due to plenty of accurate summaries and descriptions of many events within the movie and comparison to the literature, I’d like to analyze a few scenes within the movie and possible underlying messages and their association with the literature and discussions we’ve had within class.

Transition Music & Smoke Shop Group

The singers on the back of the elephants, who are also in attendance at the smoke shop, frame the different sections of the movie by foreshadowing within the songs. The beginning song is repeated at the end of the movie to illustrate the actual “arising” resistance. Scenes of the different groups planning and forming together are presented throughout the song.

During the Bazaar song there are overtones of how anything is for sale now (perhaps sarcastically thanks to the Company). One line during the song explains, “Honor and dignity…all battles and lies all music and noise. All for sale.” As the song comes to a close, the viewers are presented with the true underlying message: The Company allows the sale of slaves despite slavery being illegal in England.

During the first encounter at the smoke shop, a discussion occurs regarding telegraphs. A person reading a newspaper states, “The Company connected the entire country through wires.” In response to the disbelief of his fellows in attendance, he explains, “It’s got to be true! It’s in the newspaper!” I believe this is an integration of a post-modernist statement on the reliance of facts and media.

During the second encounter at the smoke shop, a man begins by stating, "When traders become rulers then the common man pays the price." Here is another example of these men foreshadowing events to come. Immediately preceding the forced testing of the new cartridges, this same individual comments, "Gun is a treacherous lover, there's no telling whom she'll set her sights upon!" And sure enough, the gun eventually turns on the Company.

New Year Celebrations at the Governor General’s Palace

This part of the movie is a critical statement on the different viewpoints of the occupation of India. From the perspective of the Governor General, the Indians are receiving the “benefits of modern governance, scientific progress, and above all, justice.” Additionally, he suggests that “we have earned the love and gratitude of the people of India…and we shoulder the burden of the white man without complaint.” Beyond being extremely pompous speech, his statements present a vast disconnect from the Indian population. Throughout this speech there are two Indian characters that playfully translate and comment on his statements. One continuously waits for the moment where he must praise the Queen while the other translates the Governor Generals statements into shorter, blunter messages, stating, “they are doing us a favor…we are grateful to them,” while obviously dissenting at these comments.

Emily = Child or ignorance

Emily wears a sari to the Governor General’s New Year Celebration and is said to look like a “nautch girl.” Upon being insulted, Emily calls out Mr. Hewson about visiting local prostitutes in front of other white women, resulting in his subsequent denial. Mr. Hewson’s statements are in line with our discussion on Tuesday regarding how the integration of English women into India changed the integration between English males and the locales. Additionally, Emily is used later within the movie as the ‘ignorant child’ to provoke Gordon’s explanation of the opium trade.

Opium Explanation

Leading up to Gordon’s explanation of the opium trade, he is accosted regarding his schooling, status, and fraternization with the Indian population. This scene presents a distinction that classes or castes not only exist within India, but elsewhere as well in more subtle ways. This disrespect leads to Gordon’s distasteful explanation of how the trade operates in a full circle: “Forcing Indian farmers…to help turn an entire nation [China] into opium addicts.” He then finishes by explaining that the East India Company wants the Indian sepoys to fight and die in a war to force the Chinese emperor to accept opium, completing the “Free market cycle.” Gordon, during this explanation presents a couple other ideas. He suggests that the English, like the Chinese, are equally addicts but for Chinese goods instead of opium. In his final statement, “I’m just a common soldier. It’s a subject you would know more about,” Gordon acknowledges his place within the English ‘caste’ and insults the host by suggesting that he, instead of Gordon, should have been the one to explain to Emily the opium trade system as he is the responsible one.


The noose, at the introduction of the movie is framed around Mangal Pandey’s head; however, near the end of the movie there is a scene where Gordon is standing, staring at the camera with the noose framed around his head. I believe these scenes to be methods of foreshadowing Mangal’s death (at the beginning of the movie) and later Gordon’s inevitable death once the Indian population fights back.

Woman Nursing

I found these scenes to be out of place initially, but upon further analysis I believe these scenes are used similar to Mother India; making an important statement in the most subtle of ways. The mother supplies all her milk to the Governor General‘s (?) wife, leaving none for her own baby. I believe this mother to represent India and that the Company, like the baby, is “sucking dry” India, leaving nothing left for her own children. This entire time, the actual mother (Governor General’s wife?) lays around paying absolutely no attention to her own offspring. This mother I believe is representative of England and the lack of intervention with the Company.


Similar to the mentally handicap individual within Gadar, I find the Untouchable within this movie to be the most sane and insightful person. Upon being insulted for his crossed-eyes, he responds stating, “A twisted rope is strongest, a twisted eyesight is deepest.” This statement proves to be true as his ‘visions’ turn out to be true. Later he states to Mangal, “We’re all untouchable now. The Company reigns. All trash is equal.” It is through reflecting upon statements made by the Untouchable that Mangal has his epiphanies. Additionally, the untouchable refers to the enslaved prostitute (Cannot recall her name) as Mangal’s “Juliet”, referencing Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet

After the untouchable references the enslaved prostitute as Mangal’s Juliet, there is a balcony scene that is remarkably similar to Romeo and Juliet. Additionally, later in the movie Mangal is approached and petitioned to “run away.” While not being directly a link to Romeo and Juliet, there are underlying similarities being made.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mangal Pandey Review

Mangal Pandey: The Rising felt distinctly different from the Bollywood movies we have seen so far. Departing somewhat from the masala tendency for cover-every-genre-in-under-three-hours, Mangal Pandey stuck to historical events, including the politics of the time, relevant action scenes, and the invented love interests that are so ubiquitous in commercial cinema. Mangal Pandey tells the story of the 1857 sepoy uprising against British colonial powers, led by Mangal Pandey and sparked by the use of animal fat in the guns used by the Indian soldiers, which was against the religion of the Hindu and Muslim soldiers.. While the other films we have watched so far have felt like screenplays with the addition of history and mythology to give the story meaning and relatability for the audience, I thought this film instead focused on the history, with entertaining plot lines, such as Pandey’s and Gordon’s lovers, added to lure in viewers. However, the film’s principal concern is making money - as such, the end result is not a historically accurate account of the 1857 uprising, but rather a sensationalized retelling of history, with other elements eroding the truth on which the story is based.

The “History Written with Lightning” article argues that scholarly text is not necessarily more correct than film. It does so using the postmodern idea that facts do not exist and so nothing is really knowable. Though I think some of the author’s points are valid - historians pick certain, and sometimes ambiguous or politically-charged facts of those that are available to them - his sweeping generalizations regarding the abilities of any medium are not helpful. If it can be established that there is no way to accurately, or even close to accurately, contain and retell history because of its complexity and interrelatedness and our own biases, does it matter if one medium is better than another? And more significantly, is there even a point in trying? For the sake of history departments everywhere, let’s say the answer to both are yes. From there, we should move to attempting to evaluate the historical accuracy of specific sources, rather than placing one medium above another. If the portrayal of an event or element of a story line is in contrast to the related documents, contemporary accounts, and mythology associated with the event, it can be deemed less accurate.

Rather than put an end to the study of history or the search for knowledge, I think we should take from postmodern a mandate for more rigor in portraying history. Documents should be checked for confirmation biases, incongruencies with similar contemporary text, biases of the author, and the selection of one fact at the expense of another, among many many others. Though these will not eradicate the problem, they are at least a step in that direction.

I found the controversy stemming from the release of Mangal Pandey really interesting. Audiences objected to the director’s decision to attribute actions of others to that of Mangal Pandey’s character, while presenting his fellow sepoys as unimportant pawns. While this would be understandable had the director been making a documentary, the goal of this film was, again, to make a profit. Films often resort to overloading main characters with qualities and actions, at the expense of the other characters. This is to make the film more appealing to audiences. Similarly, critics disliked Pandey’s relationship with a prostitute. This is more understandable - it threatens the credibility of an Indian hero - but is again included to make the story interesting to viewers.

The mass hysteria that broke out in reaction to the film’s portrayal of Mangal Pandey and his compatriots illustrates the power of popular film. Surely (!) the dry prose of an academic text would not have resounded as strongly, nor reached the same enormous audience, as a high-budget Bollywood film. As film is such a popular medium, it deserves more attention from historians as well as more critique from audiences. Film should have a larger place in what we consider history. However, we should question the accuracy and intent of commercial film which, like the East India Company, has only the goal of profit.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Mangal Peday, the Man of Fact or Fiction? Who Cares!

“Awesome” is the one word that comes to mind when I think of Mangal Pandey: The Rising. At least for a Bollywood film. And although my Bollywood movie watching experience is limited, I find that rich stories are often ruined by the use of redundant song and dance, poor editing, and/or a lack of realism. Yes, I understand that I may be culturally deprived, I am plagued with western ignorance, and I don’t understand the significance of several key scenes; however, I judge movies based on what I take away from them. Mangal Pandey: The Rising is an exception to my dislike of Bollywood movies. The movie is a good epic, not historically accurate, but it was realistically able to portray the uprising of the Indian people against the corrupt and tyrannous East Indian Company.

Bollywood superstar, Aamir Khan returned to big screen after a four-year hiatus to play Mangal Pandey. This was a perfect casting for a Bollywood production, because only a high profile personage such as Khan could play the life of one of the nation’s greatest legends. The movie revolves around the relationship between Pandey and his superior officer and close friend Captain William Gordon (portrayed by Toby Stephens). Throughout the course of the movie, the two men follow a bumpy yet similar path. The story begins with Captain Gordon’s flashback to a battle during the Afghan war in which Gordon was gravely wounded by enemy forces. While under heavy fire, Panday drags Gordon to safety thus saving his life. In return, Gordon gives Panday his pistol and a bond of mutual respect is formed between the two men. For Gordon, Panday is a loyal subordinate who leads the other sepoys, and for Panday, Gordon is a trustworthy leader who will protect the best interests of his men.

For the first hour of the movie, Pandey was loyal sepoy of the company, and at one point, he fired onto his own people; however, the turning point of the movie shortly follows the scene in which Pandey is the first sepoy to bite the head off of one of the cartridges rumored to be tainted with cow and pig fat. Gordon was the one who unknowingly assured Pandey that the rumors were false. As Pandey was walking through the village one day, the cross-eyed untouchable, Nainsukh, bumped into him. Pandey being a Brahmin (higher caste), began to scold Nainsukh, but he was quickly silenced by Nainsukh’s mockery in which he said “who better than you, now that we’re both the same…untouchables.” Nainsukh was able to prove to Pandey that the rumors were true by showing him the cartridge factory. Pandey was devastated and his greatest concern was the fact that he would lose his high caste status and become an untouchable (Majumdar, 1773). Pandey immediately goes to Gordon’s home to return the pistol, and denounce their friendship. It is from the point on that Pandey begins his rebellion towards the Company.

Parallel to Pandey’s transition from loyal sepoy to Indian freedom fighter, we see Gordon follow a similar transition. At first, Gordon is a close friend of Pandey and sympathetic to the natives, but he maintains his Company identity. He is submissive to the brutality of the company and fellow officers, and he follows orders without questioning. We first see Gordon question his loyalty at a Company dinner party in which he condemns the immoral and corrupt practice of the Company’s opium trade. We see his compliance to the Company quickly deteriorate after he falls in love with Jwala (portrayed by Ameesha Patal), the women he saved from a Sati ceremony, as well as discovering the truth about the the musket cartridges.

Pandey and Gordon face off in a short battle after Pandey leads a small attack on the Company troops. Pandey defeats Gordon, but he spares him his life. Pandey then goes on to single handily fight the troops, and attempts to sacrifice himself just before capture. The suicide attempt was failure, and we next see Pandey in the hospital with Gordon by his side. Gordon tells Pandey that his only chance is to plead guilty, apologize, and he warns him of a terrible bloodshed if he does not. Pandey’s final words to Gordon were, “India is rising and nobody can stop it, not even my life.” Gordon gave the court the same argument about bloodshed that he gave Pandey, and that their actions are leading to their own downfall. The court did not listen to Gordon’s plea and sentenced Peday to death. Just before Pandey is hung, he yells “Halla Bol” (attack). As Pandey’s body is dangling in the air, the spectators take a few moments of silence, and then Nainsukh (the untouchable) leads a charge against the Company while screaming “Halla Bol”. During the final scene of the movie, the narrator explains that the British Crown took over the governance of India, and that Mangel Pandey inspired the nation to fight for freedom, and at the same time footage of the Gandhian movement was being shown

Going back to the beginning of the movie, the first shot we see is of a painting that transitions into actual sunrise over the Ganges River. This scene then shifts to an elephant with its trunk lowered. It then raises it into their air while sounding its trumpet. This scene is a quick glance of the entire movie. Like the lowered trunk of the elephant, we first see Pandey being escorted to the gallows with his head down. At the end of the movie, just before the hanging, we see him being escorted to the gallows again, but his head is held high (raised tusk). Like the elephant sounding it’s trumpet, Pandey yells “Halla Bol” just before his execution. The sunrise, the raising of the elephant’s trunk, and Pandey all symbolize rising up in order to reach a new life.

A common trait of Bollywood films is to associate characters with beloved deities. In Pyassa, Vijay is an embodiment of Christ, and Birju is an embodiment of Krishna in Mother India. Based on my knowledge of Hinduism, I was unable to associate Pandey with any diety. Possibly, I could relate him to Shiva or Kali because he attempts to destroy the evil Company out of love and compassion for India. The East Indian Company is related to Ravana in the movie. Ravana was a demon king who kidnapped Rama’s wife in the Indian epic Ramayana. In the scene in which Pandey is confused about the existence/purpose of the Company, Gordon explains to him that a company is created to make a profit. Gordon’s notices that Pandey is still confused, so he compares the company to Ravana. He explains that the Company has thousands of head to Ravana’s ten heads, and they are all glued together by greed.

Mangal Pandey: The Rising received a lot of criticism and controversy, mostly because of its historical inaccuracy. The movie almost gives full credit to Mangel Pandey for starting the revolution against the East Indian Company in the name of freedom; however, according to Majumdar and Chakrabarty, the real life Pandey never spoke a single word about “our freedom”(Majumdar, 1774). They also suggest that the British created the Mangal Pandey myth (Majumdar, 1175). There is historical documentation about a man named Mungul Pandey of the 34th Regiment who rushed onto a parade-ground shouting, “Com out, men! Come out, men! You have sent me out, why don’t you follow me? You will have to bight the cartridges! Come Out for your religion;” however, this about the extent of his efforts and notice that freedom was not mentioned (Ball, 45).

Historical accuracy for a movie is unnecessary because movies are meant for entertainment. Alfred Hitchcock best summarized the separation between filmmaking and historical accuracy by saying, “it is not the responsibility, nor interest, of an artist to document historical reality” (History written with lightening, 52). There is an opening quote of the movie that states, “where history meets proud folklore, there legends are born.” This is proof that the movie was not an attempt to distort history, but it was meant to tell the story of the Indian nation coming together to fight for it’s sovereignty and freedom. Mangal Panday was used a symbol for the cause as a whole

As I mentioned before, I feel that potentially great stories in Bollywood movies are often ruined because of all of the Bollywood elements. I thought Mangal Pandey: The Rising was a decent story, but a great movie. It is the most westernized Bollywood film I have seen, and I have no doubt that is why I enjoyed it, but like I said, I judge movies on how feel about them, not on what I am supposed to feel about them. I even felt the music element was appropriately placed, and I actually enjoyed it. That is hard for me to believe. I now have a newfound hope that one day I may have a love for Bollywood films in the same way I love American independent, Japanese, and Swedish movies.

Mangal Pandey: A Badass or a Myth?

Mangal Pandey: The Rising tells the story of a sepoy, not at all coincidentally named Mangal Pandey. The film begins with a celebration of sorts; singers are riding elephant-back through town singing “Mangala, Mangala” which means good luck for all. However, the next scene we see our protagonist, Mangal Pandey, walking to a noose. Although, at first the hanging appears to conflict with the good luck sentiment, we quickly learn that the executioner has fled. Lady Luck has struck. As a new date is set we find out the background leading up to these events through an unlikely source. The viewer becomes privy to the memories of Captain William Gordon.

A flashback begins and we learn how Captain Gordon and Sepoy Pandey became friends. Pandey saves Gordon during the Afghanistan War. As a token of his gratitude, Gordon gives Pandey his pistol and his friendship. The rest of the first half of the film shows the viewer the intimate friendship between Gordon and Pandey. They are not only comrades in arms, but also in life. Gordon becomes an integral player in the unfolding events. He attempts to become a cultural translator of sorts. We first see Gordon in the translator role as he explains the Company to Pandey using a story from the Ramayana. Gordon struggles as a translator when he attempts to explain to the Company’s Generals the reason why the sepoys outright refuse to “bite the bullet”.

The second half of the film tells a completely different story. Pandey and Gordon are at odds. In fact, most sepoys are at odds with the entire East India Trading Company, the thousand-headed greed monster. What starts as a dispute over the grease that coats bullets; becomes the First War of Indian Independence, depending on who you ask, with Mangal Pandey leading the revolt. It is important to note that the man who assists Pandey in developing the mutinous plan is Muslim. This purposeful alliance shows the solidarity of Hindus and Muslims in defeating the British.

The film, although it has drastically different halves, maintains a common theme, rising. This theme is reinforced for the viewers within the first five minutes, when we first are introduced to our hero. The viewers first see his feet. As he walks to his almost certain death, the camera pans upward. Our view of Mangal rises, foretelling the future of India and how they will eventually rise above the oppressive East Indian Trading Company as well as Great Britain. The second half shows the rise of India against the British. In fact, Pandey himself claims that Hindustan is rising.

Mangal Pandey is without a doubt an integral character in this film. However, many people took offense to his historical story. Why? Yes, it has been documented in history books that a sepoy by the name of Mangal Pandey did in fact exist. Pandey was a sepoy in the 34th regiment, as depicted in the movie. Pandey was a Brahman. Finally, historical Pandey did create problems regarding the cow and pig grease coating bullets that must be placed in the mouth. So, why take such offense?

Well, many reasons can be argued. But, for most people the inaccuracies, both historically and socially, provided the most problems. Pandey, most likely, would not have opposed Maharaja rule replacing the British, at least according to Majumdar and Chakrabarty. Also, Pandey’s last conversation with Gordon is extremely profound. He states “the colonized are untouchables, unable to lift their head in their own country. This is no longer about the grease, but about freedom. Hindustan is rising and no one can stop it, not you, not me, not my life.” Pandey would have to have been an extremely philosophical and poetic illiterate subaltern.

But, not all the blame can be made on the historical film. The historical movies are always made after the past event. In these cases, many of the depictions of history can be altered to better-fit social, political, or other agendas. If this is the case, the story of Mangal Pandey is a perfect fit for our heroic character because his actual history can be described as sketchy at best. It is important to note Pandey’s Brahman caste, which would take extreme offense to the cow greased bullets. For a Brahman, being in the military was the next highest honor after being a priest. This insult, or chance to become untouchable, would greatly affect Pandey and other Brahman sepoys. Most histories do note that Pandey did start a small revolt, but it referenced religious conflicts instead of political ones.

Based on the pivotal events depicted in the movie, it is most likely that Mangal Pandey is more of a composite character. The instance where the man from the untouchable caste talks to Pandey and tells him of the greased bullets is noted in history. However, this event in the history books did not happen to the real historical Pandey. Also, the mutiny of the 19th regiment is noted in history books. The sepoys were indeed effective in retreating the cavalry and artillery after refusing to use the greased ammunition. However, the 34th regiment with Pandey did not join the 19th regiment in this mutiny historically. One final interpretation for the Mangal Pandey character could be inspired by the Anglo-Indian slang term Pandy, which means mutiny.

The two halves of the film are important for two reasons. One, it shows the progression in the relationship between Gordon and Pandey. Two, the halves represent the two sides of the argument about using violence to achieve results. The first half uses Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. The sepoys take the abuse of the Company, and hope for the best. The best example of this is at the British dinner party when the waiter spills on the British darling, Emily Kent, and gets beat up by an Officer. The waiter does not fight back. This altercation is only stopped when Pandey intervenes. Conversely, the second half represents the opposition to Gandhi’s nonviolent movement. This half has the beginnings of a violent revolt. This movie makes a clear statement on its criticism to Gandhi’s beliefs.

On a personal note, this movie was the most “western” movie we have seen. The fight scenes were realistic and brutal. The characters hardly broke the forth wall. While I did enjoy this film, I missed the typical Bollywood cinematic indicators. Alternatively, it was extremely interesting to see Bollywood’s interpretation of the British, which was not very forgiving. In particular, I enjoyed the costumes in this film. The British were typically opulently dressed and the soldiers had period-piece uniforms. It could be that I enjoyed Mangal Pandey because I generally enjoy loosely based historical films, like Pearl Harbor or Titanic. Now that I have seen a Bollywood film that seeps realism, I am ready to suspend reality once again.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mother India Trials, Tribulations, and Scandal

As Dr. Dujovny said in his review, this movie is clearly a melodrama. Just when things are going well, something happens which reinforces the pity sentiment in the viewer. Most clearly we see the development of pity in the Radha character. She is Mother India. She ultimately becomes the “executor of universal law, which paves the way for the nation to be purified” (Schulze). We see this relationship as she opens the irrigation canal and the water runs red. It shows not only Radha’s personal sacrifices, but also India’s sacrifices to become the industrial state.

I think it is very important to point out that Radha is an archetype of a “good” Indian woman and wife. Shortly after her marriage, Radha begins helping in the house and the fields. She works, literally, up until the birth of her children. After the children are born she brings them with her to work in the field, and comes home to prepare meals and clean the house. After her husband has both his arms amputated, she diligently cares for him. Then, when he leaves, she shoulders all responsibility. This fact is reinforced by the iconic image of their flooding house, with Radha shouldering the roof to keep her children dry and safe. Personal sacrifice is a common theme for Radha. The only thing she refuses the sacrifice is her honor and the hands of the moneylender. In the end, she must ultimately make the biggest sacrifice and kill her son to preserve the honor of the community. All of these traits would be desirable in an Indian woman.

An interesting relationship developed in the movie, is the relationship between Radha and Birju. It is no secret that Birju is a child avatar of Krsna. I do not think it is a coincidence that Mother India is named Radha. Many times their relationship crosses normal mother and son interaction and we see consistently their roles reversed. A common device Khan uses to indicate their role reversal is when Birju feeds Radha. In most cases, the mother or parent provides for and feeds the children, but in these cases the child feeds the mother. Another interesting foil is Birju’s steadfast claim to return Radha’s marriage bangles. These bangles were given to Radha by her husband, in most cases should only be put on by the husband. But Birju, her child, fights to return them to her. This relationship between Birju and Radha more conventionally fits the story of Radha and Krsna if you consider the back-story of the actors. An actress named Nargis plays Radha. Nagris’ life parallels Radha in two noticeable ways. The first, she has a very intimate affair with a married man. The second, she has a relationship with Krsna, or at least the actor who plays his avatar. The actor who plays Birju is Sunil Dutt. In the scene where both Nargis and Sunil are running through the blazing fields, an accident occurs on set which brings them together during filming. This incident begins their relationship and the gossip mills start scandals. Nargis and Sunil's intimacy off-screen seeps into their performance onscreen; which emphasizes the confusion of the mother-son relationship boundaries and enforces the Radha-Krsna parallel.

On a personal note, I was really upset that the songs were not translated. While I could understand the meaning behind them based on the imagery, I felt as though something was missing. One of the readings mentioned that songs are way for the director to show his true meanings and without the translation, I felt like I was missing that. Another problem I had with the movie was the idea of ownership of the land. After the flood, everyone in the town left, with the exception of Radha and her children. But, when everyone returned an incident occurred that caused the moneylender to evict Radha. It might be my Western interpretation, but in my mind, she owned the land. She restored it after the flood, thus entitling her to ownership and a right to stay on the land. In India, or at least this movie, it appears that the land belongs to the community and no one specific person, with maybe the exception of the moneylender. Overall, this movie was filled with interesting imagery and a profound message.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mother India Review

Melodrama resonates in a consistent and desperate narrative throughout Mehboob Khan’s Mother India. During the initial scene, a shockingly modern shot of bulldozers and decimated farmland fill the screen with the grieving protagonist Radha, metaphorically known as Mother India kissing a clump of dirt and looking desperate is juxtaposed with a foggy flashback in which Radha is emotionally reminded of her initial experience of the joys of marriage shattered by the weight of poverty. The audience is made aware that Radha’s new mother in law had actually signed a deceitful mortgage of the land, which ensured that the miserly moneylender Sukhilala receives three quarters of the family’s harvest as interest for the loan that he issued them for the lush wedding.

Implications of this exchange provide commentary on both the power structure between literate wealthy figures and impoverished rural civilians as well as the significance of stature and wealth in societal expectations. A prominent example of the latter principle is when Shamu, Radha’s new husband, shrouds her in compliments and takes exaggerated pride in the bangles that are symbolic of her comfort, status as a bride and reputation among fellow village dweller. Not only are these of significance for Radha’s character and Indian female viewer alike but also to Shamu as a manifestation of his love and ability to provide and care for his new wife. He promises her a life of four strong and able children, comfort and elevated societal stature that is to be envied by the other women in the town. During the first part of the film, the expected roles of husband and wife are highly significant to the plot’s development.

Another perspective of import during the first half of the film is the visual use of the color red and the omnipresence of socialism and its implications on the agrarian community of India. Vibrant red is used in Radha’s wedding sari, during scene transitions, in the attire of the prime minister and gang who urge Radha to inaugurate the implementation of a new aqueduct in the town and the blood red water that flows at several key moments in the film. In Mother India, red almost always symbolizes an ardent change. The scene closely following the marriage in which a large group of civilians are farming in elaborate dress and with a hop in a skip appears to be an eerie reference to communism and the ease with which labor is performed in a group setting. This apparently prosperous and cooperative economic system is complimented by the birth of Radha and Shamu’s first son, Ramu whom Radha rejoices over with fervor and intense happiness. The joy of the family is over shadowed by a lurking evolution of the natural environment and economic ownership of land. Sukhilala’s character is integral and recurrent to the plot as the bad guy who exploits the family’s illiteracy and lack of control over their desperate situation.

Financial dilemmas concerning debt owed to Sukhilala and the heavy burden of private farming practices escalate as the film progresses and Radha births another son, Birju whose character evolves into a tragic martyr whom allegorically represents revolutionary youth in India. Shamu pushes his physical capacity to its limits in the fields, struggling to provide for his family and ideally dissipate the debt that has incurred between his beloved family and Sukhilala. Fantastical ambitions based on a false hope that the moneylender’s figures are in good faith push Shamu to an unfortunate accident in which he loses both his arms. Devastated by the prospects of a life of dependency and rendered completely helpless to aid in his family’s plight, he is deeply depressed and grieves for the societal reputation that his uselessness will cast upon his wife, three sons and unborn child. Made deeply ashamed by the ridicule of his peers and the knowledge that he is a burden to his family essentially forces Shamu to escape the village and abandon his family. Sukhilala pressures Radha to marry him and enjoy the benefits of his decadent lifestyle but she refuses to sell her self for comfort. As an audience, we are reminded of her inner strength and that her role as a representation of India as a nation and source for fertility and endurance in times of tribulation. The Hindi concept of dharma, a strong belief that if an individual acts in accordance with their self actualized path and avoids temptation all will evolve as it should, comes to mind in a critical reflection of Radha’s character and its preponderance in Indian ideals of morality.

Left in a state that would leave most weak and ineffectual, our Mother India rises above her circumstances and finds strength in sublime love for her children. She continues to work the land and provide for her children to the best of her ability while starving and without hopes of soon escaping her condition. A devastating monsoon flood rips its fiery red currents through the fields, destroying the crop and pushing the family further into debt and despair. Radha goes to Sukhilala to request food for her family but is resolute in her decision to remain true to herself and not sell her soul for any substantial price. During this scene, she also experiences an intense instance of darshan with a statue in his home. After an internal struggle that the audience experiences through her dialogue, she concludes that she has the strength to continue on her path of transcendence and continues to sustain her children and self on that which the Earth provides.

Birju, a child embodiment of the god Krsna, is significant because he represents the revolutionary force that is relevant and necessary to Indian economics. He is a paradigm of a character because he effectively denotes Sukhilala as a thief who is undeserving of his wealth and exploitative of the poor agrarian people who cannot read his contracts of servitude but still sign due to desperation and faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. However, Mother India tends to depict village life in India as a communal mechanism that only operates when all participating members cooperate and contribute. Birju, however, grows up embittered about the trickery that landed his family and poverty, unfair power structures, frustration with the lack of education and an omnipresent sulking anger. In early childhood, Birju is also significant to the development of the plot solely because he is a charming, intelligent youth who invokes empathy and sorrow for the misdirected youth of India.

Eventually, as the story progresses, Radha loses two of her sons and feels an internal pressure to kill Birju, her beloved son who has provided for her as much as she has for him when he murders Sukhilala after she has promised the village that he will do no more harm. This moment is critical to the film’s message because she is making the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of her community. Even though Birju’s deeply rooted need for revenge and satisfaction are legitimized, Radha is wise enough to realize the need for cooperation and peace is necessary for a modern India. The film concludes with Radha’s decision to inaugurate the canal system and allow for economic and environmental progress. The fields and flooded with a red flow of water that can be interpreted as the blood of India and the blood that is shed in the name of sacrifice for a just cause.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Response to Gadar Review

My first impression of Gadar, rather, the first twenty minutes of it, was that it was going to be a serious movie, dark, and full of violence. The first 20 minutes of the film contained the most memorable, violent scenes in the movie, depicting situations that match exactly the article “Our People Have Gone Mad.” The first scene, where the Hindu family somewhere in Pakistan try to decide what to do illustrate several descriptions of the article. The elements of desperation, the feeling that the government had betrayed them, the panic about deciding what possessions they could bring with them, and even the contemplation of suicide rather than being raped by Muslim attackers were all significant undertones in the article that were well depicted in the movie. Their journey, on train, also fit the descriptions of the article. Muslims, crazy with fury, yelling praises of Allah, attacked the train, leaving no one alive. That scene where the train, with not a single survivor, rolled into the train station, presumably where relatives and friends were waiting, is one of the most dreadful, terrifying scenes I have ever seen and it visually gives the accurate picture of trains as ‘rolling coffins,’ as the article described them. From there, the Hindu’s retaliated. And crime built upon crime. This burgeoning trend of violence and death was very well illustrated and very realistic in the movie. The emotional depth of the actors and their ability to portray pure agony and anger was striking in the scenes that explored the separation of Sakina from her family (and later her realization that they were killed), the loss of Tara’s whole family, Sakina’s flight in terror from the Hindu mob that chased her (while people looked on, unheading), and Tara’s rabid, intense defense of Sakina’s life from other Hindus. And I would agree with the reviewer that watching Gadar was an experience akin to watching a movie like Schindler’s List.

What I noticed, besides the heartbreaking reality of the first twenty minutes, was that, as opposed to the other two Bollywood films that I have watched, the song and dance numbers were not prominent, or even that good. I didn’t find any of the songs catchy, memorable, or meaningful, and often the songs were repeated several times, making them, overall less entertaining. I also noticed that the drama that I usually find rather off-putting in Indian films wasn’t as obvious. Or perhaps it was just that it was more necessary and justified in a film like Gadar and fit with the tone of the movie. I did, however, disapprove of the sense of time within the movie, past present and future was sometimes hard to discern, just as the passing of time was difficult to track. I also noticed the transitions between scenes were sometimes abrupt and uncomfortable within the movie.

As far as discussing the more in-depth review of Gadar, I agree with the reviewer on several points. I strongly agree with his observation that, despite the overall underlying message that Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs aren’t all that different and that they should live in peace instead of violence, the film had prominent biases and even untruths about Islam. The film portrays Muslims as the ‘villains’ in the film. Sakina’s dad, representative of the Muslim population, is portrayed as abusive, uncaring about his daughter’s happiness, politically driven, and greedy. The part I dislike most is when Tara has agreed to convert to Islam to stay with Sakina. The father wants to make sure he is ‘worthy’ and uses the opportunity to insert some nationalistic views into his conversion. He asks Tara to say “Hail Pakistan” and “India be cursed.” This implies that it is part of Islamic belief to hate India. Although my observation perhaps misses the point of this plot device (and overlooks the fact that it illustrates tension between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs in India and Pakistan specifically), I still think that if someone with no knowledge of the religion were to watch, they would come away with a false impression of Islam, and certainly a much more positive idea of India than Pakistan. It is, if nothing else, very praising toward India, especially when Tara says something along the lines of, ‘India has forgiven Pakistan, but Pakistan hasn't forgiven India.'

The reviewer’s claim that the humor is inappropriate and inane in a movie like this was legitimate also. I think the slap-stick type humor is a little out of place within the tone, but I think the director probably thought it showed the stark contrast of India, and people’s attitudes and lives, before the partition and after. I don't, however, think that this kind of humor does its intended job, rather, I agree that it cheapens the movie.

Lastly, the biggest problem the reviewer had with the film, its lack of realistic violence in the last half of the film, didn’t bother my in the slightest. Those kinds of fighting scenes, where one guy kills like hundreds of other men and doesn’t even get hurt, is unrealistic, but that is what I have grown to expect from Bollywood films, so I didn't think the use of it was out of place. I would agree though, and this might just be because of my American perspective, that this film could move from merely ‘good’ to ‘brilliant’ if it dropped the use of unrealistic fighting, and of course, if it was shortened.

I was surprised that the motif of the ‘trains of death’ (as they were called in the article) and the insane brother haven't really been mentioned. Trains (and really traveling in general) were bad luck in this movie. I think that connection goes back to the fact that the partition was the biggest human migration in known history, and obviously transportation like trains were used a lot. The trains in the movie were usually death traps. The first train the audience sees in the movie didn’t have a single survivor. The second one was the sight at which a mob separated Sakina from her family. The third train in the movie was where the family hid to try to get out of Pakistan unsuccessfully, which has a scene ending in Sakina getting shot and almost dying. The train used in this way is a symbol harking back to the original use of trains during the partition. The main character himself was a truck driver, a symbol of transportation itself that I thought was very significant. Secondly, the mad brother, who had some sort of amnesia where he forgot that India was partitioned, was, not only sometimes a source of humor, but also ironically represented the unlikely voice of reason. He shouts Indian anthems and pride at the most inconvenient time, and his family is not only embarrassed, but ashamed of him. When his friends try to tell him that India has been partitioned, he calls them, ‘mad.’ This, I thought, was not only ironic, but poetic, and an appropriate side-plot. It may be commenting on the brief madness of the Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs during the partition, and even after, for hating their fellow Indian brother and sisters based on their religious affiliation.

Gadar Review Response

Gadar, indeed, seemed to be two movies in one. Additionally, these two movies are interspersed throughout each other in a way that could be confusing to audiences. The extremely graphic introduction does an adequate job of hooking the viewer, but the lack of any signals to aware the audience of the passage of time results in much confusion. It was not until much later in the movie that I was even aware the flashback was referencing the same characters, and that it was a flashback at all.

The two movies, in my opinion, break down into pre-partition & partition (History) and post-partition (Fiction). Each aspect provides an insight into the social situations during those periods. The only thing I'd like to note as a key difference between these two sections of the movie is the difference in the action scenes. As noted, the introductory scenes are very realistic (perhaps to cause more emotional response from viewers) and the latter scenes are very unrealistic and 'cartoony' at some moments. These unrealistic moments, in my opinion, suggest the underlying power that individuals can invoke in the name of love. Additionally, this lack of realism is an accompaniment of the fictional aspect of the second movie. One thing that stood out, though, was that Tara could impose his invincibility onto other objects (Trains, trucks, etc) and force other vehicles to unrealistically and hilariously explode upwards.

During the second half of the film, there's a man living in Pakistan that continues to hail India and the flag, despite his friends informing him otherwise. I believe this man represents those that are happy to be independent from British rule and are confused/unaware why there is a partition at all. I would like to agree that this movie painted the Muslims during post-partition negatively. It seemed as if all key Muslim characters were power-hungry, manipulators who lacked the ability to forgive and forget.

I did not find the film to be too long and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Comment on Gadar Review

In my opinion, Gadar should be looked at from two different perspectives. Firstly, it is a period film that depicts the atrocities experienced during the partition in 1947. Secondly, it is a love story. I think it is easier to critique the film when broken down into these two subsets. As a period film, Gadar does an incredible job of portraying the horrors people on both sides of the border had to go through. One of the most striking images throughout the movie, as the reviewer noted, is the one of trains full of corpses pulling into the station. It's almost as if Anil Sharma telling his audience “Yes, this actually happened.” The chaos that broke loose with the partition is captured perfectly in Gadar. Additionally, the flashback scene shows us how harmonious the past before partition was. Visually, Gadar shows us, without any sugarcoating, the tragedy that was the partition of India.
In comparison, I think that the love story aspect of Gadar was lacking in some ways. Even though it is an inspiring story about an unlikely pair making it against all odds, I felt it was somewhat unoriginal. The formula of “boy and girl fall in love and have to overcome an obstacle (parents, status, religion etc)” is all too overdone in Bollywood. My criticism is only about the overall direction that the love story headed in. I still enjoyed the details within the love story itself. One part I really enjoyed is when Sakina is getting chased in the railway station and she hides behind Tara. When the mob condemns Tara for protecting a Muslim, he paints his blood on her forehead, signifying that she was now his wife. Then he says “Now she is Sikh”. When we find out later on in the flashback that Tara knew Sakina prior to that incident, this act shows us not only the love that Tara had for Sakina, but also the ends to which he would go to protect her.
I found that Gadar was similar to Amar Akbar Anthony in one way. That is, it makes its point but does so underneath a masala film exterior. Granted, the point about atrocities experienced by people because of the partition is made quite clear, contrary to Amar Akbar Anthony's more implicit message. Still, this movie incorporates masala elements to a movie about much more, so as to stir more interest from the Indian movie- going population. For example, the reviewer notes that some of the fight scenes seem rather unrealistic, and that Sunny Deol seems to sometimes exhibit superhuman strength against his enemies. Also mentioned was the silly slapstick humor that seemes to confuse the direction of the movie. However, this would not faze any regular Indian movie- goer. Masala films, draw almost directly from what the people want to see. So if observed from within the context of the audience that this movie is being catered to, these elements do not take away from the movie. In fact, without these elements I am willing to bet this movie would not have made for a Bollywood blockbuster.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gadar Review

Gadar starts with a shot of an empty and broad road. It is 1947, and a bond has been signed that divides India into India and Pakistan. The road seems to symbolize an uncertain, but not necessarily limited future. Perhaps the countries and their people have similar paths ahead, and share the same road all together.

The rest of the first two reels of the film are very intense and full of brutal violence. There is a scene in Pakistan of Muslims attacking Hindis on a train with machetes. It evokes the same feelings as a film like Schindler's List or Hotel Rawanda. Its realism makes you quiver, even if you didn't know these events actually happened. When the train, full of bloody dead bodies, pulls into the station in India, it is a very sad and intense moment. This is very effective filmmaking.

Next, we meet Sakina's family, wealthy Muslims trying to escape from a revengeful Hindi mob. While Sakina is being separated from her family, the shrieking and crying, coupled with the loud and intense music, is hard to watch. The angst and pain that was surely felt during these historic events is captured very well within these first scenes of Gadar. The first fifteen minutes are relentlessly suspenseful. After the film's title finally runs, Sakina, with her face covered in blood, pulls herself out from under the lifeless bodies at the train station. This is the first bit of relief from the devastation that has made up the film so far. From here forward, though, the film takes a decidedly different turn.

“Directed by Anil Sharma” dramatically flashes across the screen, and the film takes viewers back to a much simpler time. At first, it is a bit unclear that the film has even made this transition into the past, but before too long, you pick up on it. Tara, a Hindi, and Sakina meet at the university and this glimpse of the past takes on a light-heartedness quite different from the film's beginning. This part of the film is often visually arresting and gorgeous, such as the scene with everyone singing and spinning around on the small ferris wheel. The colorful garments and nature make for some beautiful imagery in these happy times, before the Partition of India.

The viewer is then brought back to 1947, still a time of turmoil. There are more very effective and sad scenes, such as when Tara is catching up with Sakina, and tells her “that jovial Tara who had everything” has been left with nothing. He has seen his parents murdered and cremated in front of him, and has lost his sisters. These conversations are very powerful, with intense close-up shots that really make you feel for the characters. Another scene that makes a viewer sympathize with these characters' intense pain is when Sakina finds her father's bloody watch amongst the belongings of the deceased at the train station. The film flashes back to Sakina and her family playing the piano and singing, and the shot zooms into her face. As her, her mother, father, and siblings sing the phrase “what will be will be” and her father plays with the watch, the scene is juxtaposed with her at the train station. The editing and acting really do a great job of instilling a sense of loss and devastation in the viewer. The next scene, in which Sakina tries to run and jump in front of the train, is also extremely well-edited and intense. These moments of powerful emotion that the film is able to provoke are its strong points.

Tara, a and Sakina then begin to fall in love again. In what seems like a flash, they get married and have a son. Sakina comes to find out that her family is still alive, and upon returning to visit them, they do not want her to be with her Hindi family and they attempt to keep her with them. The rest of the film finds Tara and Sakina desperately trying to reunite, by any means necessary.

I am very critical of this film, but it is because I felt like it had the potential to be a masterpiece. The beginning was brilliant, and there are great moments throughout. But I felt that there were glaring faults and contradictions that kept Gadar from reaching its true potential.

The film was too long. It included many scenes that did not contribute to the narrative and several actually detracted from it. Immediately following the opening scene, which was so full of arresting and realistic violence, Tara pulls up to the university, and finds that his friend has been sleeping in the back of the truck with the hens. In trying to explain himself, his friend begins hitting his arms up against the roof of the truck while over-the-top sound effects play. It is certainly a bit off-putting for the tone of the film to change so dramatically to this slapstick humor. Perhaps it is designed to make the viewer feel how dramatically different life was before the division. Nonetheless, the cheap humor does not fit, especially so soon after such somber scenes.

During another early scene, in which Tara is first being introduced to the viewer, he has the following conversation with a woman:

Tara asks, “Greetings. What's the matter, you are looking dull?”

“I am ill.”

“Are you all right now?”


“Get me a glass of water and take the things out of the truck.”

“Should I unload first or get you water?”

“Have you no brains? It will take you two hours to unload. Should I remain thirsty till then? Go get water first.”

“Alright, brother.”

Perhaps something is being lost in translation, but this seems a poor introduction to the film's protagonist. He comes off as rude, selfish, and lazy in this scene but this is not how he is portrayed throughout the rest of the film.

Tara and Sakina's relationship often symbolizes the commonality of all the people of India and Pakistan, regardless of religion. “Come home, oh foreigner, for your life and my life are one” is the chorus of the song that is repeated throughout the film. As characters, Tara and Sakina encapsulate this oneness pretty well. They even seem to share memories at certain parts. But as a film, the unity that Gadar wants to represent is clouded by its obvious biases. In the beginning scenes, the viewer is seeing atrocities committed against Muslims and Hindis and Sikhs. The point of putting these scenes side by side would seem to be to portray the similarities of the people's hardships. However, before showing the plight of Sakina's Muslim family, the narrator says “And even those who caused this communal violence couldn't escape from it.” The father, and the Pakistanis in general, are portrayed negatively throughout. For a film attempting to show how everyone is equal, it certainly is hard on Muslims.

My biggest criticism of the film has to be the gratuitous use of stylized violence after a perfectly realistic beginning. The fight scenes become very over-the-top. Tara can be seen, on a few occasions, launching multiple men in different directions, across rooms and into cows. There are chase scenes with cars being rammed into and exploding high into the air. Helicopters crash into trains. One particularly climactic moment, when Sakina's father is trying to get Tara to denounce his religion, is perfect for a powerful speech. Instead, Tara pulls a sink out of the ground, beats everyone with it, stabs one guy with it, and then just walks away. Such scenes belong in a worse film. Indeed, Gadar feels like a brilliant and thoughtful film, with a cheesy action film interspersed throughout. A family member of Sakina's quotes Ghandi at the end of Gadar, “Nonviolence is the greatest religion. Non-violence is the greatest religion.” This line seems out of place following such glorified bloodshed, but perhaps this juxtaposition was purposeful. Regardless, the final line would have been more effective had the silly action not been so prolonged. Gadar could be edited into a truly great film.