Monday, February 21, 2011

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.

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