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.

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