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.

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