The Rising is a Bollywood movie – with a vibrant palette and a song on the lips – unless it is a historical epic with a vibrant palette and a scowl on the lips. Oscillating between scenes of village life, romantic intrigue, communal harmony and British racism, oppression, exploitation, it sets the viewer up perfectly for the inevitable Uprising that follows.
There are set pieces of “history” that are told through captions and explained in a voice-over by Om Puri. The British East India Company was corrupt; it fixed the system and called it “Free Market”; it destroyed lives and villages; it considered the Indians supersititious fools; the Company was white and the Indians were black [dogs]. Don’t look here for any nuance. Amidst the history lives Bollywood. Songs break out with marked frequency – silver ghongroos and all. The film manages to show us a traditional mujra; a rajasthani/gypsy drum-beat; the inevitable and unescapable Holi number; a qawwali; an a-capella barbershop quartet – all in the service of showing the diversity and harmony of India. The English get a loony looking masked ball/halloween party.
Historical dramas are notoriously hard to pull off – not least because the cost of getting the period details right is prohibitive. Add to that the ire of history buffs and “aggrieved” parties, and it becomes a uninviting challenge for anyone. But. Like I said, The Rising isn’t really a historical drama – even though it wants to tell the history of the Mangal Pandey – it is romanticized history designed to have a universal market. It is a crowd-pleaser that has its anti-imperialism raw and upfront. Sadly, the anti-imperialism doesn’t go beyond platitudes and simplistic statements. Take, for example, the issue of exploitation. The narrator tells us that EIC is forcing Indian farmers to grow opium, buying the opium at fixed rates and shipping it to China. There are two elements of this story thread that are noteworthy. First, is that the Indian collaborator, a Parsi businessman, is shown to be profiting along with the English. At that point, the audience has a hint of what made EIC rule possible. However, the black-and-white [no pun intended] history of The Rising cannot sustain an Indian of dubious morality, so the Parsi redeems himself by showing Mangal Pandey the truth behind the cartridges. That was it. There are no other Indians who even remotely appear compromised. Second, is that while opium becomes a “bad thing” within the anti-imperial discourse in the movie…it sure gets consumed a lot by everyone involved. Mangal Pandey has numerous shots of downing jugs of bhang. Grandmas to newborns all have a taste for the poppy.
Am I coming off negatively? Cause I loved the movie. I did. But, then, I am not in the habit of going to the multiplex to get my history lessons. The acting, cinematography, visual design are all impeccable. Aamir Khan carries a mustache like Burt Reynolds can only dream of and his glower can only be matched by Denzel Washington. In fact, these two, Khan and Washington, need to make a movie together. Toby Stephens does a good job with Hindi and with the script. Rani Mukerji’s bosom should get its own billing.
The Rising is a good set-piece to follow Lagaan. It has some powerful moments [Mangal's wedding, Mangal's biting of the cartridge]. It has a song and a dance geared for the international audience. It wants to show us the “exotic” India just as much as it wants to proclaim that the Indians are like anyone else [snakecharmers and firebreathers notwithstanding]. There is a healthy dose of nationalism as well of populism and communal harmony. What’s not to like? At some point, us historians will have to chuck the books and start writing screenplays and novels. Why let the Farrukh Dhondys and the Dan Browns enjoy all the fruits of our labor?
ps. yes, I am not going to nitpick the history presented in the movie. There is no point in that. Incidentally, if you want to see a fantastic “fictional” movie about 1857, try Shyam Benegal’s Junoon.