The Rising

Posted by sepoy on August 15, 2005 · 5 mins read

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 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.

update: Saul David kicks up a storm.


tilo | August 15, 2005

so you are OK with hte movie. Cool - I will go watch it. Of course you don't go to Bollywood movies to learn histroy just needed to be sure it is not as horrendous as SRK's Asoka. watched Ray's SKKhiladi this weekend - so I will just stay on course I guess.......

Quizman | August 15, 2005

Sepoy, You are too kind to Ketan Mehta. Unlike me

bin kabina | August 15, 2005

i felt that the rising was burdened with too many characters and pointless hurts to see when such a spectacular effort (Amir's wonderful acting, impeccable cinematography and technicalities) is wasted for the sake of making the film "Bollywood"...

bin kabina | August 15, 2005

yeah quizman's got it right...but then again its bollywood...i guess thats the only excuse that quite works btw quizman you forgot to mention clevage...

bin kabina | August 15, 2005

it appeared to be a crossover between Braveheart and Mela (another Amir dud)...ill give it a rest

raven | August 15, 2005

So does Mangal make it?! Do the natives win? Is there a big party on Endor in the end?

bulleyah | August 15, 2005

ok dude, bhang is NOT the same as opium bhang is cannabis. opium is not! they have very different properties!!!! i shall have more to say about the rising, shortly!

Sunaina | August 16, 2005

Whether Mangal Panday movie did justice to the histry or not but according to Aamir its doing justice to their pockets...

sepoy | August 16, 2005

bulleyah: I am sure you know your opium from your bhang, my friend, but the movie doesn't differentiate - and so, neither did I.

kabina | August 16, 2005

i could quite clearly differentiate between the two....opium was presented as being a far more dangerous and "evil" commodity than bhang.....bhangs just good clean fun...and its religiously and culturlly more acceptable (dunno that abt opium) mangal never did opium..right?

ceti | August 17, 2005

I saw the film in Montreal, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was very moving in parts, and I kept thinking about Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Manmohan Singh's recent embarrassingly toadying speech at Oxford. As for historical license, all movies have to do that in order to make a compelling plot. This requires fusing some characters together, while losing whole side stories, and weaving some important events into the narrative. Mehta did a fine job clarifying that the "record" so to speak was at the very least influenced by the authorities to isolate and slander Pandey's rebellion as merely a Bhang-induced frenzy. I've seen this with other historians who have taken British records at face value, without even questioning whether incidents were framed in a way that deflected blame from them and onto their subjects. The opium backstory was very useful for illustrating the company's policies. The firing on the villagers was reminiscent of infamous massacres like Bloody Sunday in Ireland, or the shootings in Fallujah, or even Sharpeville in South Africa that touched a wave of rebellion. The nautch girl Heera was useful in illustrating the prostitution of the body as well as the soul (great scene where she reproaches Mangal for thinking ill of her trade, while his slavery was a lot worse). I think the film needs a director's cut though. It would be a fantastic film if some cuts were made, and the voice over was removed for the international audience who have no need to translate English dialogue.

ceti | August 17, 2005

Quizman's disappointment seems more ideologically motivated than judging from his blog. I think the movie critics will also divide on this point -- the strong critique of the "free market" which the British incidentally used to justify the Irish and Indian famines, as well as their Opium wars, will probably prick right-leaning individuals, despite its historic veracity. The amity and interchangeability of Hindus and Muslims, as well as the strong social commentary on untouchability and prostitution, will also grate on chauvinists' nerves. I fear there will be an attempt to minimize the allegorical impact of this film, where it is strongest. Subhash K Jha's scathing critique which has been widely replicated seems also to have a hidden purpose, as I feel that he must have seen some other film, are at least watched it with a certain mission in mind. This review is more refreshing (despite some factual errors.)

Quizman | August 17, 2005

Ceti, I'm sorry. I think your statements represent exactly what you accuse me of - ideological motivation. Read your comments on Iraq, Ireland, the PM's Oxford speech. What has that got to do with the film? [I'm not talking about Mehta's subsequent comments to the press.] YOu indulge in cheap ad hominems. X did not like the film. Ergo, X is a rabid right-wing looney. My critique was on the film's lack of cinematic merits. The EIC was anything but an organization that believed in *the free market*. My criticism of the Rising's diatribe was not about the director's views on whatever his feelings on the free market economy is, however simiplistic and misinformed he may be - I was irked that it distracted from the main crimes of the East India Company, which was to make a parallel system of government in cahoots with Indians and then undermining existing free market structures. If anything, the East India Company was a terrible monopoly, akin to Stalinism - they controlled the means of production, drove independent businessmen out of work and transferred money from one region to another (in this case a diff country) and so on. You seem to miss that point as well. Maybe, an Economics 101 course would help. :-)

Aamir | August 17, 2005

did Mangal Panday and Bakht Khan ever were together?

ceti | August 18, 2005

The use of the rhetoric of the free market, and its connection with British Imperialism is clear, and I think the movie did a good job connecting the two. The historical merit when taken as a whole with an understanding of how movies try to weave things together, is solid as a result. Even elementary readings about the "mutiny" and the East India Company tell this tale -- Ireland and India are connected in this way, as possibly are the uprisings of 1857 and 1916. On cinematic grounds, the movie was very good -- a few edits could help, but otherwise a worthy endeavour, and definitely one of th best of the last few years. I usually can't stand most Bollywood films and even the crossover ones like Hollywood Bollywood, or Bride and Prejudice. Ugh. As for ideology, well, what do you get when you publish your views on the blog and they colour your view of a film? I am just afraid this ideological impetus is happening across the board, and detracting from the film which is not bad at all.

Quizman | August 19, 2005

Ceti, As I said, the EIC wasn't about the free market at all. India was a free market economy before the British came. After they had monopolised production, our share of the world GDP dropped from 22% to roughly 4%. A fellow blogger, Ravikiran had raised this topic before and many folks had intelligent viewpoints on it. It may be worthwhile reading the posts and the subsequent comments. I have seen many good Hindi films to like 'The Rising' on its cinematic merit (or lack of it). Let us just agree to disagree.

Cress | August 21, 2005

Hmmm... It's been bothering me this last week; so much official remembering with Independence Day, even of things no one could possibly remember themselves - like Mr Pandey, and a starring role for his moustache, but so much forgetting too. So the cinema isn't the place to watch history - but it's quite a good place to be reminded of what the current version of it is, right? But what about all the un/official forgettings? Also showing this week is the Nanavati Comission, as the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots aftermarth still rattles on - but the only place it seems to be remembered is in the press. In an ordinary way, standing in the street, you'd never know; ditto Partition (when talking about Independence Day anyway). Doesn't the co-incidence of all three of these in a week jangle other people's nerves?

sepoy | August 22, 2005

I am sure that the distributors of MP were counting on ID jingoism to inspire some boxoffice bucks. But, same is the case with Pearl Harbor, for example, that was released on the July 4th weekend. Now you are right that MP may not be history but it is a particular remembering of a particular historical episode. But the semblance of connectivity is just as imagined as these latterday rememberings. As Shahid Amin's review of Rudrangshu Mukherjee's book on MP in Outlook India points out ". It was 1857 that made Mangal Pandey, and not the other way round."

sabih | September 16, 2005

Sir I want to know the specific wording, which mangal says in the film MANGAL PANDAY before death sentence.Is it ALABAAD OR NOT? Please reply on my e mail address THANKS

Qalandar | May 21, 2007

Sabih: The words are HALLA BOL!