Khan's performance as Mangal Pandey, an historical figure whose role in the events of 1857 is, well, exaggerated, as any search for a singular hero of an event as complex as a fight against colonial rule would be. (For those thinking: where have I heard this name before? If you've read Zadie Smith's White Teeth he figures as the esteemed ancestor of one of the characters.) The film comes out at a time in India's history at the tail end of over a decade of Hindu nationalist/fundamentalist politics, marked by a rise of the VHP and BJP in the late 80s and their rule in the 90s until the re-taking of India's government by the Congress party in 2004. At least we hope it's the tail end. Perhaps the doomsday argument might also fail to say anything about this problem. So it's an interesting time to focus a film on a Hindu hero whose religion dictates that he may not consume beef, and when the bite-off ammunition cartridges the British demand that their Indian soldiers use are found to be coated with beef fat, this becomes the catalyst for the revolution. It seems they are also coated with pig fat, thus including the Muslims in the army in the offended group, something that seems a bit far fetched, but this is how myths work. (not that the Brits didn't coat the cartridges with animal fat, I imagine they did. it's just doesn't it seem odd they'd use both animals? isn't that less cost-efficient?) The politics of the timing of this film are underlined by its release date: August 15, the date of India's independence from the British.
Others I'm sure will and have discussed the historical accuracy of Pandey's role, the over-glorification of his figure, the actuality of the Brits killing peasants for growing opium illegally (ie not for the British East India Company, who had a monopoly on opium, oh, and on everything else pretty much), the plausibility of the women in the "harem" going out and doing some dirty dancing in the village with the locals, and on and on and on. So, it's a Bollywood film. accuracy not quite its strong suit and the disclaimer at the beginning hedges its bets. The disclaimer says something like: well, some of the characters are real, others are amalgams, others are made up and the events are, well, what we decided likely must have happened, based on a general idea of the history, with some liberties taken. Okay, so that's not a direct quote. But it's the gist.
The film tries to fit in every aspect of colonial rule in India. So we have:
- white woman inadvertently touched by innocent Indian servant, who is then beaten in reprisal by ogre British officer in defense of her womanhood (see: Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire)
- selling of women in the market, witnessed by said white woman who is suitably horrified and runs away
- "nautch" girls (nautch refers to a courtly practice of maintaining a group of dancers for the entertainment of the court, so hence the quotes) who are prostitutes for the use of the white officers, supported by the East India Company. The last part is accurate, by the way: in early Company rule the rate of death from VD was so high that they started a program of keeping their own prostitutes so that they could keep them "healthy." See Veena Oldenburg's fabulous book on Lucknow for this.
- representation of untouchability as bad, a lesson our hero learns the hard way (also a theme in Lagaan)
- Hindu-Muslim amity (this is a must for contemporary bollywood film, they tend to include this somewhat too obviously)
- slimy Parsi businessman, repeating at least one ethnic stereotype that is unbelievably insulting (the Parsis figure in Mehta's film Earth as the central family, in a balanced portrayal)
- the friendly Company officer painting along the banks of the river, in an approximation of actual amateur painting from the period, nice little nod to art historians in the house
- said friendly Company officer is, of course, Scottish, as many in the officer corps were.
- and, finally, we not only have a sati (widow immolation on the pyre of her dead husband) but the subsequent saving of the woman by the heroic Brit and our hero Pandey. no, that's not enough, as then, having nowhere to go, she becomes the lover of the heroic white officer....
In addition to the traditional Hindu-Muslim amity moments, several stock-standard elements for Bollywood:
- they manage to fit in a courtroom scene, a must-have for any self-respecting Bollywood film
- they fit in a scene of Holi, the spring celebration of the upturning of societal norms, which I suppose is a nice metaphor, but it appears with no narrative couching whatsoever
- the whiteys speak easy-to-understand Hindi, which is nice for me and likely hilarious for native Hindi speakers; I will say it's better white-Hindi than in Lagaan, which was clearly painful for all involved.
The film's strengths are that it does not try to make things easy for its heroes or the audience. The tension of cultures and power between the white officer and Pandey is much like that depicted in A Passage to India [book | film], where the two protagonists realize they can never truly be friends because of their relative positions in this colonial drama. Points for the film. But the need to fit everything possible into the movie that took place during colonial rule is a bit much and distracts from the central narrative. Generally Hindi films tend to ramble a bit, but the better ones link everything together, giving you reasons for the asides, making the songs a driving part of the narrative (rather than interruptions from the chorus, as they seem to be here), and weaving complexities together so that they become one tapestry. What ties this film together is the character of Pandey, and indeed, Khan's performance is wonderful and he does anchor the film. As does the acting of Toby Stephens, who plays the Scottish officer William Gordon, with a rock solid performance. I came out of the movie thinking it would be an interesting end-of-term film after teaching a course on Indian colonial history, as it touches on everything at once and would spur good discussions. But as a film it's not the best example of the genre. Go with Lagaan or my fave, 1965's Waqt.