The film is about an influential and inspiring freedom fighter from the 1857 War of Independence, a period in the history of South Asia that is perhaps as significant as any other following, through 1947.
Starring Aamir Khan (who spent 18 months letting his hair grow for this role), Rani Mukherjee, Toby Stephens, Amisha Patel, Kiron Kher and others, featuring Om Puri as narrator, and with music by A. R. Rahman, Mangal Pandey marked Aamir Khan's return to Bollywood after a four-year hiatus. Here are some highlights:
1. The film began at Barrackpore prison where a death sentence to Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan) was about to be implemented. The jallad's failure to appear, and the other sepoys' unwillingness to give him death meant the event would be postponed. The significance of this was evident at the very end of the film, which was shocking largely due to two words I'll save for your viewing experience.
2. A flashback that lasted almost the duration of the film began with a war in Afghanistan, where Mangal -- a sepoy (British solider of Indian descent) -- saved the life of William Gordon (Toby Stephens). This initiated a friendship that was often tested but never forgotten.
3. Gordon was down-to-earth. He was the only one from his peer group who invested in understanding the people who the British East India Company ruled. He also had a very candid approach to his undertakings, which made him more believable...
...and less of a hypocrite.
Emily, played by Coral Beed, was very, very good, but seldom used.
4. An event in Calcutta was where this scene was the first glimpse of Pandey's skepticism regarding the shared values of his employers.
Another such moment was when Mangal was among the sepoys ordered to open fire against villagers who were forced to grow opium to support Britain's smuggling of opium to China, but relied on whatever little compensation they received for it.
5. How ironic was it that it was one of these who said the following?
6. One of my first teaching assignments while in graduate school was for a course titled 'The Paradox of Progress', in which we discussed futures perspectives in the light of the technology revolution and quantum theory. Now that I think about it, this would have made for an interesting anthropological spin to some of it :)
7. The scene where Pandey and Gordon wrestled was not without purpose. Loved the makeup and sets here. Aamir's voice here reminded me of him in the late 1990s (an interesting individual touch).
8. Speaking of the sets, the art direction throughout was fantastic, and the attention to detail phenomenal. For example, in this scene, we heard several crickets in the background, in addition to sounds from a party, champagne glasses colliding, horses neighing, and dialogue. Reminded me of the many instances of eating and being merry from Asterix comic books. Beautiful.
Beautiful was also the appropriate word for Emily.
9. Jwaala (Amisha Patel) was being made a 'sati' (a funeral practice in which recently-widowed women were sacrificed with their deceased husbands). She was rescued by Gordon and Pandey. Amisha was especially good here. She was cast in this film for her understanding of the sensitivity of the role, and she delivered well. I am not too fond of Ms. Patel, but I liked her here because she was, for once, at her irritating best because the role required it (or maybe vice versa).
10. Heera (Rani Mukherjee) was sold to the British as a courtesan.
Their 'club' was run by Lol Bibi (Kiron Kher), who had a limited role in the film.
Rani was fantastic throughout, but also gave us what I thought was one explicit area of improvement. She was almost cast in Lagaan, but Gracy Singh was preferred for her dancing skills. And one can very clearly see why. I'm being very picky here (there's little else to pick on), but the excellent song Main Vari Vari could have been much better choreographed had the range of the actress not have forced holding back.
See if you agree:
In every other sequence, Rani was superb. She and Aamir were very good together in Ghulam (1998), and seven years later in this film, we got to see Aamir again at his intense best. I think Rani manages to get the violent best out of him, which is not always a bad thing when placed in context :o)
10. The issue at the core of the film was the use of rifle cartridges (that were to be bit open) with cow or pig fat. Given that this was against the faith of Hindu and Muslim sepoys respectively, it united people of both groups against a common enemy.
11. One of the strongest bits of dialogue was when Mangal said this: 'Hum sab achhut hain, apne hi desh mein' (we are all untouchable in our country). The term 'untouchable' (whatever that's supposed to mean) was brought up several times, most often by this character, who also alerted Mangal to the truth behind the cartidges:
Would Mangal heed his friend's advice? Or would he be his stubborn self and revolt? Watch Mangal Pandey: The Rising to discover.
12. The cinematography and art direction were excellent. This applied to every location, from the village...
...to the camps...
...cartridge manufacturing plant (loved the role of the auditor)...
...and scribes documenting an official statement.
13. The background score was fantastic, and the music even better. Vintage A. R. Rahman, and some tracks that succeeded as hair-raising numbers. Mangal Mangal appeared a few times as a ballad, and was brilliantly sung by Kailash Kher. This was the sawaari song in the film, and appeared at different junctures with different messages. Treated independently of the film, it succeeds as a ballad split across three units.
Main Vari Vari, as noted above, was excellent (the dance forgivable).
Rasiya (watch it at this link, but don't if you haven't seen the film) is one of my favorite item numbers of all-time (I have very, very few). The song was integral to the plot. Per IMDB, the primary actress in this was Sophiya Haq. Whoever it was did a fine job. And Aamir's cameo toward the end was excellent too.
My favorite song from the film is also one of my favorite devotional songs (in the form of a qawwali) of all time: Maula. I have only ever come close to being transported to the sets enough to be reminded of the smells associated with the sights and sounds a few other times (in the recent Ashutosh Gowariker films -- Lagaan, Swades, Jodhaa Akbar).
As anyone who has been at a mosque or dargaah (shrine of a saint) would attest, the song's portrayal was absolutely realistic. It was as if one could smell the fragrance of the incense sticks. Beautiful, and the purpose served in the film -- a brainstorming session -- executed to perfection.
The Holi song, to which Aamir provided some vocals, was excellent as well, and it was toward its end that its purpose was evident (if ever Holi songs needed one -- they're great regardless!).
Overall, a fine effort by everyone involved. Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens were by far the biggest assets of the film. As an Aamir fan, I will tell you his performance in Mangal Pandey was as good as any other this decade. As Mangal, he was fantastic -- from playful to naive and loving, contemplating, and rising -- he managed to capture and portray the emotions of the character very well. In so doing, he delivered a phenomenal performance during a testing time in his life -- he went through a divorce not too long after Dil Chahta Hai (2001), which was also why we didn't get a film from him for a while.
His strongest moments were when acting angry. I cannot help but think that if he were somehow brought back to life in the twenty-first century, he would still get angry at the slightest mention of the Company. I even wonder, for instance, what he might think of Shweta's blog! ;)
Humor aside, there were elements in the film, especially the characters Heera and Jwaala (not the actresses, who were great), and the narrator (Om Puri was great, but Amitabh Bachchan in Lagaan was better), that prevented a unanimous agreement on the perfectness of the film. But these were minor complaints, because the two women did make Mangal and Gordon easier to relate to.
The film is not another Lagaan, but it never tried to be that. Given that it was a period film and based around a struggle for independence, comparisons were inevitable. That it appeared very close to Lagaan in Aamir's filmography probably hurt it. Still, it was entirely different, and the end product provided ample evidence of this. If we compared Mangal to Bhuvan (here is a post on lessons learned from the latter), we'd see some key differences validating this.
Mangal Pandey the film had its share of violent moments given the plot, but there didn't seem to be much overdone with those moments, and the film remained within its boundaries while succeeding in reminding of the significance of the rising of the late 1850s.
A well-deserved four and a half stars and then some, for a film that engages the audience, addresses a critical era of South Asian history, and delivers in an extremely well-packaged filmy product, complete with excellent dialogue and wardrobe (in addition to the areas noted above), and with fantastic music that was very well used. If you have not yet seen this, you absolutely must!
Movie rating: 4.75/5 (excellent!)
My classification: R (for violence)
Music rating: 4.5/5 (excellent!)
Official website: http://mangal-pandey.com/
Official website: http://mangalpandey.spaces.live.com/
From Aamir Khan's blog post on 16 August 2005:
On the day of our Independence, I’d like to give this message to my audience and that is, look at yourself and see what it is that you don’t like about yourself and try and change that. And if each one of us changes ourselves for the better, then that will change our country for the better and that’s what I think people should do.
This Aamir interview to TIME magazine is very interesting and gutsy.
There were calls for it to be banned (hardly a surprise, given the source of it was the same political group that would later call for bans on -- and sometimes successfully, sadly -- Rang De Basanti and Fanaa). The film started out with admission of addition of some elements to historical fact, and that should be enough for us all to treat certain portions of the film as historic fiction. Let that not take anything away from the film. In fact, I think historians and extremist politicians should be glad that a star chose to make a film on Mr. Pandey, who is often overlooked. Enough of my rant. Mangal Ho (be good).