Sunday, July 02, 2006

Mangal

On naachgaana.com, a member wrote the following about Mangal Pandey: "And if u have something to say about the man, why're you adding fake characters and situations? And from what I saw in the film, Mangal Pandey was most certainly not a freedom fighter. He was fighting for his own personal agenda ( Bhramins being made to chew meat). Desh bhakti kahan se aaya idhar? Histrorians say that Mangal Pandey was himself clueless about the concept of freedom struggle. Okay, so he rebelled and shot at two British soldiers, so?"


Now I really liked this film, and the below is more by way of a response than a full-fledged review:


That might or might not be a fair reading of Mangal Pandey the man, but I think that is an unfair reading of Mangal Pandey the FILM. The subtitle of the film is "The Ballad of Mangal Pandey", which provides in my opinion a significant clue. That is, Farrukh Dhondy and Ketan Mehta aren't purporting to give us a naturalistic account of what Mangal Pandey was really like, but instead they sought to weave the various elements of fact surrounding the figure of Mangal Pandey into a new myth. And I found the way they managed to take all the colonial accounts of Mangal Pandey's actions and trial (his firing the "first shots" of the uprising, the cartridges greased with fat, the fondness for bhang, the attempted suicide, and the silence at trial) and subvert or at least invert their significance, resulting in a Mangal Pandey about whom all of those things are equally true (the film shows him doing all of these things), but with an entirely different meaning.


Along the way, Dhondy-Mehta also have a great representation, by way of the friendship between Toby and Aamir, of the (sordidly?) fraught nature of colonialism.  The high points of this representation are of course two: the wrestling contest between the two friends; and the moment where Aamir glowers at Toby outside the latter's house, both men aware that the widow played by Amisha Patel is inside, and sexually available to the white man -- which powerfully makes the point that the friendship, while utterly genuine, was never and could never be a friendship between equals...

Certainly, if the film had been more about desh bhakti (a la Manoj Kumar's Kranti) I believe it would have stood a better chance of working at the box-office. But in the final analysis the film strives for universal resonance, hitting on themes that everyone presumably can relate to: humiliation, subjection, the desire to feel oneself free. One reason why, unlike Kranti, Mangal Pandey never ever feels jingoistic or xenophobic.

Finally, I don't see why the desire to avoid ritual pollution (the Brahmin angle) should be slighted. I mean on the one hand you criticize the film for not being historically accurate, but on the other hand the Muslim and caste Hindu fear of being polluted is one of the most well-documented phenomena about the 1857 uprising, and the film incorporates that (I would argue that one couldn't make a film about 1857 and not account for that). This fear and anxiety might seem irrational and even regressive to our modern/enlightened selves, but if we don't acknowledge its power and try and appreciate it we will miss what animated many of the "mutineers". And even today, I don't consider the fear a trivial matter: the loss of that which one holds most dear, here one's standing in a sacred order of things, in fact mirroring the way in which "traditional" India was dying and/or being transformed under the impact of the "new" (in the guise of colonialism), and the fear that one will end up being remade in the image of someone else, I consider these to be themes that have a wider resonance than just among finicky Brahmins or hyper Muslims, even if the particular context that serves as a vehicle for expressing these ideas and anxieties is very much local. . .

4 comments:

NRI (NotReallyIndian) said...

Finally, I don't see why the desire to avoid ritual pollution (the Brahmin angle) should be slighted.

Obviously hindus feel the same today as McDonalds found to their cost when selling vegetarian fries cooked in beef lard!

You fail to mention that muslims are equally finicky about ritual purity with regards to porcine foodstuff. In fact the insulin our NHS supplies is labelled quite clearly whether it is of bovine or porcine origin.

Qalandar said...

Re: "...You fail to mention that muslims are equally finicky about ritual purity with regards to porcine foodstuff."

Actually I DID so mention; check out the following excerpt from the post: "I mean on the one hand you criticize the film for not being historically accurate, but on the other hand the Muslim and caste Hindu fear of being polluted is one of the most well-documented phenomena about the 1857 uprising..."

The reason it was referred to as "the Brahmin angle" in the first line of the relevant paragraph was because that's the term the person I was responding to (at the naachgaana.com link) had used.

lalsub said...

This is my second response at your site.The first was on 21st Aug,a comment on your best Bollywood films of 2005 piece.Well,all I want to say is I discovered Naachgaana a few months back,and have been perusing it regularly.I absolutely loved the film Mangal Pandey despite its limitations and so I decided to respond to a fellow MP[and Aamir Khan ]fan.You have rightly said that the film strives for universal resonance.

Qalandar said...

Thanks lalsub, I've posted your first comment on NG...