Mangal Pandey - The Rising
Mangal Pandey is a wannabe epic (or should that be epic wannabe?). This story of the first martyr of our freedom struggle is quite ambitious in scope but eventually comes off looking more like a masala film wearing the cloak of a period epic.
Mangal Pandey(Aamir Khan), a sepoy in the British army, has been a close friend of General Gordon(Toby Stephens) ever since he saved the General's life in a war in Afghanistan. When the Indian sepoys refuse to bite off a piece of cartridges that have been greased with cow and pig fat, Mangal does the deed after Gordon swears(based on his superiors' words) that that was not the case. When Mangal learns that the cartridges have indeed been greased with animal fat, he organizes the sepoys to revolt against their masters.
I don't mean to be disrespectful to Mangal Pandey but his part in our freedom struggle just doesn't seem to have enough meat(pun unintended) to carry a two and a half hour movie. Seen within the framework of the entire struggle, he sowed the seeds that eventually led to our independence and so played an important role. But when zoomed in to focus only on him, the big picture fades away and his brave acts seem small in scope. So the movie magnifies ordinary events and is forced to resort to sub-plots, song, dance and even an item number to pad the running time. As a result, the film feels thin and stretched.
The friendship between Aamir and Toby is nicely portrayed. The easy camaraderie the two share inspite of their respective places in the army is very believable. Toby's character, as he struggles between his duty as a British general and his loyalty to his friend, is especially nicely shaped. Aamir's caste consciousness(seen in his attitude towards an untouchable) also is a nice surprise since film heroes are usually beyond such petty feelings.
Considering that the movie is about an important part of our fight for independence, it is strangely subdued. It seems to have all the right elements in place but never invokes in us, the zeal or fervor that is important for a patriotic film to work. I got(and still get) more goosebumps during the single scene in Roja where Arvind Swamy puts off the burning flag, than I got during the entire running time of Mangal Pandey. There are a few scenes, like the one where Aamir stands up to the cannon and the one near the end where people break through man-made barriers and charge ahead while screaming, that do the job but there should have been a lot more of such scenes for the movie to work as a whole.
The movie has enough subplots to make a masala potboiler proud. Apart from making us realize that the main story is really thin, the subplots give the film an episodic feel. There are many abrupt jumps from one scene to the next, especially in the first half. This lack of a smooth flow prevents us from getting involved in the film.
Aamir Khan, appearing on screen after a long gap, fits the role well though the intensity he conveys with his eyes and body language isn't matched by his. His long hair seems more like a gimmick though, seeing the picture of the real Mangal Pandey that is shown at the end. But equal(or maybe more) credit goes to Toby Stephens who without knowing Hindi(I think), indulges in quite a few long conversations and gets the expressions right too. Rani Mukherjee looks gorgeous in a role that reminded me of Sripriya in Vaazhve Maayam. She has the best line the movie though. Amisha Patel has even less to do than Rani.
Technically, the film is top-notch. It looks grand and is gorgeously photographed. Attention has been paid to detail and there are no obvious anachronisms in the period settings. But the vulgar item song sticks out and damages the film's stature. I'm pretty sure there were no skimpily-clad women cavorting like lesbians in the middle of the road in 1857! Rahman's songs fit the mood with the title track and Al Maddath Maula... being my personal favorites.