A Chat With Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens...
The birth of India’s independence is lavishly told in Ketan Mehta’s THE RISING which follows the story of the heroic Mangal Panday who inspired the rebellion that would change the country’s history. FilmExposed’s Jimmy Razor spoke to its stars Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens...
Don’t let anyone tell you being an actor is an easy job. The Rising may be set in mid-nineteenth century India with breath-taking locations and elegantly dressed stars, but co-star Toby Stephens can point out that there was also some hardship involved. ‘It was a fantastic, but brutal film to shoot,’ he says. ‘It was unbearably uncomfortable at times, wearing full British military uniform in 120 degree heat on a dusty parade ground. And I’m no great horseman - I took lessons as a kid, but on The Rising we were using film horses, which tend to be very highly strung. And there was no stunt rider, simply because there was no-one available who looked remotely like me!’
The film is the story of Mangal Panday, an Indian sepoy who went on to inspire the rebellion that eventually resulted in the end of the East India Company’s rule of the country. Bollywood über-star Aamir Khan, recently seen in Lagaan (2001) and who plays Mangal in The Rising, explains, ‘I was first sent the script three years ago. It felt like a very contemporary story. To quote from the film, The Rising is about “Freedom and the right to hold one’s head as high as the next man’s”. It questions the right of any society to step into another and start deciding what is to happen. I see this happening now, although in a different way. No-one should be ruled by someone else. Self government is key. That is what the film is about.’
In the movie, Stephens plays Gordon, a Scottish army captain who becomes close friends with Mangal. He notes that it’s unusual to see a sympathetic British character in a context like this. ‘If you see Lagaan, most of the Brits are neo-Nazis! Here the essentials for Gordon were all in the script when I first read it, but I was keen to add detail. It was important to me that Gordon isn’t just ‘Mr Nice Guy’ or a hand-wringing liberal. He’s very conflicted. He is beginning to realise that you can’t take over a country and ride rough-shod over its culture. And yet that is exactly what he does when he rescues Jwala from the suttee.’
Khan adds, ‘The character of Gordon is based on real letters from the period, written by Brits serving in India. He represents a lot of young officers who were unhappy with what was happening. ‘Lagaan was like a fairytale,’ he explains. ‘In fact it reminded me of an Asterix comic! All these motley villagers with their own characteristics, pitted against an Empire! It was universal - it could have happened anywhere in the world. The Rising is very different - it is an historical film. There are shades of grey to all the characters.’
The film breaks other cultural ground as well: ‘Amisha (Patel, playing Jwala) is wonderful in the movie,’ says Stephens. ‘But when it came to film the kiss, she was very nervous. I mean, it’s a very discreet scene, it’s just a kiss. But before we started she told me, “I’ve never kissed a man on screen before!” That’s an important part of her public persona, and she’s made hundreds of movies! But now it’s her first screen kiss, and on top of that she’s got to kiss a white guy! It’s actually a very brave thing for her. Some of the audiences watching this film may be very conservative.’
Khan is known not only as an actor in India, but as a successful producer too, although he displays a disarming modesty. ‘I only really produced Lagaan because nobody else wanted to!’ he jokes. ‘Indian cinema is taking a leap at the moment,’ adds Stephens. ‘I admire Aamir because Indian cinema can be very parochial - the domestic audience is immense - but instead he is making world class, crossover movies with broad appeal. There’s a real sense of pride in what he’s doing. In India they make thousands of films a year, while in Britain we make how many? They have such a lot to teach us. Here we’re caught between making small arthouse movies and huge blockbusters, but they make films for everybody!’
The Rising opens in cinemas on Friday August 12.