|A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Ketan Mehta, 2005, India/UK, 165 mins, English and Hindi
Cast: Aamir Khan, Toby Stephens, Amisha Patel, Rani Mukerji
One of the most expensive films ever made in India, The Rising is not only an enjoyable Bollywood drama made with one eye on the Western market, but also a political story with a very contemporary subtext.
The story follows the relationship of Mangal Pandey (Khan) - an Indian sepoy, or infantryman, working for the British - and his commanding officer William Gordon (Stephens). Mangal rescues the injured Gordon following a battle during the Afghan wars of the mid-nineteenth century, and the two men develop a friendship that overcomes the barriers of race and religion that exist between them. But when the East India Company introduces new cartridges for the army made using pig and cow fat it offends both its Muslim and Hindu conscripts, and Mangal rises to lead a rebellion of the sepoys. Can Gordon and Mangalís loyalties to each other survive a revolt against the British ruling elite?
The Rising is a picture of remarkable intensity: intense colour, sound, light, movement, nothing is done by halves here. The cinemascope photography is magnificent, the score rousing and lavish. Itís also an intensely seductive film - the dancing and singing sequences that one expects in Bollywood productions are surprisingly suggestive, and the atmosphere is often torridly sensual. Of course it doesnít hinder that the cast assembled here is exceptionally good looking, especially Rani Mukerji as Mangalís love interest Meera. And Toby Stephens turns in a passionate and layered performance as the essentially good but flawed Gordon.
But if anything dominates the film, it is the figure of Aamir Khan himself, playing the iconic Mangal. On the evidence of his performance in The Rising, he is as watchable and charismatic an actor as anyone working in film today. In fact so totally does he dominate the screen that any scene without him almost feels like a wasted opportunity.
Not everything is perfect. The British military officers are portrayed for the most part as broad caricatures, and the love story between Gordon and Jwala (Patel), a widow he rescues from a funeral pyre, feels underdeveloped. The transition from sombre episodes to song and dance may jar a little with some, and the film as a whole could probably be cut down by half an hour. But the sheer scale of the production, with its hundreds of extras and many exquisite locations, should win over even the most jaded audience. This is film making in the tradition of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and any cinephile will find a panoply of delights in it.
And beyond this, the political themes of the picture will not be lost on the Western viewer. At the time of the story, the East India Company have invaded the subcontinent, exploited its resources, wallowed in corruption and trained the locals to fight against their own countrymen. Is there so much difference between forcing Muslim sepoys to ingest pig fat and flushing a Koran down the toilet? The Rising offers a timely reminder of lessons that one might learn from history.