FRIDAY REVIEW

The canvas is not complete

IT IS A CINEMATIC TRIBUTE NOT A DOCU-DRAMA : Mangal Pandey  

Mangal Pandey Genre: Drama Director: Ketan Mehta Cast: Aamir Khan, Toby Stephens, Rani Mukherjee, Amisha Patel Storyline: How one man inspired a nation. Bottomline: Almost a classic, but not quite ``Braveheart."

It is sad that the fate of an Indian film is determined by public sentiment. After a four-year wait, fans did rather, even if unfairly, expect Aamir to belt the Brits, lash out against the army and beat it black and blue. Instead, this one has him befriending a white man.

Additionally burdened by the hype of being the `desi' Braveheart, ``Mangal Pandey" suffers from the consequences of making the audience believe that it is a war film. Basic facts first. It is not. The publicity, the build-up and the ultimate set-up of Mangal's dream of an Independent India did demand a powerful pay-off. Cinematically, that translates into a beautifully orchestrated battle sequence with inspiring moments of guts, courage and victory.

Instead, Ketan Mehta's ``Mangal Pandey" uses school text-book clippings of the First War of Independence and a subsequent black and white documentary reel of the freedom struggle to showcase the pay-off of Mangal's dream. Hence, the film is not really the story of the revolt of 1857, but is just a fable of what brought about the awakening, of course, with historical facts fabricated with a little fiction (screenplay: Farrukh Dhondy).

So, Mehta's film would serve as the ideal first Act for a trilogy on the struggle for independence. But independently, ``Mangal Pandey" seems incomplete, despite being a neat attempt at blending fact and fiction, history and entertainment, simply because the climax is very cerebral. Gibson's ``Braveheart" had a goose-bump inciting execution sequence for a climax and he still felt the need to follow it up with a bloody battle to show outrage. Here, Mangal's end is shown like the release of the trigger, with the filmmaker making little effort to show the damage unleashed. However, the climax set to lyrics by Javed Akhtar is awe-inspiring indeed. ``Mangal Pandey" is a classy film, with most ingredients of contemporary Bollywood entertainment. It has feel-good moments of friendship, an item number and a `mujra' to spice up the glam quotient, anti-Brit rabble-rousing rhetoric all whipped up by an astounding background score, peppy tracks by A. R. Rahman (how can any filmmaker leave them out?) and a folksy narrative. Just to remind you that concepts like Imperial State and nations ruled by one entity are still relevant, Mehta fuses the contemporary pop-elements with folk. Which is why ``Mangal Pandey" is very different in genre from Mehta's earlier work ``Sardar." The intention here is not quite to make a docu-drama, but a shameless albeit inspiring cinematic tribute to the first recorded martyr of the freedom struggle.

Mehta creates an elaborate setting during the first half of the film — the way of life in a country ruled by the East India Company, the rapport Indian soldiers shared with the Indian-born Brits (the sub-plot involving an Indian maid breast-feeding a white infant serves as an excellent metaphor for the state of affairs) and the events that led to the making of a rebel.

Aamir as Mangal Pandey does come across as the hot-headed emotional sepoy who transforms from a disciplined soldier to a rebel patriot. To his credit, he has indeed made a hero memorable. But, with his boyish voice stealing away the charm of the majestic look that cost him 18 months, Aamir could've done with a little voice modulation. Toby Stephens as Gordon does a neat job of Hindi, and turns out to be quite convincing as the man caught between loyalty to his nation and friend.

Rani Mukherjee as Heera makes the most of her extended cameo, just as Amisha does as Jwala, a `sati' rescued by Gordon.

Though a section of the audience will find the film sensual, a lot of the Indian audience is likely to find it crude and voyeuristic in itsdepiction of women.

Himman Dhamija's frames and Nitin Desai's art do bring alive the world of 1857, full points to them for making the film technically sound. ``Mangal Pandey" must be watched. Without prejudices, without a ``Lagaan" hangover, without expectations. For expectations, sometimes, could be unfair.

SUDHISH KAMATH