The movie provides a good opportunity for an exercise in deconstruction - here are 5 things that I found extremely interesting. (oh – don’t read this if you don’t want to hear bits of the story! :))
- the courtesans story: it was one of those boring certainties in life. Some stereotypes will never change. the main courtesan has to be a bosomy woman wearing a low cut bodice. She has to try to look “easternly exotic” – you look at her role, and its so obvious that shes the embodied fantasy of the westerner. The point of view is unmistakable.
Anyway, the courtesans role starts at a slave market, where she is eventually bought and brought to a brothel. A white man and woman watch the proceedings, the woman is (poor delicate darling) shocked and sickened by what she sees, so she shudders and turns away, doing precisely nothing to help her fellow being. Another stereotype successfully reinforced : women will be sensitive, be moved by the horrors around them, and run home to weep and carry on with their daily routine. Theres no question of reacting and asserting themselves.
As for the courtesan, she carefully lives up to her stereotype: she is a rebellious independent spirit at the slave market who suddenly and bewilderingly undergoes a radical personality change – to the extent that she willingly takes on the lead role in dancing before and sleeping with the clients of the brothel. Another lesson quietly reinforced: accept your fate. Especially if its decided by the men around you.
- sathi: theres a tall, fair and pukka sahib character, who despite being british, doesn’t like the east India companys politics and is properly pro- the underdogs. Of course there has to be a scene where he has to rescue a woman whos been asked to sit on the funeral pyre with her husband! What was so boring about it was that the woman was (predictably?) a wilting slender damsel in distress, good looking by current bollywood norms. (no prizes for guessing that the hero gradually comes to fall in love with her) I suppose it would have been taxing the hero too much, and emphasising the concept too strongly to show a fat ordinary looking woman being rescued - but how id cheer to see it! It was also hilarious to note that the hero was to be praised for living in constant danger and braving the blood thirsty villagers because he was harbouring a sathi widow in his house, but that she could all the same run out and join the community naach during holi!
- the appearance factor in the whole movie was so strikingly inane. Good looking damsels in distress. The british head who was callous and wanted to kill the Indian sepoys had stick-out teeth and a walrus moustache, while the pukka sahib was a fair, pale galahad. Mangal pandey as the main character was a bulging biceps guy while none of the other soldiers looked quite as muscular. The main courtesan was heavily made up and wearing tons of jewellery even when her colleagues were simply dressed. The list continues….
- caste politics: I really didn’t expect to see this botched up so badly. I mean the movie hinges on the caste politics which reject the use of animal fat in the weaponry as being adharmic. Mangal our man bites the cartridge and is then overcome with shame when the sepoys discover that animal fat has been used. He sits alone, fuming and stops another sepoy from touching saying that he, mangal, has become untouchable. The sepoys in a dramatic display of open mindedness take the stance of “what the hell buddy, we all did it too, so its cool right?”. EH?! We are talking a time when casteism was at its peak, thanks very much.
- the last scene was the most interesting one in the whole movie. Other than heralding the end of 2 hours of undiluted rubbish, it also made (probably unintentionally) a scathing comment on Indian team spirit and hero worship. Mangal pandey tries to rally the regiment to fight the british, but they all back out. Abandoned by his comrades, mangal doesn’t give up – he kills how many ever brit soliders he can and then is captured. You would think the regiment would be done with mangal after that ditching. But no. they turn out in full force, tears in their eyes that he is about to be hung. They stand around, pushing for a closer view as the man is led to the noose. Mangal pandey has no attention to spare for them. He smiles at the only honourable friend he has had – the pukka sahib. And he dies. And then suddenly from nowhere, his regiment buddies find the courage and spirit to push past the barriers and start rioting. If the mutts had managed that around 3 seconds earlier, they may have even sprung the man and saved his life. but no. they let him die and then weep and make him a martyr.
It was a superbly stinking commentary on our social politics, and about the only intelligent part of the whole story.
The movie was a complete disappointment. Short of the cast turning to the camera and saying “do I look nice?” the movie was totally self conscious that it had to be a hit. It was so contrived and incredibly absurd at times. I also found it insulting that the makers of the movie thought we, the audience, are so stupid that some 2 corny feel good scenes would make us swallow unlimited trash, and stir up patriotic fervour. Do we seem that dumb and gullible?
Its going to be a long, long time before I can muster the enthu to go see a movie again!