Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Fall of the Rising

Mangal Pandey, ‘The Rising’- Ketan Mehta’s tribute to the great martyr who was responsible for lighting the first spark that led to the long and glorious Indian Freedom struggle, made me look back at the chapters of an old history book with a little less disdain than before (which was 12 years ago, before a test), even if it was to strictly fact-checking purposes, which the movie seemed to merit among a lot of other things.
Based on the Sepoy mutiny of 1857, which was sparked by Mangal Pande who refused to use rifles rumored to be greased with the cow and pig fat for fear of being deemed an outcast, ‘The Rising’, although potent in its subject matter and star power (which remains grossly untapped till the end of the movie), unfortunately fails to impress on the whole.

Before I rant on, a little bit of background of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 – Often referred to by historians as the first war of Indian Independence was instrumental in ending the rule of the East India Company. The ‘Sepoy’s’ as they were called who were high cast Hindus, recruited by the British Colonial forces to help them make more conquests. Since the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the company had exercised its sovereignty over India. Although since then there were isolated incidents of unrest among the people, but nothing was pronounced clearly enough until ‘The Sepoy Mutiny’ as the British called it, in 1857, by the Hindu and Muslim sepoys in the army who protested against what they considered an obvious effrontery to their religious belief’s, for being asked by the British to use rifles greased with animal fat, which both religious communities considered unholy. After the mutiny, the British government discontinued

Now to Ketan Mehta’s version of the story, the movie starts off with a chained and bruised, gallant-knight-looking Aamir Khan marching to meet a death sentence by the British, when the hangman runs away, unwilling to hang the revered leader.
The movie slips into flashback after that, Mehta does a mediocre job of developing the story leading to the
Rebellion staged by Mangal Pandey, since he chooses to richly lace it with incidents of little or no historical relevance, a lip-twitching, bosom heaving, song sequence by a gaudily attired Rani Mukherjee in a brothel, cheesy and avoidable, not to mention completely forced ‘tenderness’ between the British Officer and Amisha Patel,the damsel-permanently and unnecessarily-in-distress,who is saved from the clutches of the society eager to burn her with her dead husband in keeping with the sati tradition. I mean really Mr. Mehta, William Gordon’s (the British officer in question) evident affection for Mangal Pandey, amply demonstrated when he gently runs his hand thru Mangal’s hair after rescuing him from a wicked an evil fellow officer, is enough to meet the ‘tenderness’ requirements of a Hindi movie. ( This affenctionate gesture was especially well-received by the audience!) . At very climactic moments of the story, there were script-stretching and out-of-place song sequences such as the Banjaran song with its disturbing abundance of Banjaran bosoms, and the Holi Hai song, a seemingly deliberate attempt to show allegiance to the 1970’s Bollywood school of film making. And why? A powerful film of such immense historic significance deserves to be fast paced and intense, and should induce a sentiment of awe and respect, rather than being interspersed with disappointing digressions such as the above.
That said, very successful attempts are made in the movie to depict the times and the society back then, especially in the villages, including the widely held beliefs around untouchability, the auctioning of women, slavery, the lifestyle of the British high society all of which contribute
in some measure to the development of the story and to the motivation behind the rebellion.
There is also a very colorful and authentic display of the life in Indian villages back then, the folk-song-singing group on the brightly painted elephant, the village achchut (untouchable), the rabble-rousers who gathered around for their daily chai-hookah-pani meetings where they decided the fate of the world, all of which tip the scale a little in Ketan Mehta’s favor for his story telling prowess.

Aamir Khan, of course, delivers a stellar performance, with the right power and passion expected from the portrayal of Mangal Pandey’s character as a soldier and martyr of the Indian Independence struggle. His performance is nothing short of perfect. India’s much-loved star has so gloriously evolved as an actor of such extraordinary skill and talent, that he is able to carry a mediocre execution such as this, completely on his shoulders. He has achieved unparalleled stardom strictly on the basis of his brilliant performances evident from the fact that most of his hugely successful movies are neither backed by very established directors, nor do the movies have the Yash Chopra like watch able-but-not-necessarily meaningful character to them.
Another actor worthy of much praise is Toby Stephens, who not only speaks near-perfect Hindi, but has all the right expressions as well, and certainly does not fail to impress.Another Kyra Knightly in the making?
Om Puri, as the narrator of the story, gives a very welcome,all-too-familiar, ‘Discovery of India’ type feel to the movie .Apart from these few people, performers of great talent like Rani Mukherjee, Amisha Patel and Kiron Kher (who once pledged on prime time TV to never accept a role unless its central) are all wasted, and for understandable reasons, as a story such as this, does not offer enough scope to these fine performers to demonstrate their skill, although, if the director cooked up so much in the movie anyway including the characters of all the women mentioned, he might as well have done a good job at it .

On Friday, August 12th, after the first show of the movie the audience clapped at the end of the movie. But left the theater feeling the way they would feel for an athlete who almost makes it to the finish line to win, but loses out by a few seconds. The movie had a lot going for it, Aamir Khan, a timely release, and a story never told before about a martyr worthy of worship. Makers of historic movies must understand that they are taking on more responsibility, to their audience and to history. A little more thought, a little more research and maybe a little more respect and understanding of the subject matter – and we would have had a classic, about a subject remeniscent of an inspiring victory that every Indian is proud of, and would love to be reminded of a million times over.

Friday, August 05, 2005

One Hindu-York minute??

Not that I had paid any particular attention to this blasphemy by italian designer Roberto Cavalli a year ago, which probably suggests one of two things (a) I am not a devout Hindu (b)I think fashion is fashion is fashion, and that any form of artistic expression (movies,paintings,fashion design) unless intentionally abusive/blasphemous etc, should not be forcefully revoked ;well one way or the other, I didnt really care back then.
Then I moved to New York City.Glitzy,Glamorous,Encompassing-it-all NYC.Everything goes. Everthing goes well within bounds and regulation, yet everything goes.The city that "signs off" on what qualifies as the haute couture.

Ok.So I amble into one of the new,upcoming 'hip' neighbourhoods of NYC.The Lower-East-Side. The once infamous, dingy, drugged, LES, now among the more hip, young, artsy neighbourhoods.As I settle in to Moby's TEANY for Scones and Earl Grey Tea, I watched as this tall, very well endowed young woman walked in.What do you know...our very own Shivji, the one whose almost life size picture hung in my grandmother's room till she lived, to whom my entire family bowed and worshipped lay nestled between this young lady's fabulous breasts,across her tank top, and spanned across her sexy, high butt.It was the very same picture, the blue sky behind, the serpent on his head, the half closed eyes, the raised hand...everything.

I bet this lady had never had anybody stare at her assets with as much horror and dismay as I did that day..but then..why ?

Sharma, a relegious public relations officer argues and I quote ..
"As an Italian and most likely from a Catholic background, I wonder if he would have even considered putting a saint or the image of Mother Mary on a bikini,?" Did Nirvana not have the bible on the lead singer's crotch ? But that said, I started pondering over a bigger question, while I am neither an atheist but I am not exactly very relegious either,yet I can't help wondering why I felt queasy when I saw Lord Shiva resting on the lady's butt and breasts? Is it because this reverence got inculcated in me, by seeing my parents, grandparents bow to this picture ?

On the other hand,Indian designs,fashion and fabrics, shoes are all becoming fashion statements in New York. Glory be to the Mira Nair's,Gurinder Chada's and New York's own Vikram Chatwal who appeared in 'The Vogue' for glamourising the Sikh Turban, and the relegious Sikh tattoos!!(Perks include getting to party with none other than Paris Slutty Hilton !!!)

Guess religion just showed up in the couture along with everything else ! I think the reason lies in the fact that the Gods of few other religions are done up as ornately as the Hindu Gods.The jewellery,the clothes,the colors might be mundane and every-day for us,but for designers here it seems to be a great blend color and design. Its glamorous, its hip, urban and bohemian.Probably the reason why an upscale garments store in SoHo,NYC, with all French women as the Sales people, looked like the Mandir close to my home in India, replete with the picture of Shri Krishna-Radha on a raised platform and the old family pictures of an Indian household. The clothesline at this store was of the skimpy, all-skin-net variety as well, and as I have known it, Shri Krishna just didnt fit in.
[My dear freind however argued, that the store probably belonged to a Gujju whose enterprising son thought this might pass of as 'cool' especially since they chose SoHo as their location...honestly, I dont know about that!]

Should we be proud or should we be offended ? Is this intentionally derogatory ? Should religion be tied so much to respect that we cannot keep that respect to ourselves and have to stop the Roberto Covalli's from 'glamorising' the religion ahead of time, without even really intending to do so ?