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The Rising of The Rising

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Issue: 30 Section: Arts Geography: South Asia India Topics: film

August 25, 2005

The Rising of The Rising

Canadian film critics pass on Bollywood blockbuster's hard look at imperialism

by Rajiv Rawat


Scenes from The Rising.
A strange Canadian silence seems to have descended over the Bollywood film, The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, a historical epic depicting the Indian sepoy uprising against their British masters in 1857. It is the year's most anticipated Indian film, with an unprecedented number of UK and North American screenings in mainstream movie theatres. Yet it has been completely bypassed by Canadian film critics.

In the week following its August opening, neither the National Post, Globe and Mail, nor Toronto Star have reviewed the film, nor have the alternative weeklies from Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. The only article to appear relating to this movie was an Associated Press story reprinted in the Toronto Star and Montreal Gazette, which related the experiences of white tourists enlisted to play extras in the film! The movie itself was not reviewed.

While this is somewhat indicative of how the Canadian media is gravely disconnected from the cultural milieu of ethnic minorities, it is also disturbing because The Rising has a powerful anti-imperialist message, one resonant with the experience of contemporary American hubris in Iraq and the brutality and bloodshed it has entailed. The movie's depictions of what the British call the mutiny and what Indians call their first war of independence shapes the awakening of the main character and leads him from servitude to outright rebellion against his former masters and retains strong social commentary. The nature of the racist and capitalist oppression of Company Raj (India was then ruled by the East India Company) is also explored, as are the ambiguities of culture and religion in the fight for freedom.

In the UK, some British historians have pilloried the film for depicting the British East India Company in a negative light. Even the Conservative Party and right-leaning newspapers have stepped into the fray, demanding an explanation over why the UK Film Council helped fund the film. Their indignation may stem from the fact that the victors are no longer solely writing the history books, and that subaltern views are finally getting the chance to be vividly expressed in the mainstream. The sour response may also stem from the fact that the film offers a powerful rebuke to recent attempts by hawkish neo-conservative scholars and politicians to rehabilitate imperialism, a trend that has reached the highest levels with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent statements at Oxford, declaring that the British empire was "an act of enterprise, adventure, creativity", comitted to "fair play" and the "rule of law". The hue and cry over historical inaccuracies was also contested by Toby Stephens, the English lead in the film who admitted to a "shameful ignorance" about the East India Company's record in India, a record that has been whitewashed in British history.

Indeed, the issue of historical licence has been trumped up to discredit a profound examination of the nature of corporate colonial rule. Residents of Pandey's hometown of Ballia have objected to the depiction of Pandey's love for a dancing girl in keeping with socially conservative values. This minor change to the story misses the artistic purpose of the change--the comparison of prostitution of the body to the prostitution of the soul.

Criticism based on alleged historical distortions are something of a red herring; not only has cinema long been tinkering with facts to suit the exigencies of producing compelling plots, but it is made clear from the outset that the film is a ballad and not the definitive story, in keeping with the Indian oral tradition.

Yet it is the themes of Hindu-Muslim unity as well as strong social commentary on untouchability and prostitution that are likely to be fuelling the British and Indian media campaign against the film. Aamir Khan, who plays Mangal Pandey and is also one of the most respected and popular actors working in India, has made the film's anti-imperialist message abundantly clear. In recent interviews, he has drawn a direct link between the behaviour of the East India Company and the United States' colonizing actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and previously in Vietnam. (On a historical note, the East India Company's red and white striped ensign is the direct inspiration for the stars and stripes.) The film's economic critique is also pointed, with a notable opium subplot illustrating the company's corrupt practices in the name of the "Free Market." Mangal Pandey's Scottish officer friend explains in the film how the Company can be described as Ravan, Indian mythology's most notorious villain, except that instead of ten heads, the Company has a thousand all stuck together by greed. This is capped off by a song (and dance) about commodification, entitled "Takey, Takey" where everything including human beings and love itself can be bought and sold.

The film itself is technically and aesthetically brilliant, a point that can hardly be disputed by even the most hardened critics. Some of the jarring aspects stem from the layering of a historical epic on a Bollywood frame that is not usually given to contemplating serious political matters. However, even this risky blending of genres was attempted to ensure the film reached a wider audience in both the Subcontinent as well as internationally. At the very least, the film succeeds on the back of its outstanding leads, Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. While on these grounds alone it is a great movie, important messages about oppression and freedom, collaboration and resistance are what make it an instant classic, and thus a film that poses a threat to the interests of the powerful.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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