In 1857, the Indian subcontinent chafed under colonialism. When the British introduced a new rifle cartridge to the Sepoy troops, greased with animal fats that violated both Hindu and Muslim dietary laws, their disregard of the soldiers' objections triggered an insurgency led by infantryman Mangal Pandey. The most anticipated Bollywood film of 2005 has been gestating for four years, the first project of actor-producer Aamir Khan since he managed what no Indian movie maker had done since 1957, an Oscar nomination for Lagaan (2001). Director Ketan Mehta and writer Farrukh Dhondy used their imaginations to create characters from the scarce detail of the (often British) historical record in this ambitious epic thankfully lacking sadistic bloodshed. The official version of the "Sepoy Rebellion" (or First Indian War of Independence) is appallingly racist, to the extent of implying Mangal Pandey became a revolutionary because he was high on "bhang" (a drink distilled from marijuana), and some British reviews have been quite huffy about the revisionist history.
Aamir Khan dominates the film with his fiery title performance, but he's well matched by English actor Toby Stephens (Maggie Smith's son). MP's core is this unlikely friendship between a British officer and his subordinate, two thoughtful men struggling with their respective class/caste divisions. Itinerant musicians evoke the folk songs that preserved Mangal Pandey's story for the masses, and the best number, sung by a prostitute reflecting on the treachery of men, is strikingly intercut with Mangal's soul searching over his role in Empire.
Ostensibly a patriotic rabble-rouser, the film contains a subversive political message. The British East India Company, and its occupation of India, has a direct contemporary parallel to Halliburton et al. and the presence of the American Army in Iraq. No mainstream Hollywood film would dare draw this comparison. This time, Aamir may have to kiss his Oscar hopes good-bye.
Mangal Pandey is showing at the Galaxy Cinema in Cary.