Bollywood Releases a Musical About the Mutiny of 1857
In 1857, Indian soldiers turned on their British rulers in a mutiny that led to an unprecedented wave of violence across the country. Is it really a good subject for a musical?
"For too long, we have rusted in the service of foreign masters. All it takes is a bit of grease to remind us who we are." So declares Mangal Pandey in The Rising, an epic new film about the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857. Mangal is a sepoy , a private in the British army. New Enfield rifles have just been introduced. To use them, soldiers are required (quite literally) to bite the bullet. The paper cartridges encasing the gunpowder are heavily greased with tallow. This, the sepoys correctly suspect, contains traces of beef and pig fat. Neither Hindu nor Muslim soldiers are prepared to use the new cartridge, which they term the kartoos.
The Rising is a historical epic complete with all the Bollywood trimmings. There are spectacular battle scenes and even more spectacular song and dance sequences. (The music was composed by AR Rahman, of Bombay Dreams fame.) As the heroic sepoy, Aamir Khan leaps around with an energy reminiscent of Errol Flynn in his heyday.
Given how dark the subject matter of The Rising often is, the upbeat musical interludes occasionally seem just a little incongruous. Mehta protests at the idea that the scenes of jewellery-festooned "nautch girls" performing gaudy and elaborately choreographed setpieces look out of place amid the bloodshed. "We have song and dance for almost every incident in life," he says. He adds that the film was conceived as a ballad and that it was always his intention to marry history and folklore. Rahman's music runs the gamut from old Indian folk songs to full-blown, western-style orchestral arrangements.
This may be historical romance, but there is a strong argument that the events of 1857 have a contemporary resonance. For William Dalrymple, the parallels with today's world are self-evident: "In Delhi, where the mutiny took on a largely Muslim aspect, the words fatwa, mudjahadeen and jihad were all in play." And Mehta is surely accurate that the East India Company is an example of an unscrupulous corporation running wild. "The entire Indian continent was run by a company. This is about what happens when you allow free rein to absolute greed."
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