Admittedly, I don't know that much about India's fight for Independence. High school was a loooong time ago, and we didn't even have "history class" so much as general social studies, so I wonder if I even learned about India when I was younger (and if I did, I don't remember anything!). At any rate, I find it fascinating when a director can take an historical event and turn it into a riveting piece of film, and in the mean time if I can learn a little bit, that's a bonus - even if there is a great deal of creative license involved, which there most certainly always is when dealing with historical legends and folklore.
With that being said, I think what Ketan Mehta has attempted to give us is a look into the start of Indian revolt against British rule, and he has succeeded, for the most part, in balancing form and content beautifully. It is a gorgeous film, drenched in color and beauty. From it's ability to convey a sense of the time period (the costuming is fantastic as are the amazing sets) to the emotional journey and character transformation that Pandey progresses trough Mehta has triumphed, breathing splendor into every frame.
Like all the great epics, Mangal Pandey takes a huge, sweeping story and puts a human drama in the foreground. Mehta includes an interesting cross section of narrations that neither sheds a completely negative light on the British nor a completely positive one on the Indians, including a British soldier preventing a forced sati (which was so brutal I almost couldn't believe it), a local Indian making deals with British officials and profiting over the sale of smuggled opium, Indian ran brothels for British soldiers only and Indian soldiers treated as second class citizens with brutal punishments for minor slips handed out by self-important British officers. But whenever it gets too grim to watch, Mehta surprises us with a song and lets us gather our thoughts for a moment.
Credit has to go to Aamir Khan, who I think is the most prolific actor of his generation. One needs to believe in his country, in his work and in himself to have put forth so many politically charged and controversial films. Nevertheless, he plays Mangal Pandey passionately with a complete conviction that you literally feel his shame, his fury, his intensity to such a degree that you almost forget that you are watching Aamir at all. My only critique is that, despite the picture being about Mangal Pandey, it isn't his character that is given the best dialogues or situations (with the exception of an outstanding but short lived climax), but Toby Stephens instead.
Stephens, as Captain William Gordon, gives an emotionally charged performance as the British soldier conflicted with being loyal to his government and doing what's morally right. You believe right away that Gordon and Mangal are more than comrades in arms and their chemistry together is the high mark of the film's dramatic impact. Not only does Stephens match Aamir step-for-step as the kind and sensible Gordon, but you can tell he's worked hard on his character as well as his Hindi, which came off about as natural as you could expect. It certainly helps that his is probably the best written character in the film.
The film also features the effervescent Rani Mukherji and Amisha Patel in short roles as the love interests of our two main soldiers. They don't have a whole lot to do with the story except to let us see a more intimate, human side to Pandey and Gordon I suppose. There is also a handful of other small roles that are smaller pieces of the whole, but don't really stand out too much, though I must send a small shout out to the insanely busty Kirron Kher for an interesting cameo as the bordello house mother.
With A.R. Rahman helming the musical wheel and Javed Akhtar operating the lyrical pen, one would expect nothing short of mellifluous genius, but do they deliver? You bet! Right away you get a feeling for the film with Mangal Mangal as it's played through the opening sequences, with two other versions played throughout the film in a very effective storytelling technique. A dancing girl's song, a holi celebration, a tantalizing item number are among the uptempo numbers. Great stuff!!!
Overall, I am so glad to have seen this epic movie, despite it's historical inaccuracies. Plus it's the only Hindi movie that's ever gotten me hot and bothered!