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  • Mangal Pandey – a fantasy

    Posted On August 18, 2005

    By Karan Thapar

    I find it perplexing that a country with 5000 years of history doesn’t know how to handle the subject in its films. We don’t simply romanticise or exaggerate. We distort to the point of utter fantasy. Sometimes, in fact, we simply make it up. I’m afraid that’s what Aamir Khan’s Mangal Pandey has done.

    Many of you will either have seen the film or are planning to do so. So I won’t reveal the story. Instead, I want to draw your attention to ‘the real’ Mangal Pandey. A book published in June by the historian turned journalist Rudrangshu Mukherjee is my guide. Mukherjee is possibly our leading authority on the events of 1857. The title of his book sets the scene – ‘Mangal Pandey : Brave Martyr or Accidental Hero?’

    First, was Pandey the start of a planned and organised rebellion or a spontaneous act that stands on its own? Quoting from the transcript of Pandey’s court martial, Mukherjee reveals he acted under the influence of bhang and opium. As Pandey said : “I was not aware at the time of what I was doing”. To the extent he had been incited by his fellow sepoys, all of whom were agitated by the new greased cartridges they were asked to use, Pandey was disappointed not to have more support from them. In fact one of them actually tried to stop him.

    Mukherjee calls Pandey “an unexpected intrusion into history”. More importantly, after stating “we still do not know what made Mangal Pandey act the way he did”, Mukherjee adds “there is nothing in the historical records that helps to understand Mangal Pandey’s actions unless one accepts that he broke rank and discipline under the influence of bhang.”

    Nor can Pandey be credibly linked to the Mutiny that started some forty days later. Mukherjee writes that when it began, a thousand miles away in Meerut, the mutineers had no idea who Pandey was. They’d never heard of him. They did not look to Pandey for leadership. They chose Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Mughal Emperor, instead. Equally importantly, the fire that started at Meerut left Barrackpore, the scene of Pandey’s act, untouched.

    Let me quote fully from Mukherjee : “On the basis of the available evidence, it would not be an exaggeration, nor would it be unjustified, to assert that the name Mangal Pandey meant nothing to the sepoys who raised the flag of revolt in 1857.”

    The most delicious twist of fate is Mukherjee’s assertion that British historians have gifted Pandey the status of hero of 1857. They did so partly because the writing of history can mistakenly link events that happen sequentially – because something happens after an event it happens because of it – and partly because there were so many Pandeys in the army that “Pandey became a synonym for mutineer.” Either way, “the myth that surrounds the name of Mangal Pandey is a British creation. The putative first hero of Indian nationalism is a British reconstruction.”

    Two further questions can be handled with greater ease. Was Pandey inspired by some sense of patriotism? Was he fighting for independence? Mukherjee’s answer is deflating. “Mangal Pandey”, he writes, “had no notion of patriotism or even of India. For him mulk was his small village in Awadh; his watan, a small plot of land that his father and forefathers cultivated. To bestow patriotism on him is to wrench him away from his own time and context. If love for his country drove him he would not have become a sepoy in the first place.”

    The other is how should we view Pandey? Again, Mukherjee puts it succinctly. “Mangal Pandey acted alone”, he states. “He was a rebel without a rebellion.”

    Perhaps the important thing about Pandey is that we don’t know very much about him. We don’t know where he was born, who his parents were, whether he was married or how he came to be recruited. His is a name and to it is attributed a certain act. That’s all.

    And now my conclusion : either this film should not have been made, because there simply isn’t enough to tell a story leave aside flesh out a personality or if, to overcome this, fiction becomes essential the film should not have been called Mangal Pandey.

    The result is a film that’s undoubtedly entertaining and better than most Bollywood products but liable to be trashed as history or biography because it’s a monumental lie. Let’s call it a fantasy.

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