Film: The Rising – Ballad of Mangal Panday

Directed by Ketan Mehta

Proletarian writers

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Ketan Mehta’s triumphant epic focuses on events leading up to First Indian War of Independence.

Ketan Mehta’s film, The Rising – Ballad of Mangal Panday, released in India in August and on general release in England during September 2005, chronicles in semi-historical dramatic form the imagined personal history of Mangal Panday, and the events compelling him to turn from ‘exemplary’ loyal native sepoy (soldier) of the East India Company Raj (which had ruled most of India ‘from Khyber to Cape Cormorin’ for fully 100 years) to a key instigator and leader of what is know to British imperial historians as the Indian mutiny, but was characterised by Marx, and by the Indian people themselves, as the First Indian War of Independence (1857–9).

This is unmistakably a Bollywood film, with lavish set design, colour and vigour, not to mention several musical numbers, but it is also a masterpiece of cinema, even though it is not the typical format a western audience may be accustomed to. Aamir Khan plays Panday with great depth of characterisation, and even the English East India Company officials are well cast, the actors executing their roles most believably, from the Governor General (Lord Canning) to high officials (Company Auditor, Collectors etc) and high officer class (Generals, Colonels etc). The film is beautifully narrated by Om Puri (known to English audiences for his role in East Is East) and provides much historical insight into this episode in British imperial history that cannot but be of interest to all inhabitants of Britain and India alike.

Those seeking to fully understand the period would do well to read two books: The First Indian War of Independence 1857-1859, a collection of articles on India by Marx and Engels, and India Today, an exposure of the history of British imperialism in India by Rajani Palme Dutt. The latter book bears a dedication to the author’s father, “who taught me the beginnings of political understanding – to love the Indian people and all peoples struggling for freedom” . And this is the essence of the Ballad of Mangal Panday, which is a film in the mode of The Legend of Bhagat Singh, and caught the imagination of Indian audiences with its inspiring depiction of the nascent national liberation struggle.

Central to the plot is Captain William Gordon (played by Toby Stephens – previously unknown to this reviewer, but whose acting in this role is superb and who, incidentally, copes admirably with his Hindi lines!). Gordon’s life was saved by Panday four years before the mutiny while on campaign in Afghanistan, forging a friendship that is deeply held and of great value to both, “transcending consideration of rank and race”.

Captain Gordon loves India; it is his home and he has nowhere else to go. He is without the condescension and racism so obvious in the other officers and he feels more acutely the injustices meted out to the people by the company ka sirkar (government). Limited by his time and understanding, he knows only service to the company though he is disgusted by some of its practices, which test his loyalty to breaking point even as they test that of the sepoys. Love, respect and sympathy for the people are the first elements of going over to their cause. Gordon’s defence of Panday causes fellow officers to declare: “You, Sir, are not a white man”. And Gordon does indeed show some promising signs of discarding the philosophy of colonial supremacy, reminding the audience that each of us must choose our side!

To the great credit of the film, the essence of the monopoly capitalist economy of the East India Company’s rule is expounded in a matter of seconds. When Miss Emily Kent, a wealthy and beautiful aristocratic heiress, brings back a vase full of poppies after a day out riding, she causes some discomfort among the ‘gentleman’ officers by remarking on the beauty of the vast fields of poppies she had encountered. “Is it a local religious custom?” she asks. The room falls silent, before Captain Gordon answers “No, it is company land.”

Emily Kent: “But why does the company grow poppies?”

Captain Gordon: “Poppies are the source of opium. The Honourable East India Company forces the Indian peasants to grow opium. Most of it, the company buys at prices we determine. We then export the opium to China, where we force opium addiction upon the Chinese – for we have precious little else to offer in return for the tea and silks that we Europeans have become addicted to.

“Lately, the Chinese Emperor resists. He no longer wants to trade in opium, so the company decides to wage war against the Chinese to ensure their continuing addiction. And in this war, we want Indian sepoys to fight and die: the circle is complete.

“And this we call the free market!”

Thus the abuses of colonialism are laid bare, from the opium smuggling that built many a respectable city fortune (Jardine-Mattheson, now HSBC, for example), to the ‘Collector Sahib’ (high ranking ‘civil servant’ in charge of state-wide land tax collection) overseeing the burning of villages that could not pay their land dues in lean years, the selling of women into prostitution, and the racist and degrading treatment meted out to the indigenous Indian population, viewed as ‘black dogs’ to be treated with flagrant disregard and subject to the malignant whim of the British troops’ prejudice.

And yet, in all India there were scarcely 40,000 Europeans, while the East India Company relied heavily on its 300,000 native troops to carry out its abuses of their own brethren.

The severe test of the sepoys’ loyalty grows day by day, coming to a head over the question of the new Enfield muzzle-loading carbine rifle that required a cartridge (‘cartouche’) of powder to be bitten by the sepoy, before pouring its contents down the barrel. Rumours abound that the cartridges to be placed in the soldiers’ mouths are greased with the fat of pigs and cows – the former being haram (unholy, forbidden) to the Muslim soldiers, the latter holy (and therefore equally forbidden to eat) to the Hindus.

Gordon is ordered to give his personal assurance to the troops that this is not the case, and Panday’s absolute faith in Gordon causes him to sway the men in favour of acceptance, but the consequences of discovering the untruth of these assurances prove irrevocable.

If the film has a weakness, it is the overemphasis of this one question, which is depicted as sparking the first war of Indian independence. The tremendous overbearing arrogance of British colonialism is shown in its treatment of the subject peoples in relation to this issue; its total disregard for their feelings, customs and concerns, and undoubtedly this was a factor in exacerbating the inherently antagonistic relationship of exploiter and oppressed. But, if the Indian people took 100 years to demonstrate their displeasure at company rule, the reasons behind their uprising are somewhat less ethereal and more prosaic, if brutal.

On 4 September 1857, Marx commented in the New York Daily Tribune as follows concerning the attention focussing on the “outrages” committed by the Indian national liberation forces, described variously as “appalling, hideous, ineffable” by bourgeois pundits (does it not remind you of the daily one-sided propaganda concerning the ‘terrorist outrages’ committed by the Iraqi nationalists in defence of their homeland against brutal colonial US/British occupation?)

However infamous the conduct of the sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India [could a parallel again not be drawn between the strikes on the twin towers and the US longstanding abuse of the middle eastern masses?], not only during the period of the foundation of her eastern empire, but even during the last ten years of a long settled rule. To characterise that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy.

There is something in human history like retribution; and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself … the Indian revolt does not commence with the ryots [peasants, small farmers], tortured, dishonoured and stripped naked by the British, but with the sepoys, clad, fed, petted, fatted and pampered by them. [This the British had to do in order to ensure the loyalty of the native troops. Note that Lenin defined a police state as one in which the policemen were paid more than the schoolteachers; Britain long ago became such a state!]

“To find parallels to the sepoy atrocities, we need not, as some London papers pretend, fall back to the middle ages, nor even wander beyond the history of contemporary England. All we want is to study the first Chinese war [first opium war, 1839-42, which was alluded to earlier and brought about China’s descent into semi-colonial status], an event, so to say, of yesterday. The English soldiery then committed abominations for the mere fun of it; their passions being neither sanctified by religious fanaticism nor exacerbated by hatred of an overbearing and conquering race, nor provoked by the stern resistance of a heroic enemy. The violations of women, spittings of children, the roastings of whole villages, were then mere wanton sports, not recorded by mandarins, but by British officers themselves.”

The film stops short of the events of the mutiny itself, but suffice to say it was put down with customary British imperialist barbarity:

“An officer in the civil service, from Allahabad, writes: ‘We have power of life and death in our hands, and we assure you we spare not.’ Another, from the same place: ‘Not a day passes but we string up from ten to fifteen of them (non-combatants).’ One exulting officer writes: ‘Holmes is hanging them by the score, like a “brick”.’ Another, in allusion to the summary hanging of a large body of the natives: ‘Then our fun commenced.’ A third: ‘We hold court-martials on horseback, and every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.’”

Marx points out in his article ‘Investigation of tortures in India’ that the British rulers in India were far from the “mild and spotless benefactors of the Indian people as they would have the world believe” . This much was shown by the inquiries of the British Parliament itself and published in its own Blue Books. East India (Torture) (London, 1855-7) revealed torture not to be an occasional excess or outrage, but an endemic and deeply systemised method of extracting revenue from the impoverished Indian masses.

Thus the torture commission of Madras doubted “whether anything like an equal number of persons is actually subjected to violence on criminal charges, as for the fault of non-payment of revenue”. And further that “one thing which had impressed the commission even more painfully than the fact that torture exists is the difficulty of obtaining redress which confronts the injured parties” . Namely because the very officers (district tahsildars) whose duty it was to extract taxes by torture were charged with investigations of any complaints!

Lord Dalhousie wrote in September 1855 to the court directors of the company that “he has long ceased to doubt that torture in one shape or other is practised by the lower subordinates of every British province” (seeking to blame the ‘excesses’ on the Indians themselves).

But as the Madras Native Association pointed out in January 1856: “The origin of this coercion is not with the physical perpetrators of it, but descends to them from the officials immediately their superiors, which latter are again answerable for the estimated amount of the collection to their European superiors, these also being responsible on the same head to the highest authority of the government.”

The inhabitants of Canara laid their petition before the torture commission in the following words: “On the surrender of this country to the Honourable Company, they devised all sorts of plans to squeeze money from us. With this pernicious object in view, they invented rules and framed regulations, and directed their collectors and civil judges to put them in execution … the present collectors and their subordinate officials, desirous of obtaining promotion on any account whatsoever, neglect the interests and welfare of the people in general, turn a deaf ear to our grievances, and subject us to all sorts of oppressions.

“In view of such facts, dispassionate and thoughtful men may perhaps be led to ask whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects. And if the English could do these things in cold blood, is it surprising that the insurgent Hindus should be guilty, in the fury of revolt and conflict, of the crimes and cruelties alleged against them?” (All citations taken from Karl Marx, The First War of Indian Independence 1857-9)

Let us note, before closing this article, that the October 1917 revolution in Russia, led by the Bolsheviks, has changed forever the willingness of the masses to endure centuries of oppression in relative silence, and wakened a new era of struggle that cannot be undone even by the counterrevolution in that once glorious liberated territory of the working class. The Iraqi people’s fierce struggle to liberate their territory from the latest phase of US colonial occupation is vivid and living testimony to this fact.

For our part, we in the British working-class movement must learn “to love all people struggling for their freedom” and to make common cause with them, even as Captain Gordon deserts British imperialism to fight for the liberation of the Indian masses, for no nation which exploits another can itself be free!