About "The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey" - Narrating the Nation?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Exposition: setting the tone

3. Orientalism
3.1 Orientalism?
3.2 White man, black dog

4. Conclusion: Narrating the Nation?


1. Introduction

The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey tells the story of the sepoy Mangal Pandey who triggers what the film calls the “first Indian War of Independence”[1] in 1857. Embedded in a story about the friendship between Mangal and William Gordon, his English superior, The Rising, I would claim, sets out to create nothing less than a myth of birth of the modern Indian nation – the mainstream Hindi film (Bollywood) is, after all, “society’s biggest and most influential mythmaker”[2].

The Rising moves beyond the themes of generational / social class / gender conflicts of Indian popular cinema that are dealt with ad nauseam, but remains true to its ‘origins’ as regards the characterisation of its protagonists. It touches on questions of imperialism, colonialism and identity as well as, on a narrower level, friendship and morale.

This paper will try to analyse the mechanisms upon which the construction of meaning within the film as well as the narrative of nation and nationalism rests – the assumed meaning being deciphered in another step –, concluding that the film moves in a space in-between nationalist ideas (and ideals) and a post-colonial struggle to de-colonise and “Indianize”[3] the history and culture of the nation by creating a unifying, i.e., inclusive and exclusive myth of the activist (Indian) individual. The portrayal of characters of Indians and English is therefore paramount. To what extent the above aim is achievable by means of popular and traditionally colourful filmmaking is a different question that can only speculated about.

2. Exposition: setting the tone.

The film’s explicit aim as shown in the introductory text is to merge “history” and “proud folklore”[4] in order to demonstrate the birth of a legend, therein working with two different sets of knowledge or discourse – history and national heritage/ culture which produce, so the above line, a legend.

The opening scene shows a picture coming to life, i.e. dissolving into a moving scene, allowing a picturesque view of the Hooghly River at Barrackpore (West Bengal). The camera then pans away from the river and to the left, showing a richly adorned elephant with a chorus consisting of five men riding it. Their song Be Praised calls the people to arise from their “slumber”[5]. Topically it moves from the awakening of nature to the awakening of personal homes and villages, from the sacred flames of religious rituals to the markets where everybody’s “value is weighed” according to class and caste[6], accompanied by a camera work that corresponds to the lyrics – a pattern that will continue throughout the film in one way or another. The song encompasses every aspect of life worth mentioning in a pre-modern society: the world as it is is whole, and the picture painted is harmonious and closed off[7]. Given that films are normally advertised months before release, the audience is likely to know what the story is about. Therefore, even before the introduction of the conflict, the recurring “awaken” is loaded with meaning, it is ambiguous from the very beginning. According to Abbas and Sathe, in the early days of Indian cinema “even mythological legends were interpreted as symbolic representations of the struggle against tyranny”[8] and patriotic songs would be cleverly introduced even into “so-called ‘propaganda’”[9] films[10]. To an audience used to such rhetorical figures, the chorus’ ‘wake-up call’ must be a clear signal[11]. Correspondingly, the song ends with the elephant riding past the East India Company’s Barrackpore prison. The date is the 7th of April, 1857. The situation in India is introduced by a voice-over in Hindi:

1857 A.D. The entire Indian subcontinent is ruled by a company. The British East India Company. The most successful business enterprise in history. The Company has its own laws, its own administration. Its own army. It controls the destiny of one fifth of humanity.[12]

The last sentence expresses the oppression of a colonised people in terms of “humanity”, thereby setting the tone for the rest of the film: The problem is not first and foremost a political one but one of human suffering and human rights, as is typically the case with birth of a nation myths as far as I can see.

During the voice-over the detailed preparations for a hanging are shown, while only a soldier’s hands of unidentifiable race are visible. Mangal himself is introduced by a method of retardation. After the long sequence of preparations, the sepoys salute, the quartermaster checks his watch, and finally a shadow moves into the picture. As the camera pans up, it focuses on a pair of black feet and harem pants, which stand in stark contrast to the uniformed soldiers, whose colour of skin has not been recognisable so far. Flanked by four sepoys, Mangal is led into the courtyard and onto the pedestal to be hung. He passes a white captain, William, without looking at him. When Mangal’s face is finally shown, he is on the pedestal and the camera catches him head-on, so that it is framed by the noose that is going to be his death. Standing there half-naked, he stoically and unflinchingly looks through the noose, the perfect image of a hero. Also, the opening and especially the camera work create the impression of (a) man against institution – Mangal’s naked feet and half-naked body contrasting with the impersonality of the soldiers’ uniforms; one man standing against the superiority of the executive of a state rather than just a company, as the East India Company had acquired many features of the early modern state, waging war, making peace, assessing taxes, minting coin, and administering justice in territories that were growing by leaps and bounds.[13]

Asked about his last wish, Mangal replies: “You cannot grant my last wish. Yet it will be fulfilled”[14]. The quartermaster wants to “get it over with”[15] but the commissioned hangman has run away, so Mangal is lead back into his cell, again not looking at William as he passes him by. William, obviously relieved, is left alone in the courtyard and is filmed from the pedestal through the noose, while a voice-over in Hindi introduces yet another aspect of the film, namely William’s personal involvement with the matter and a suggested moral entanglement: “The earth will be scorched, rivers of blood will flow. Millions will die. And I, William Gordon, feel responsible for the inevitable.”[16] As William closes his eyes in agony, the scene cross-fades into a battle scene in Afghanistan four years earlier. From this point on, the story is told backwards until it arrives back at the present date, starting in Afghanistan, where Mangal saves William’s life and, in a male bonding ritual of sorts, William gives Mangal his pistol since he has “nothing else to give”[17] him.


[1] Mehta, Ketan, The Rising [Film]. Mumbai: Yash Raj 2002, (TR, 2:20:53).

[2] Nandy, Ashis, The Popular Hindi Film: Ideology and First Principles. In: Indian International Centre Quarterly 8:1 (1981) pp. 89-96, quoted in Kazmi, Fareeduddin, How angry is the Angry Young Man ? ‘Rebellion’ in Conventional Hindi Films. In: Nandy, Ashis (ed.), The Secret Politics of Our Desires. Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema. London: Zed. pp. 93-134, quote p. 134.

[3] Boehmer, Elleke, Postcolonialism. In: Literary Theory and Criticism. An Oxford Guide. Oxford: University Press 2006. pp 340-61, quote p. 345.

[4] TR, 00:01:18: “Where history meets proud folklore, there legends are born”. At this stage a preliminary remark is necessary: The film does of course address the sepoy rebellion against the East India Company in 1857. However, many historical elements are interpreted in a way convenient for and useful to the narrative. Mangal Pandey, for example, is mentioned only once in a rather dubious source, whereas reliable historical monographs do not even mention his name. The assumption that he did not play as prominent a role in the rebellion as the film suggests, then, seems justified. He did, however, refuse to use the cartridges of the new Enfield Rifle (a fact that the film turns on its head for dramatic effect) that were greased with cow and pig fat and consequently would have defiled both Hindus and Muslims. On the history of the rebellion and its reasons cf.: Wolpert, Stanley, A New History of India. Oxford: Oxford University Press 31989, on the Enfield Rifle esp. p. 233. For reference to Mangal Pandey see: http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Indian_Mutiny, retrieved 8. April 2007; http://www.indianpost.com/viewstamp.php/Alpha/M/MANGAL%20PANDEY, retrieved 10. April 2007.

[5] TR, 00:02:50.

[6] Ibid.: “The market shakes off its slumber and stretches to life/ Landlord, trader, priest or soldier as per your worth, your value is weighed.”

[7] On continuity in Hindi film cf. Lal, Vinay, The Impossibility of the Outsider in Modern Hindi Film. In: Nandy, Ashis (ed.), The Secret Politics of Our Desires. Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema. London: Zed. pp. 228-59,p. 232.

[8] Abbas, K. A. and V. P. Sathe, Hindi Cinema. In: Ramachandran, T. M., 70 Years of Indian Cinema (1913 – 1983). Bombay: CINEMA India-International 1985. pp 355-71, quote p. 357.

[9] Ibid., p. 362.

[10] The film cites this pattern in the Holi-song: “’Mangal: Look, Holi is here in a riot of colours, painting one and all alike/ Sorrows are lost, in new ecstasies of blues, greens and reds’. ‘Heera: I am going to be coloured anew, this year the hues look richer’. ‘M: No one can stop us now, no one can hold us back, no matter what… we are ready’”. The Holi-song is utterly political but pays tribute to the tradition of introducing political matters into films by disguising them in mythological topics by an unmediated insertion of the Krishna and Radha-story (TR, 1:46:27).

[11] This meaning certainly is intended but not necessary to the narrative. As the song recurs three times throughout the film, making important shifts in emphasis but always drawing on the initial “awaken”, even if the hidden message is not understood by say, a Western audience, the song still functions to underline and support progress in the narrative.

[12] TR, 0:03:09.

[13] Dirks, Nicholas B., The Scandal of Empire. India and the Creation of Imperial Britain. Cambridge; London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2006. p. 168.

[14] TR, 0:06:02.

[15] TR, 0:05:23.

[16] TR, 0:07:30.

[17] TR, 0:11:33.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


About "The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey" - Narrating the Nation?
University of Constance  (Fachbereich Anglistik und Amerikanistik )
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About, Rising, Ballad, Mangal, Pandey, Narrating, Nation, Bollywood
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Anna Maria Rain (Author), 2007, About "The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey" - Narrating the Nation?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/93072


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