India, 1857. The ‘divide and rule’ policy
of the East India Company is firmly entrenched. It is a testing time for all
concerned when a new rifle, the Enfield, is introduced for use by the sepoys,
the Indian soldiers in the British army: the cartridge is coated with a mixture
of cow and pig fat. This has to be bitten before being loaded, an abhorrent
practice for both Hindus, for whom the cow is sacred, and Muslims, who regard
the pig as unclean. One soldier, Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan), challenges this
policy, but in the process he risks losing his life, his love Heera (Rani
Mukherjee) and his close (homoerotic?) friendship with a sympathetic British
officer, William Gordon (Toby Stephens).
Mehta’s account of the Sepoy Mutiny, or
‘India’s first war of independence’, which led to the collapse of ‘the Company’
and the imposition of direct British rule, is an ambitious epic with its heart
in the right place, a story grounded in truth. It is engaging but sadly fails
to move the emotions. This is largely due to a script which tries to cram in as
much critique of the period as possible: the inequity of the caste system, the
horror of suttee, the iniquitous opium trade, the evils of Empire. This leaves
little room for the various characters to develop.
That said, it is rousing entertainment with
strong performances from its beautiful leads. AR Rahman’s rustic compositions
add to the appeal of a technically well-crafted film which is a must-see for
Indophiles. Comparisons to Khan’s earlier release, the superior Oscar-nominated
‘Lagaan’ (2001), are inevitable, but this is a worthy, intelligent follow-up.