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History as hysteria

Popular success seems to be the only touchstone, says Saibal Chatterjee.

entertainment Updated: Aug 24, 2005 18:54 IST

It's a tried and tested ploy. When a Bollywood film is panned by the critics, one surefire way to soften the unkind blow is to claim unprecedented box office success. The paying viewer is King and critics are cretins, you see!

The producers of the spectacularly shallow Kaal employed that strategy with a fair degree of success earlier this year. So, even if you haven't come across a single moviegoer who has good things to say about the film, better believe that it is one of the biggest hits of the year.

The men behind Mangal Pandey - The Rising are doing pretty much what the makers of Kaal did. Now who do we believe: the shortchanged viewers or the jubilant producers?

When a producer delivers a film that is less than satisfactory and then seeks refuge behind the smokescreen of purported popular success, what he misses is the real point: a bad film will remain a bad film no matter how many crores of rupees it earns. Surely, commercial success and artistic merit are not mutually inclusive! The public may be right. The critics aren't wrong either.

When people associated with a film assert that their release has earned in the first week what Lagaan did at the end of its entire run, it smacks of desperation. What we risk ignoring in such a scenario is that box office performance does not necessarily turn a bad film into a good one.

Is anything really wrong with Mangal Pandey - The Rising? Well, it's a million freeways ahead of Asoka, that monstrosity that Shahrukh Khan inflicted on unsuspecting filmgoers in 2001. But that isn't saying much.

In terms of production values and technical competence, Mangal Pandey is as good as a Mumbai film can be. Even in the manner in which it blends history with folklore, director Ketan Mehta does a fine enough job. Where the film does go horribly wrong is in its reluctance to eschew conventional Bollywood set pieces.

Mangal Pandey reduces a chapter of Indian history into a hysterically kitschy mish-mash of many genres: a love story, a buddy-buddy movie, a pop patriotic yarn and a grand Aristotelian tragedy. If only Ketan Mehta had dared to resist the temptation of peppering the historical drama with a mujra, a banjara number and doses of oomph, his film would have been far better than it finally turns out.

To be fair to Mehta, he certainly isn't the first Mumbai filmmaker to goof up on this score. Hindi cinema has always suffered from a tendency to mythologize history or, worse still, turn legends into pulp. The established Bollywood narrative format, with its emphasis on predetermined formulations rather than on historical veracity, does not usually lend itself to proper and accurate recreation of the past.

India's very first feature film, Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra, started it all. The tradition continued all the way through to the country's first full-length talkie, Ardeshir Irani's Alam Ara, and well beyond till the era of Sohrab Modi, who built his career around a slew of high-pitched historical sagas. Ketan Mehta's Mangal Pandey, despite its surface gloss and technical finesse, is no more than an extension of that stream of filmmaking.

First Published: Aug 24, 2005 18:45 IST