Bollywood cracks the epic code with "The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey," a gorgeously lensed, well-structured audience-pleaser that harks back to classic Hollywood blockbusters of the '50s and '60s. Opening-night attraction at the Locarno fest goes out worldwide through Yash Raj Films Aug. 12.

This review was revised on August 10, 2005.

Bollywood cracks the epic code with “The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey,” a gorgeously lensed, well-structured audience-pleaser that harks back to classic Hollywood blockbusters of the ’50s and ’60s. Based on the 1857 Indian Mutiny that signaled the slow decline of Blighty’s rule in the subcontinent, pic sidesteps the usual pitfalls of historical action-dramas made with Anglo-local casting for a good old-fashioned tale of heroism with a political slant. Opening-night attraction at the Locarno fest goes out worldwide through Yash Raj Films Aug. 12, and could cross over to fractionally wider biz than usual Bollywood fare.

Largely shot in English, the movie, directed by Ketan Mehta (“Mirch Masala,” “Sardar”), has none of the awkwardness in dialogue or playing that’s afflicted similar productions in the past. Dialogue falls naturally into English or Hindi as circumstances dictate and, apart from a couple of overplayed supporting roles, the Brits come over as real characters rather than colonial stereotypes.

Thanks to good perfs by leads Aamir Khan (“Lagaan”) and Toby Stephens, the personal conflict — which, in true epic style, mirrors the wider drama — is socked over at a human level that’s finally very moving.

In April 1857, Mangal Pandey (Khan), a sepoy (Indian infantryman) in the East India Co.’s army, waits to be hung for mutiny in Barrackpore jail, northern India. (The trading company, with its own troops, ruled the country for 100 years, under a mandate from the U.K.; latter took over direct rule after the uprising.) When it’s discovered that the hangman has run off in fear, Pandey’s execution is delayed, which allows for a flashback that occupies most of the picture.

Flashback starts through the eyes of William Gordon (Stephens), a young Glaswegian officer who bonded with Pandey when the latter saved his life during a guerrilla ambush in Afghanistan. Hindi-speaking Gordon has a sympathy for the locals that’s in stark contrast to most of his white colleagues.

Script intros a broad range of characters: Gordon’s racist colleague, Hewson (Ben Nealon); bigtime East India Co. employee Kent (Kenneth Cranham) and his daughter, Emily (Coral Beed); and Lockwood (Simon Chandler), an auditor sent from London to investigate company corruption.

Trigger for the mutiny is the army’s introduction of a new gunpowder cartouche that’s rumored to be greased with cow and pig fat, making it off-limits for both Hindu and Muslim sepoys. (Cartouche’s sealed end has to be bitten off so the gunpowder can be emptied into rifles.)

Other tensions are also building. Gordon rescues a young bride, Jwala (Amisha Patel), from the banned practice of suttee — a bride immolating herself with her dead husband. Meanwhile, Pandey is beaten by Hewson and his pals for defending a high-class prostitute, Heera (Rani Mukerji).

Farrukh Dhondy’s script packs a lot of characters and incidents into the first hour but without any feel of being a cut-down miniseries, thanks to Sreekar Prasad’s smooth editing and dialogue which economically sets up the basic conflicts. Various personal, romantic and political strands — the last very typical of Dhondy, a onetime commissioning editor at U.K. web Channel 4 — come to a head at the intermission.

Final hour translates all the foregoing into more action, as Pandey leads a mutiny that shakes the East India Co. to its core.

This is the classic structure of all the best historical epics, and though the film employs recognizable Bollywood trademarks, helmer Mehta’s approach is more “Western” in its rhythms, pacing and avoidance of Asian melodrama. Musical set pieces are more integrated into the action, and the focus is kept tightly on the Gordon-Pandey relationship.

Some story threads are underdeveloped (the wet nurse of Hewson’s mistress, especially), and Emily’s soppy character is wisely ditched early on. Mukerji makes the most of her feisty nautch-girl, and has a moving, dialogue-less scene near the end with Khan’s Pandey, but it’s a small role for a star of her caliber. Ditto Patel as Gordon’s lover.

It’s Khan and Stephens who drive the pic, and both are excellent. Khan brings a dignified passion to Pandey that’s matched by Stephens’ robust Scot, and both get major acting ops in the final reels.

Technical credits are aces on all levels, from Lovleen Bains’ realistically colorful costumes to Himman Dhamija’s eye-watering widescreen compositions. Musical numbers by top composer A.R. Rahman are typically rhythmic rather than melodically memorable, pushing along and commenting on the action.

The Rising: Ballad Of Mangal Pandey

India

Production

A Yash Raj Films release of a Kaleidoscope Entertainment, Inox Leisure, TFK Films presentation of a Kaleidoscope Entertainment, Maya Movies production. (International sales: Capitol Films, London.) Produced by Bobby Bedi, Deepa Sahi. Directed by Ketan Mehta. Screenplay, Farrukh Dhondy; Hindi dialogue, Ranjit Kapoor.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Himman Dhamija; editor, Sreekar Prasad; music, A.R. Rahman; lyrics, Javed Akhtar; production designer, Nitin Chandrakant Desai; costume designer, Lovleen Bains; hair and make-up, Penelope Smith, Slash Apeni Sandhu; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Robert Taylor; choreographers, Saroj Khan, Raju Khan; action co-ordinator, Abbas Ali Moghul; associate producer, Varsha Bedi. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande, opener), Aug. 3, 2005. Running time: 150 MIN. (I: 85 MIN.; II: 65 MIN.)
(English, Hindi dialogue)

With

Mangal Pandey - Aamir Khan William Gordon - Toby Stephens Heera - Rani Mukerji Jwala - Amisha Patel Emily - Coral Beed Lol Bibi - Kirron Kher Hewson - Ben Nealon Lockwood - Simon Chandler Kent - Kenneth Cranham Gen. Hearsey - Jeremy Clyde Sorabji - Sorab Adeshir Kemala - Mona Ambegaonkar
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