Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 12, 2005

The Rising

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:55 pm

posted to www.marxmail.org on August 12, 2005

As the most expensive Bollywood film ever made, “The Rising” might be expected to deliver lavish song-and-dance numbers, old fashioned melodrama and plot twists out of a Dickens novel in ample supply to those both familiar and unfamiliar with this genre. That the film also commemorates the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 in terms reminiscent of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn” sets it apart from the standard fare coming out of India’s film industry. (“The Rising” is scheduled for worldwide release on August 12th, to coincide with India’s Independence Day, which arrives this weekend.)

For those who have never seen a Bollywood film before, you might find it a jarring although pleasant experience. Imagine a John Ford western with John Wayne riding into his home town pursued by a vigilante mob. Upon dismounting he joins old friends in a production number out of Rogers and Hammerstein that celebrates small town virtues. But when the vigilante mob arrives, the singers and dancers switch gears and begin to blaze away at them with six-guns. That is basically the esthetic framework for Bollywood films, which derived their name from combining Bombay and Hollywood.

“The Rising” focuses on an historical figure, the sepoy Mangal Pandey who was hung by the British in the early stages of the revolt. (The word sepoy is Urdu for soldier.) His martyrdom only helped to deepen the anger of a population that had been suffering from one hundred years of East India Company oppression. When the sepoys and their allies rose up, polite opinion in Western Europe viewed them as savages. There were exceptions of course:

However infamous the conduct of the sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize 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.

–Karl Marx, “The Indian Revolt,” New York Daily Tribune, Sept. 4, 1857

Mangal Pandey is played by Aamir Khan, the charismatic star of the 2001 “Lagaan,” another anti-colonial but comic film that revolves around a cricket match between British soldiers and Indian villagers who never played the game before. If the villagers win, they will enjoy freedom from taxes (lagaan) for three years.

Another historical character portrayed in the film is Captain William Gordon (Toby Stephens) who is Mangal’s commanding officer and close friend. In the opening scene, we see Gordon being rescued from Afghan riflemen by Mangal, who then gives the sepoy his pistol in gratitude.

When rumors circulate that pig and cow fat is being used to grease the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles being deployed in India, the sepoys are horrified. Since they are required to bite off the end of the cartridge before loading powder into the Enfield barrel, both Hindu and Moslem religious sensitivities are assaulted: the first for the misuse of the sacred cow; the second for having to come in contact with an unclean animal. The film makes clear that the East India Company chose to use animal fat because it is cheap. Director Ketan Mehta is unstinting in his view of British greed and cruelty.

When the sepoys are assembled on the parade ground and ordered to test the new rifles, none steps forward except Mangal who has been assured by his friend Captain Gordon that the cartridges are not tainted. When he subsequently learns that he has been betrayed, he flies into a rage and becomes a central leader of a movement to make war on the British.

“The Rising” exposes the profit-making nature of British colonialism at odds with the pompous speeches about “civilization” delivered by the military brass throughout the film. Gordon is never quite comfortable among the elite officers since he is Scottish, Catholic and lower-middle class. Not much is known about the historical Gordon, except for the fact that his sympathies were with the rebels and that he might have even fought with them. Leaving aside questions of historical accuracy, the character is essential for the dramatic development of the film since he embodies the moral complexities at work in the mind of a professional soldier faced with blatant injustice. In explaining the role of Gordon as a conflicted colonial soldier, director Mehta said, “It’s not white and black. We’re dealing in multiple shades of characterisation and multiple perspectives.”

At one point, Gordon rescues a young woman condemned to sati, a Hindu funeral custom in which the widow was burned alive with a newly deceased husband and that had been outlawed by the British. She then becomes his lover. The British opposition to this practice, which they called suttee, has been analyzed by post-Marxist theorist Gayatri Spivak in “Can the Subaltern Speak” as a mechanism for the continued domination of India. The British claim that they are rescuing Indian women but are really more interested in superprofits.You find the same sort of dynamic at work in opposition to the chador in Afghanistan or the veil in Algeria during the French occupation. The film takes Gordon’s opposition to wife-burning at face value but we are still left with the feeling that British presence, despite its willingness to attack superstition, does more harm than good.

In terms reminiscent of contemporary globalization theory, “The Rising” dramatizes the way in which the East India Company’s tentacles penetrated far and wide. We learn that Indian villagers are forced to grow poppies for opium exports to China since that is the only commodity that can be exchanged for Chinese silk and tea. When some villagers begin selling poppies to a local trader in violation of an East India Company monopoly protected by British law, Mangal Pandey and his fellow sepoys are ordered to fire on them and burn down their houses.

In a key scene, Mangal and Captain Gordon are discussing the growing rift between the Indian soldiers and their British commanders. After warning Gordon that the sepoys will destroy the Company, Mangal then asks, “What is a company?” It is clear that the Indian soldier has about as much of a grasp of the operations of multinationals as many soldiers fighting on their behalf do today. Gordon explains that the Company is like a multi-headed god from the Hindu religion except that it has more than a thousand heads and operates solely on the basis of making profit.

Whether the director or screenwriter had modern day Iraq or Afghanistan in mind when they began working on this project, the similarities are striking. Historian William Dalrymple, whose next book “The Last Mughal” deals with the 1857 revolt, has pointed out that the revolt had a Muslim character in Delhi, where words like fatwa, mudjahadeen and jihad were all in play.

For a scholarly discussion of the historical role of Mangal Pandey, I strongly recommend the Chapati Mystery blog, which has begun a series of articles on the martyred sepoy. This cooperative blog “where the empire is resisted” was created in honor of the 1857 rebellion and one of the contributors can be reached at sepoy@chapatimystery.com!

At half past three on Sunday March 29th, 1857, a sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry named Mangal Pandey put on his red army coat and hat, but left his traditional dhotti on instead of the standard issue pantaloon, grabbed his musket and went out to the regiment ground shouting – “Come out, you bhainchutes [sister-fuckers], the Europeans are here. From biting these cartridges we shall become infidels. Get ready, turn out all of you.” When the sergeant-major came rushing out, Mangal Pandey took a shot at him and sent him hiding. The adjutant Lt. Baugh was informed and he rushed out on his horse with a brace of pistols in the holster. As he entered the regiment ground, Mangal Pandey shot the horse from under him. Baugh jumped off the horse and fired on Pandey who was reloading. Then he drew out his sword and rushed at Pandey who dropped his musket and drew out a talwar. They fought ferociously until Pandey seriously injured Baugh who retreated before the fatal blow could fall. At the same moment, sepoy Sheikh Pultoo grabbed Mangal Pandey and called on the Jemadar Ishwari Pandey of the guard to help bring Panday down. The Jemadar never moved an inch; Mangal Pandey wrestled himself free and wounded Pultoo as well. The men of Barrackpore stood and watched as the first struggle of the mutiny played out before them.

Full: http://www.chapatimystery.com/>

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