The Rising—-Fact or Fiction?

Amit Varma, one of my favorite bloggers (and indeed of many Indians in the blogosphere) agrees with the criticism of “The Rising—the Ballad of Mangal Pandey” in the Telegraph where British historians have accused the movie of demonizing British Rule.

Despite not having seen the movie myself and basing my assessment solely on what the Telegraph and Amit says the movie contains , I shall have to disagree.

Amit quotes the Telegraph article.

The £6.5 million production, which is largely in English and which opened across Britain on Friday, accuses the [British East India] company of murdering civilians to further its interests and of flouting the Empire-wide ban on slavery.

In one scene an officer is shown bidding for a slave girl who is sent to a brothel for the exclusive use of British officers. Later, a fellow officer orders the destruction of a village and itsdefenselesss inhabitants after they refuse to set aside land for opium production.

Saul David, the author of the acclaimed The Indian Mutiny: 1857, attacked the depictions as fabrication.”I am no apologist for the British East India Company but I have never come across any evidence which supports either of these assertions,” he said. “It is nonsense. Of course a certain amount of criticism is justified but this sounds like vilification of the British just for the sake of it.”

Now let me tell you what the British did do. In Bengal (at least and I am sure they did it in other places) till 1860s, the British forced the local farmers to grow indigo instead of paddy. When they refused, the British East India Company would drag villagers to their bunglows, whip and torture them till they signed away their land and set fire to their paddy crops.Sometimes they just did it for the fun of hearing the natives squeal in pain.

The “Neel Sahebs” (the British who were Indigo cultivators) were famous for scouring the land on horseback and kidnapping women for their carnal amusement.

When villagers in Bengal talk about the ancient bunglows of the British in hushed whispers because “the screams of women still echo in the night” they are articulating the collective generational memory of so many Indian women who were raped in those places.

Now I dont know about you, Saul David but this does not seem to me to be too different from “brothels for the exclusive pleasure of Britishers” and “burning villages to force them to grow opium”.

Lest it be dubbed as a conspiracy to defame our erstwhile masters, the person who brought this to public notice was a preacher named Rev. James Long who translated Dinabandhu Mitra’s “Neel Darpan” from Bengali to English.

His motivation? The Indigo planters were too much of a negative advertisement for Christianity—a religion he was trying to get the natives to convert to.

Coming back to the main point, history is not being “manufactured” here—–it is merely being put in a different context for the sake of a movie. Which is not an unreasonable thing to do.

However historians like Saul David, who are intent on sanitizing British rule in India, want to sweep under the carpet the inevitable barbarity that is concomitant of any imperialist agenda (I am sounding like a loony left guy here) and in the process deny bare-facedly the atrocities they have committed.

Amit continues:

The film’s naive political agenda was articulated by Aamir Khan as well, in a recent interview to Time Out in which he said:

The script questions the right of any superpower to move into anothercivilizationn and control and loot it economically and socially try and change its norms. Which is also what’s happening today, that’s what America is doing all over the world. […] I felt, arre, this happened in 1857 in India, it’s happening today in Iraq and Afghanistan!

And there, in one casual sentence, he condones the barbaric regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussain. (I also find the bit about “this happened in 1857 in India” amusing, because what he shows in the film did not, as it turns out, happen.) Afghanistan is certainly better off since the Americans got there and, far from “loot[ing] it economically”, they’ve spent tonloads of money in that place, just as they have done in Iraq. Aamir’s analogies are ludicrous and ignorant.

Again, Amit, I find myself, hopefully for the last time, on the side of a Bollywood actor.

I agree with you—the Taliban was a scourge and so was Saddam. You and I both agree that democracy is the best form of government. And that the US is fighting to bring democracy and spending money to develop infra structure in a foreign country. In other words, in our eyes, the US is doing something to foster positive change. But it is not doing so from a motivation of “liberating suffering peoples ” (despite the political rhetoric) they are doing it to further their national interests. In the process, some “good” is definitely coming about. But the point to note—it is “good” according to our “modern” Western belief systems.

Likewise the British brought about many positive changes but they were motivated by their own self-interest. Western education spread because they needed English-knowing clerks. Railways were built to help British goods reach their market. Their own value system was imposed on Indians, not because the Indians wanted it but because the British (the Evangelical movement was in its ascendancy then) felt it was the white man’s burden to civilize the natives.

The Sepoy Mutiny (or the First War of Independence) was a rebellion against this imperial hubris—- “the white man knows best”.

Looking back, the political reasons behind the Mutiny seem today to be “wrong” ( the caste system, blind superstition, the reinstatement of the lame-duck Bahadur Shah Zafar). However what was “right” was that it was a rebellion against “imposed change”—-true change has to come from inside; it cannot come at the end of a gun. Only resentment is born that way.

[The initiative to ban “Sati” came from intellectuals like Raja Rammohan Roy and widow remarriage from Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, which is why these initiatives were “successful”. ]

I know this is a difficult issue to wrest with——there are no clear cut good and bad guys—–I personally support the US’s initiative and believe that the region will be stronger if democracy is established, even though it is an imposed change (which is not the ideal let me add).

However these changes are happening because the US has pre-ordained that “Afghanistan needs democracy” just like the British decided that “feeling overtly emotional about biting off a greased cartridge was silly.”

In that respect, the parallels are striking.

A source says

Their British officers, for their part, are normally scrupulous observers of these silly religious protocols. But on this day, of all days, they appear not to care—if the sepoys are to be properly civilized, they must do away with useless religious forms sooner or later. Why shouldn’t it be sooner?

From the Wiki (this I have seen in all history books about the War)

The Commander in Chief in India, General George Anson reacted to this crisis by saying, “I’ll never give in to their beastly prejudices”, and despite the pleas of his junior officers he did not compromise.

In February 1857 when 19th Bengal Native Infantry regiment came to know about new cartridges, they refused. Their Colonel confronted them angrily with artillery and cavalry on the parade ground, but then accepted their demand to withdraw the artillery and cancel next morning parade.

This is what the Telegraph critiques “the Rising” with:

The film’s version of events is rather different. Not only are the bullets issued but an officer threatens to slaughter reluctant sepoys with a cannon unless they agree to use them.

In other words, according to the Telegraph, noone confronted the sepoys with artillery and cavalry once they refused to use the cartridges. Creative with the truth here perhaps?

So here’s the final deal. From what I hear, “The Rising” has its share of historical inaccuracies—but it does not exaggerate British repression to such an extent that they should start croaking about it.

The British did a lot of good (without intending to) but if they want to pretend to have been merely benign political masters whose only legacy was Western education, the Railways and cricket—–then they are, in true English style, understating themselves.

25 thoughts on “The Rising—-Fact or Fiction?

  1. i had a similar debate at home, i even said that the brits kinda united india, with the colonisation. Now u cant say good guy or bad guy, but indian history has always been plagued by anarchy and family feuds, and what nots

    i dont measure in history, i study civil engg but damn sure dont measure in that.

    the brits did give railways, and probably if it wasnt for imperialism, we wont b united. modern imperialism, as greatbong says, is the deal in mid east, and also with china and macau, if thats not imperialism then what is.

    But IMHO, and mybe a slightly uneducated opinion, the brits and gandhi did it for the country, with their mean ways and their sober ways respectively, they both were good bad and ugly, but politically speaking they were the 2 ends of the scale.As a conjecture and almost a afterthought, i can say that they moulded india

    Lagaan was a good in depth kinda movie, where a bunch of disoriented farmers learn how to beat brits at a sport they know, it sort of symbolized our country. How disoriented communities got together and fought for the common good.
    and besides whats the fuss, history is always a fable of the winners, brit historians wrote theirs, why crib and qualm abt what is false according to u??

    If aamir has or hasnt been objective in his views along with ketan mehta, i think thats open to opinion or speculation. express yours and let it be. For brits study 1857 as a mutiny, for us it was the first spark for the fire

    i havent seen the rising, but wud love to, with all the hype and the views and counterviews. its kinda like Gangs of NY. Marti didnt win any frds and most def no oscars, but he did win a few fans like urs truly, who swear by his movies

    PS: if u dont like the comment, pls dont murder me, im just passionate abt a few things, movies, cricket and my country, even with all its troubles

  2. My point was never that the British did not unite India or that they had no positive effect on our quality of life.

    What I object to is the impression that the British were universally benign. Ergo depicting the British committing atrocities is basically perpetuating a myth.

    It is not.

    History tells us that. And this is despite the fact that the victors (the British) write history.

  3. here on joy’s recommendation, thanks joy. i saw mangal pandey first day first show, and i’m thanking myself for not reading reviews beforehand. it’s a fine film, made with a deft hand and a very tight script. the only drawbacks are a very poor score, some questionable choices regarding anachronistic costumes/music, and the possible miscasting of amisha patel. but otherwise, excellent film. technically, for the unique burden that historical period films bear (of having to create a social context within which to tell the story of its central character), quite competent. dont miss it.

  4. ur right, maybe i wasnt clear with my choice of words, their civilizing missions went too far.

    i mean they have had thier versions of the “truth” (not to b confused with X files or a few good men) for way too long, if we wana b different we wil b

    and yes we r indian and wud like our history to b shown the way we felt it…..

  5. I agree. The change has to come from within….

  6. I saw Mangal Pandey on its first show, here in New York.One way or the other, I feel as a person who was born a generation after Independence, I have no way of exercising a definitive and subjective opinion, even it were to be on the basis of books like ‘Freedom at Midnight’ or other credible books or documents of the same genre.I can only speculate on that subject with regards to what a historical movie like Mangal Pandey lends to the understanding of the British rule in India .

    I therefore feel I can lend my opinion only on what I think of the movie and here it is, hopefully for public consumption :
    Mangal Pandey -My Opinion

  7. while you break your heads over what’s fact and what’s not, take some time off to check this out:

    I must say with a very heavy heart that Aamir’s just losing it.

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  9. i watched the inteviews of aamir khan, ketan mehta and a few other people the other day, and i think i distinctly remeber aamir saying there isn’t much to go by on pandey, because of the scarcity of data. so what they had to depend on was good old orality–stories and legends about him. so nitpicking about historical accuracy is silly, because no one claims to be accurate (which, if they did, would have been sillier).

    and i shall so completely sound like a bitter biased post-colonial, but puh-leeese! genial masters my bloody left foot! universal philanthropy and a global empire aren’t exactly ideal bedfellows. it just doesn’t happen that way.

    besides, we all forget it’s a film. it’s chief aim is profit through entertainment. BEFORE ANYBODY YELLS MURDER, let me assure you that i do NOT condone the promotion of inflammatory ideas AT ALL. come on, i am not crazy! but it’s creative license to modify facts to emphasise your hero’s stand, isn’t it? look at mel gibsons gory film (i forget the name)–not only is that the truth according to gibson, it’s also done better business than i would have expected it to. say what you will to him (i personally had several things to say), but the stage managed christ did him well.

    the truth, even at a basic level of who pushed who in a crowded calcutta bus, is a highly debateable issue. a historian, of any kind of repute, would do well to remember that.

    and if you’ve actually read upto here, you’re a better person than i suspected! congratulations!

  10. er, sorry about the typos in the comment above, in case you are finicky about such things…

  11. @Deep…sure shall.

    @Bubbled…enjoyed your review on your blog.

    @mit.. right.

    @Priya —:-)

    @Rimi– True…not much is known about William Wallace and Gibson creates the entire myth in “Braveheart” based on specific incidents that happened “elsewhere”…which is exactly what I believe is the model for “the Rising”.

    And typos are fine…..but there are *certain* others who are more picky.


    Not me.

  12. Isn’t sixty years after independence high time to move on and focus on our current acheivements and relations with the English, rather than complain about what the British did to us like a hundred years ago? Cribbing about this issue is exactly as ridiculous as demolishing a mosque because there used to be a temple at that spot before 1492.

  13. Well Anon do you believe history should be forgotten? I am not saying lets go and bash up some Anglo-Indians for what the British did 60 years ago (which is the proper analogy you should have used) but it is does not mean we should forget what happened or paper it over for the sake of political correctness.

  14. So do you believe it is right to go demolish a mosque because there was a temple there in 1492? Or it is right to go kill the Jews because they killed Jesus? History should be studied, but IMO a lot more is made of “oh how we were wronged in the hands of people X” than what should be. Cribbing about this issue would acheive nothing now other than embitter our relations with England. we should know about how the British illtreated us at some point yes; but I do not see any point in using that as an excuse for perpetrating our hatred of the British, particularly now that it has been sixty years since they left us alone.

  15. @Anon….I said EXACTLY the opposite.

    We should not break down a mosque.

    We should not bash Jews.

    In other words it is counterproductive and impossible to rectify historical wrongs by “action”.

    However it is not improper to show Islamic invaders defiling Hindu temples and bringing them down…..because IT HAPPENED. However seeking revenge for that is madness.

    Have I made myself clear?

  16. I know what you are saying.

    My point is, sometimes it _is_ improper to show Islamic invaders defiling a temple and sometimes it _is_ improper to show Jews killing Jesus (at least in the way Mel Gibson does it in the Passion of the Christ). The reason is that these things breed hate and distrust, however unintentional, among the communities involved. Besides it is often the case that such movies present a rather embellished viewpoint spiced up to suit the director’s need (cf. your own post on Born in Brothels), so it is not that what is shown in the movie is _exactly_ what happened anyway.

    Let me add that all these incidents can be shown _tastefully_ so as to not offend people and I do not object to that. What I object to is showing a class of people as evil, untastefully and indiscriminately, simply because of the director’s hatred and prejudice of a particular community. When I say this, I have in mind Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ as an example. I have not seen Mangal Pandey so I cannot claim to judge yet; only time will tell whether it falls into this category of movies or not.

  17. Let me also present an example the movie “Born in Brothels”. Now the director of the movie can claim that all that they show actually happened and therefore it is ok to show all Indians as enemies of the children, and she is within her “director’s license”. However, it offends you and me as Indians, because we know that all Indians are not bad. Now if the director had been tasteful, she would have put in a sympathetic Indian character – say a fruitseller – in the movie and we would not feel as bad about the movie. This is exactly what I have been talking about.

  18. I also do not condone the brutality practised by the former regimes in Afghanisthan and Iraq. But I tend to agree with Aamir on this. Amit should not have forgotten the fact that the creators of these 2 barbaric regimes is the current saviour himself – Uncle Sam. Not to forget that the most wanted man in the world (hopefully it is Osama Bin Laden even now) received all the support from the USA till he broke away from the arrangement.

  19. @Anon, Putting a sympathetic fruit seller would have been tokenism when the entire tone of the movie is so anti-India in general.

    The difference is that BIB is a documentary and is obliged by its very characterization to present both sides of a story in a factual fashion. Hence not talking about the contributions of Indian social workers is plain disingenuity.

    However “Braveheart”, “Passion”, “Rising” are historical/mythical dramas where the aim is to show, albeit dramatically, things that happened. If the events that they are based on are provocative, then that is the way the movie will be. However making the connection that “Jews of today are to blame for the murder of Christ” is something the “Passion” does not advocate—it is a connection which ,if made, is the fault of the audience.

    Santayana said—those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Which is why the actual history should be presented-and not politically correct sanitized versions.

  20. Right on Greatbong…I don’t expect Ketan Mehta and company to make a realistic biopic, especially given the filmmakers themselves admitted very little was known about Mangal Pandey. About this Saul David character, let me just point out one thing I noticed on Amit’s blog – he wrote a book about the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’. So people like him have never even accepted that it was bigger than just a sepoy mutiny, even if all evidence points to the contrary.

    If we had more people like Manmohan Singh, the British and the whole world will continue to believe the fiction that India was a savage, uncivilised nation before the British stepped in. The problem with Amit’s post is that he’s attempting to prove his liberal credentials – nothing personal there, just this post. The British did commit countless atrocities, of which there is little doubt, so why should we take umbrage at some ‘factual inaccuracies’? Unfortunately, too many of our own people, including of course servile souls like Manmohan Singh, believe the fiction that continues to be perpetrated.

    – Nanda Kishore

  21. Nandkishore,

    I disagree with respect to Manmohan. He is the PM of the country, a guest in UK and he says that the British did a lot of good to India. It’s true to an extent (leave aside the motive of their altruism and the horrors they also brought to us) and face it, he is a “diplomat”—his job is not to ruffle feathers.

    However Ketan Mehta has no such compunction—-and he has the creative license which any artist has.He is making a movie about India’s first war for independence and is well within his creative rights to show the barbarity the British East India company unleashed. If feathers get ruffled…so be it…such things did happen you know !

    But as I said Dr Singh, as the PM of the nation, cannot afford to be so gung-ho.

  22. GREATBONG, my comments about Dr Singh were slightly (and deliberately) exaggerated, because I wanted to register my extreme disappointment at his naivete. I have respect for the man, but I don’t agree with the lenient view taken by most in this regard. Consider this – the British have never really apologised for anything they did, and make no mistake, they should. And here is our PM, going gaga over the benefits of colonisation. The benefits were incidental, though the damage was not collateral.

    Consider also some of the specifics – the civil services is one of the benefits mentioned by Dr Singh. May I ask in what way has India been benefited by this particular British gift? The same people who have a go at the ‘bureaucrats’ at every opportunity somehow nodded along in agreement. What the hell? Most importantly, it is a question of self-esteem and pride. No wonder the likes of BBC (which has never had anything positive to say about India) were suitably impressed.

    – Nanda Kishore

  23. I would agree with GreatBong on Manmohan Singh .After all he was a guest and being the PM of India had to diplomatic there so he was just trying to be gracious …
    Ok may be he erred on being too much generous in thier praise

  24. Doesn’t a film maker have the liberty to imagine? Its after all part fiction and part truth.
    Aamir never claimed The Rising to be a Docu Film about the Truths about Mangal….

    PS Again: I hate Word Verification

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