On the website of the East India Company, you can find the statement:
When you hear our name you will probably already have a sense of who we are. Deep within the world’s sub-consciousness is an awareness of The East India Company, powerful pictures of who we are. You’ll feel something for us; you’ll have a connection to us, even if you don’t know us.
The 2005 film Mangal Pandey: The Rising explores one reason why we may have heard of the East India Company. This biopic outlines some of the political, economic, military, religious and social causes that lead to the Indian Rebellion of 1857. With a primary focus on the native Indian private soldiers (sepoys) commanded by British officers of the East India Company, the film highlights tensions due to rank, religion, race, caste and gender of this explosive period in the nation's history.
The East India Company ("Company") was formed for the purpose of pursuing trade in the East Indies. However, the Company primarily settled in the Indian subcontinent where it came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions.
Company rule in India began in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey, a pivotal battle in the control of South Asia by colonial powers and a decisive victory of the British East India Company over the Nawab of Bengal and his allies of the French East India Company.
The Company traded in cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea and opium. They dictated what crops could be grown by Indian farmers and they monopolized the trade of many of the basic commodities.
The opium trade with China was particularly lucrative for the Company. As the opium trade was illegal in China, Company ships could not carry opium to China. So the opium produced in Bengal was sold in Calcutta on the condition that it be sent to China. This disregard of British traders for China's laws led to the First Opium War (1839–1842) and Second Opium War (1956-1860).
The sepoy armies of the East India Company, in particular those of the Bengal Presidency, were often victorious and considered indomitable. Sepoy loyalty to the Company was considered the height of honor. In the Bengal army, sepoys were recruited almost exclusively from the landowning and high caste Brahmins and Rajputs. This helped cultivate close ties among the sepoys to each other and to the land they defended.
Mangal Pandey played a key part in events immediately preceding the 1857 rebellion and is widely regarded as a freedom fighter in modern India.
The Indian rebellion of 1857 was started over a rifle introduced to the sepoy armies.
The Pattern 1853 Enfield rifled musket was a more powerful and accurate weapon that what the soldiers had been using. To load the rifle, soldiers had to bite the end off a bullet cartridge, pour the gunpowder and ball it contained into the rifle's muzzle, then stuff the cartridge case into the musket as wadding. The cartridge case was typically paper coated with some kind of grease to make it waterproof. The sepoys believed that the cartridges that were issued with this rifle were greased with cow and/or pork fat. This made the cartridge unclean for use by Muslims and because the Hindi venerated the cow, the use of cow fat on the cartridge was an insult. To use the cartridges could cause soldiers to lose their caste and become pariahs in society.
In addition, there had been increasing tensions at this time between the East India Company and the local religious and cultural groups as the Christian Protestant revival grew in Great Britain. Introduction of these lard-tainted cartridges was an insult to the deeply held religious beliefs and practices of the Indian soldiers. Many percieved this as an indication that the British-owned Company might be trying to Christianize the Indian soldiers by leveraging the loyalty of the sepoys, forcing them to discard their faith and culture by using the cartridges.
Captain William Gordon, played by Toby Stephens, is Mangal Pandey's commanding officer and friend. In the film this is a fictitious character; however, a real Captain William Gordon is briefly mentioned in the book Battles of the honourable East India Company: Making of the Raj by M. S. Naravane. In the chapter describing the Anglo-Maratha Wars in the 18th and 19th centuries the author writes:
Captain William Gordon was sent to the Chhtrepati Shau on what was termed a good will visit. But Gordon was under instructions to observe carefully the political situation at Satara and find out if any minister could be turned against Baji Rao whom the English feared most.
At one point in the film, Mangal Pandey asks Captain Gordon what the East India Company is and who owns it. Gordon replies,
"In your story of the Ramayan you have a character Ravana. The chap with ten heads, right? Well, the Company has thousands of heads all stuck together with the glue of greed."
As the film progresses, we see the impact of the Company on the lives of these two friends who reluctantly find themselves on opposite sides of India's growing conflict to throw off British rule.
In a 2005 BBC Interview, Toby Stephens talked the personal impact of making the film:
"For me it was a real experience. To make a film in India, work with Indian actors and filmmakers, and to experience the culture was extraordinary. The fact it was a historical film about the British in India and what happened there was a real eye opener. I went to public school and grew up with a sense of Empire even in the 70s and 80s, and this gave me a different perspective. The idea of us, the British, being some sort of benign, educating force suddenly seemed to be a load of rubbish. It was a company running a country. I mean how twisted was that? It made me quite ashamed of our history."
East India Company rule ended as a result of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the Government of India Act 1858 which led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India in the era of the new British Raj.
According to an apunkachoice.com article about the film, Aamir Khan worried a bit about the British response to the film:
"We were afraid that the British press would come down on the film hard, because the film for the first time presents the Indian point of view on the 1857 uprising. ... For me, it is not a sepoy mutiny as presented but the first war of independence."
While there will always be criticisms about the portrayal of historical figures in film, in a 2007 Outlook interview Aamir Khan explained that it was important to portray the Indian point of view about this character:
"Certainly, historians know more about history than I do. However, I have only one simple question: How many sepoys do you know by name from 1857? All of India knows one - Mangal Pandey. Whether he was a hero by chance or actually heroic is something we will never know. For 90 years, India did look upon him like that, he became a name and personality that did inspire Indians to fight for Independence. There's very little documented matter on him. Just two pages of it actually. The fact that he was in the 34th regiment infantry, in Barrackpore, the fact that he took arms on 28/29 of March and then was hanged on the 8th of April. So how do you make a film on him? You can't make a film that deals with nitty-gritty of his everyday life, but you can catch the essence of what he stood for. And that is what (director) Ketan Mehta attempted. Whatever has been recorded about him, in documents, has been written by the British - the very officers who spoke against him. If we go by today's example, there are so many cases where reports are fudged. I see it reported every day in the papers. So why am I going to believe what was reported in the court-martial. When there is not enough research, we go by imagination and one person's imagination is as good as the other's."
This powerful film is worth seeing because of it's historical perspective and background - and it has great relevance today as it asks us to consider our response to the influence of wealth, greed, prejudice and power on our modern lives.
If you liked this, please visit our other posts highlighting some of the films starring Aamir Khan.