It´s painful watching great opportunities being thrown away. "Mangal Pandey", with its stellar cast, crew, budget, and platform had just about everything going for it - almost.
Many may blame the hype preceding the film for why it disappoints. With Aamir Khan returning to the screen after four long years, "Dil Chahta Hai" and "Lagaan" behind him, overhyping "Mangal Pandey" was inevitable, and rightfully so. Of course the little Khan nails his part in the movie to perfection, explosive to say the least as the hot-headed, bhaang loving Mangal. But gone are the days when a talented star alone could rescue a film despite its shortcomings.
Mind you, putting together the story of Mangal Pandey poses no easy task and the dedication of director Ketan Mehta and his crew towards creating a polished entertainment package stands tall through every frame of the film. Nitin Desai´s production design and Himman Dhamija´s splendid cinematography re-create the aura of the 1800´s with innovative artistry. Yet, the narrative fails to grip the viewer, unable to create the kind of fervor in the audience the way "The Legend of Bhagat Singh" and "Lagaan" did. The main culprits - writer Faroukh Dhondy ("Kisna") and editor Sreekar Prasad ("Terrorist", "Asoka", "Kannathil Muthamittal") .
The exposition patiently stretched for the first 70 minutes of the film, "Mangal Pandey" really kick starts just a reel before the intermission. The pacing is poor and the storytelling lacks cohesiveness and flow, the narrative spilling all over the place. Once Pandey´s goal is finally identified, the story thickens, performances impress, as does the exploration of the East India Company´s political games. Yet, every so often Dhondy´s amateurish writing, cliche dialogues, and random, cheesy one-liners such as "put the genie back in the bottle" steals the seriousness out of the situation and the viewers´ interpretation of it.
After introducing a plethora of characters through his elongated exposition, barely a handful are awarded any development by the end. For example, the much-hyped Jwala (Amisha Patel) serves no purpose in the narrative to influence the course of events that may affect the protagonist, Mangal. Yet we see so much of her through the film. Ditto for Heera (Rani Mukherjee) whose liason with Mangal creates no dramatic impact whatsover because Dhondy and Mehta decide to rush through what could have been a very intriguing aspect of Mangal´s life. That said, Rani Mukherjee does work her natural charm in the little that she has to do. Toby Stephens´ makes a brave effort as Capt. William Gordon pulling off some very difficult Hindi dialogues, effectively portraying his character´s dilemma, having to split his loyalty between friendship and nation. The other British characters suffer however, slotted into caricature, stereotypical representations.
A.R. Rahman´s songs though pleasing to the ear with their rustic nature, only jar the narrative further as Mehta and Prasad uninspiringly place them in unwarranted situations. The score too suffers a similar spate due to ineffective usage. Mehta´s use of Om Puri´s monotone voice-over treads on the verge of annoyance, repeatedly translating English dialogues when simple Hindi subtitles would have been more suitable to his cause.
"Mangal Pandey", with its talented team and intriguing story could have worked quite some magic, had it only been for a taut, cohesive screenplay and sensible editing. Despite the epic canvas and colossal production value, "Mangal Pandey" fails to make its mark as the classic it was expected to be. The film warrants a viewing certainly thanks to Aamir Khan, but it´s not one that will stay with you once you head back into the real world.