Language issues in Mangal Pandey: The Rising

The English actors speak quite a bit of Hindi in Mangal Pandey: The Rising, and they do it more fluidly and correctly than I've seen in any other Hindi film. There's more here than in Lagaan, certainly, and more also than in the recent flop film Kisna (which was a breakthrough for Bollywood in some ways despite failing as a film; my review here). So I give props to Toby Stephens especially for putting in the extra hours to try and get it right. Props also to the director Ketan Mehta for not simply copping out of the language issue with the usual solution, namely, reducing white actors' roles to an absolute minimum. (Most of the time, white actors in Hindi period films speak only the kind of functional, imperative voice Hindi a Sahib might use with a servant: "darvaaza khul!".)

The issue of Toby Stephens' use of Hindi relates to my earlier SM post on language vs. race in Hindi films. If audiences accept the Toby Stephens character in this movie, it might challenge my claim that badly accented or phonetically incorrect Hindi is unacceptable to mainstream audiences. He's on screen a lot, and many of his lines go well beyond the usual "Baar aa jao!" type of fare. Stephens has to convey quieter emotions -- tenderness, ambivalence, regret -- a tall order even in one's first language. I personally thought Stephens' Hindi was ok: phonetically correct and generally intelligible, though not all of the time. More importantly, he's not convincing in Hindi some of the time. (And as an ABCD, I'm possibly being overly gentle on this score.)

So I have my doubts about whether The Rising really pulls it off; many of the people in the audience where I saw the film (in New Jersey) were tittering when Toby Stephens first started speaking. They eventually stopped, but I'm not at all convinced it was the silence of satisfaction.

The film might fail for other reasons too. I found it bombastic and over-the-top in the usual way of patriotic Hindi films. Some of the dialogue was truly ridiculous, in the vein of: "After a hundred years of the British Raj, the minds of us Indians have grown rusty. But this grease [i.e., from the cartridges of the Enfield rifles] has made them move again..." At times, it seemed like it was a movie about the greased cartridges, not so much the wrongs of imperialism or emergent Indian nationalism. On a more narrative level, The Risinghad too much testosterone with nowhere to go: this a patriotic "war" movie without much war in it.

So I don't quite see where the New York Times is coming from, with their positive review. And I have my doubts about whether Indian audiences will find this story interesting after, or separate from, August 15. We'll see.