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'Cinema is the best bridge possible between different cultures," said Ketan Mehta at last week's Jerusalem opening of the Indian Film in Israel Festival. Mehta, the director of The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, said he had fallen in love with Jerusalem during his visit here and hopes that audiences will find contemporary relevance in The Rising, an extraordinarily entertaining historical epic. "It's a cautionary tale for today's world, not just for India or Israel but for everyone," he said in an interview.
The Rising stars Aamir Khan, one of India's most beloved actors (he's best known abroad for Lagaan), and dramatizes an 1857 mutiny against the British by the sepoys, Indian soldiers working for the British East India Company. When the British introduced a new kind of bullet, the cartridge of which had to be bitten off and which was greased with pig and cow fat, both the Muslim and Hindu sepoys rebelled. "This incident really did spark the rebellion," said Mehta, although he admitted that, "no one really knows much about Mangal Pandey," the Brahmin sepoy who led the fight. "So we dramatized much of his story," the director said.
The 1857 rebellion is an unusual incident in Indian history, said Mehta, because "it was one of the few times that Hindus and Muslims came together to fight for the same cause." In the film, Panday befriends a British officer, William Gordon (played by Toby Stephens, son of Maggie Smith), and also romances a prostitute, while the British character has a love affair with a young widow he rescues from sati, the custom of burning the widow alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Both of these storylines, one involving an inter-caste romance and the other about a Hindu woman and a Christian, stirred controversy in India. "Breaking taboos is not necessarily taken lightly," he said, adding that "about 20" lawsuits were filed against the movie by various religious organizations.
The son of academics, Mehta himself is from a Hindu family and studied film in Puna. He has directed more than 20 movies, working in all different genres, including musicals and an adaptation of Madame Bovary. In addition to its historical significance, Mehta sees The Rising as a metaphor for the struggle against globalization today. "It's an allegory for the behavior of the multinational corporations and these times we are living through," he said.
The Rising, which was made in two versions, English and Hindi, was released in its English version in England and in its Hindi version in the US. Mehta said that there would be an English release in the US later this year. Israeli audiences who enjoy beautifully crafted, lively drama will have to hope that the film finds a distributor here soon.