It was between September 20 and 21, 1857 that British troops recaptured Delhi from thousands of sepoys who began an uprising and had sieged the city earlier that year. The 1857 Sepoy Rebellion was “the first major rebellion against colonial rule” in India, Shashi Tharoor noted in his 2016 book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India.”
It should be no surprise then that filmmakers have been inspired to create stories about these events since the very earliest days of Bollywood. The mutiny began in May of 1857, when Indian soldiers in the 19th Native Infantry refused to use the ammunition given to them because they heard the cartridges had been greased with pig and cow fat — substances forbidden in Islam and Hinduism.
That refusal set off a series of events that led to the capture of Delhi and the deaths of hundreds of sepoys and many British people.
“1857,” directed Mohan Sinha
Released just a year before India would gain independence from Britain, this 1946 film stars Surendra as the sepoy Salim and Suraiya as his love interest Tasnim. Even 72 years after its release, “1857” radiates the same urgency and call for independence that many films of the 1940s had. Audiences responded to the message of “1857” accordingly. It was the fifth highest-grossing film of 1946.
“Junoon,” directed by Shyam Benegal
Based on legendary author Ruskin Bond’s novella “A Flight of Pigeons,” the plot of this 1978 film reflects both, Bond’s British heritage and his subsequent strong ties to India. Shashi Kapoor plays Javed Khan, a Muslim leader who is dedicated to breeding carrier pigeons. His brother-in-law Sarfaraz Khan (Naseeruddin Shah) is increasingly getting more involved in the movement to fight the British.
When a group of freedom fighters attack a British church, only Miriam Labadoor (who was played by Kapoor’s real-life wife Jennifer Kendal) and her young daughter manage to escape to safety. When Miriam and her child seek refuge with a wealthy local family, their presence sets off a series of events that disrupt Javed’s domestic life as the rebellion grows around them.
“Mangal Pandey: The Rising,” directed by Ketan Mehta
Aamir Khan stars as Mangal Pandey, the Indian soldier who is said to have played an integral role in the 1857 Rebellion. The film begins with viewers learning that Pandey, a member of the 34th Native Infantry, will soon be executed for organizing the mutiny. The movie then flashes back to four years earlier, when Pandey was serving in Afghanistan under Captain William Gordon (Toby Stephens).
The two become close when Pandey saves the Englishman’s life by dragging him to safety when the pair come under enemy fire. When the unit returns to India, things become tense when Pandey and the other soldiers are first introduced to the infamous Enfield rifled musket, a weapon whose cartridges were rumored to be sealed with pork and beef fat. The mutiny soon begins to brew.
When the film was released, Variety dubbed it a “gorgeously lensed, well-structured audience-pleaser that harks back to classic Hollywood blockbusters of the ’50s and ’60s.”
But it looks like the events of 1857 will continue to inspire Indian filmmakers in the years to come. Kangana Ranaut-starrer “Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi,” which is about the Rani of Jhansi’s role in the rebellion, is set to be released in theaters early next year.