Audiences have never been kind to historicals. Whether it's Jabbar Patel's film on Ambedkar with Mammooty in the lead or Santosh Sivan's "Asoka" with Shah Rukh Khan, somehow viewers have always found it hard to identify with historical characters as played by well-known actors.
In fact, even the relatively less recognisable Sachin Khedeker failed to make a mark as Subhas Chandra Bose in Shyam Benegal's film earlier this year.
Given this history, what makes the makers of "Mangal Pandey - The Rising" so sure of box office success?
The answer, in two words, is Aamir Khan. The maestro of marketing has strategically projected himself as the most exclusive star of our times. Though his body of work is far from exemplary (have you see "Tum Mere Ho" or "Ishq"?), a feeling of exclusivity has been created through the handful of quality films he has done, namely "Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak", "Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar", "Dil Chahta Hai" and, of course, "Lagaan".
"Mangal Pandey" is Khan's first release in three years. It's also his first historical. The fact that he looks nothing like the real mutineer Mangal Pandey has little relevance to the box office. After all Shah Rukh resembled Asoka as much as Aishwarya Rai resembles Jayalalitha (the former played the latter in Mani Ratnam's "Iruvar").
So the basic premise underlining the box office potential of "Mangal Pandey" is the star presence. The rest, including Rani Mukherjee in the role of a prostitute which has no historical precedent, is all incidental.
Says a sharp mover-and-shaker moviemaker: "The focal interest in 'Mangal Pandey' isn't the historical figure, but Aamir Khan. People within the trade and the audience are watching the film to see what he has done and how well. Tragically Mangal Pandey is lost. Aamir Khan is at the forefront."
Will Khan be able to deliver a performance that does justice to the original mutineer? Or will he make a mockery of history? Remember Shatrughan Sinha as Mangal Pandey in the film of that title directed by Harmesh Malhotra in 1982?
Historians are already questioning the veracity of Aamir 'Mangal' Khan's love interests in Ketan Mehta's film.
Where on earth did the real life Mangal Pandey have the time to get intimate with a prostitute (Rani Mukherjee)? Or take on a colonial adversary in a freewheeling wrestling match? Most critically, will the audiences get over their habitual aversion to historicals just for the pleasure of watching the 'exclusive' Aamir Khan doing a Mangal Pandey with a moustache at least thrice the size of what the original sported?
Major historicals that flopped:
Bimal Roy's "Yahudi" (1958) - Featured Dilip Kumar as the Roman Prince Marcus.
Ketan Mehta's "Sardar" (1993) - Featured Paresh Rawal as Sardar Patel.
Jabbar Patel's "Dr Babaseheb Ambedkar" (1991) - Featured Mammooty in the title role.
Shyam Benegal's "Bose: The Forgotten Hero" (2005) - Featured Sachin Khedeker as Subhas Chandra Bose.
Santosh Sivan's "Asoka" (2001) - Featured Shah Rukh Khan as the Mauryan emperor.
Raj Kumar Santoshi's "The Legend Of Bhagat Singh" (2002) - Featured Ajay Devgan as the freedom fighter.