It is directed by Ketan Mehta, produced by Bobby Bedi, and with a screenplay by Farrukh Dhondy. The lead role is played by Aamir Khan, marking his comeback after he had gone into hiatus after Dil Chahta Hai (2001).
It premiered in the Marché du Film section of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. It was the fourth highest-grossing film of 2005.
The story begins in 1857, when a large part of India was under the control of the British East India Company. Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan) is a sepoy, a soldier of Indian origin, in the army of the East India Company. While fighting in the Anglo-Afghan Wars, he saves the life of his British commanding officer, Capt. William Gordon (Toby Stephens). Gordon is indebted to Pandey and a strong friendship develops between them, transcending rank and race.
Gordon rescues a young widow, Jwala (Ameesha Patel), from committing sati (the act of following her deceased husband on to the funeral pyre); and afterwards, he falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Heera (Rani Mukerji) has been sold into prostitution, to work for Lol Bibi (Kirron Kher). There is a spark of attraction between her and Pandey and a liaison follows.
Gordon and Pandey's friendship is challenged following the introduction of a new rifle: the Enfield rifled musket. Rumours spread among the sepoys that the paper cartridges, which hold the powder and ball for the rifle, are greased with either pig fat or beef tallow. The process of loading the rifle requires the soldier to bite the down on the cartridge, and the soldiers believe that this would cause them to consume pork or beef — acts abhorrent to Muslim and Hindu soldiers for religious reasons.
Gordon investigates this claim, and is told by his superiors to assure Pandey and his men that the cartridges are free from animal contamination. Demonstrating his trust in Gordon, Pandey bites the cartridge, but soon afterwards discovers the truth. This seemingly trivial matter becomes the spark that lights the fire of rebellion among the sepoys. Mutiny breaks out, led by Pandey, and the situation escalates, fueled by the frustration of years of colonialism and subjugation. At one point, Pandey and Gordon engage involved in hand-to-hand combat as the latter tries to dissuade his friend from what he believes to be a futile exercise that will only lead to certain death.
The Company moves to quickly stop the uprising by bringing in army units from Myanmar (Burma). Pandey is captured and set to be executed, despite the protestations of Gordon, who reasons that Pandey will be revered as a martyr and that his legacy will cause more protests. This turns out to be correct, and Pandey marries Heera in his jail cell before his execution as scenes of nationwide revolt against British rule are shown. In the aftermath, Gordon is listed as having joined the rebellion against the British Raj.
The film ends with a montage of drawings of the historical rebellion and the narrator describes the progress of the Indian independence movement over the next century. The montage ends with documentary footage of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi leading the Indian National Congress during peaceful protests against British rule in the 1940s, eventually forcing an end to colonialism in the subcontinent.
Mangal Pandey: The Rising had a bumper start at the box office but was declared average by Box Office India. It grossed ₹45.0 million (US$700,000) in Indian box office and ₹52.58 million (US$820,000) worldwide.
The film topped the Chennai box office on its opening weekend.
Upon its release, Mangal Pandey received positive reviews. It received a 91% rating from noted critics rated "fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes. Film critic Taran Adarsh of IndiaFM gave four stars of five saying that it is "A genuine attempt at bringing alive a great hero on celluloid, the film will only bring pride and prestige in the domestic market as well as on the international platform."
Raja Sen of Rediff panned the film as being about "cleavage and cliche".
Derek Elley of Variety commented, "This is the classic structure of all the best historical epics, and though the film employs recognizable Bollywood trademarks, helmer Mehta's approach is more "Western" in its rhythms, pacing and avoidance of Asian melodrama. Musical set pieces are more integrated into the action, and the focus is kept tightly on the Gordon-Pandey relationship."
Film scholar Omer Mozaffar of RogerEbert.com commented that this film is a study in imperialism and sensitivity, comparing the issue of the rifle grease to the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. The inciting event that leads to the Rising could have been avoided or quickly rectified. However, in the context of the situation, it was a larger issue of unrest due to negligent power brokers.
In India, the Bhartiya Janata Party demanded a ban on the film, accusing it of showing falsehood and indulging in character assassination of Mangal Pandey. As an example, the BJP spokesman stated that the film shows Mangal Pandey visiting the house of a prostitute. The Samajwadi Party leader Uday Pratap Singh called in the Rajya Sabha for the movie to be banned for its "inaccurate portrayal" of Pandey. The Uttar Pradesh government criticised the film for "distortion" of historical facts, and considered banning it. Protestors in Ballia district, where Pandey had been a native, damaged a shop selling cassettes and CDs of the film, stalled a goods train on its way to Chapra (Bihar), and staged a sit-in on the Ballia-Barriya highway.
The music was scored by A. R. Rahman with lyrics penned by Javed Akhtar.