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Brit ‘bloody nose’ on Indian killing fields

London, May 11: First it was the Irish, then the Scots; now Indian warriors are to be glamourised on film overthrowing British “oppression” in a heavily fictionalised Hollywood movie.

Roland Joffe, the director of The Killing Fields, is to make a £30-million epic commemorating the humiliation of British troops by Indian forces in an obscure 18th-century battle.

The lavish reconstruction of the little-known clash between troops and local warriors at the Indian village of Wadgaon in 1779 will raise concerns that it is yet another attempt by filmmakers to portray the English as bloody and self-interested conquistadors.

The filmmakers have decided to create fictional characters and to take the battle in isolation. The film is being co-produced by Ajey Jhanker, an Indian who has long campaigned for the “brilliant victory” at Wadgaon to be recognised more widely.

The film is titled Invaders and its producers have already compared it to the Oscar-winning Braveheart, which was widely condemned for presenting an unrealistic picture of English rule in Scotland.

That film followed Michael Collins, the biopic of the Irish revolutionary which was also accused of distorting facts to portray the British in as negative a light as possible.

Invaders, which was provisionally titled The Humiliation at Wadgaon, will use tens of thousands of local extras as well as hundreds of horses and elephants to recreate the moment when advancing British troops were forced into retreat by Mahadji Shinde, the general of the Maratha tribesmen.

The three-hour movie, which will be shot in both Hindi and English to reach the maximum worldwide audience, will culminate in the death of the British commander, Lt James Stewart, and the raising of the white flag.

Peter Rawley, who is producing the film, said he could not care less about the criticism. “I have not the slightest concern about what the British reaction to the film might be,” he said.

“The British got a bloody nose at Wadgaon and ended up having to hoist a white flag. It happened and it’s in the English history books. If they can’t accept the facts, then that is tough.”

The British troops were in fact soldiers of the East India Company who were defeated while advancing from what was then Bombay to capture new territories, including the town of Pune.

Hundreds were killed and their final surrender at Wadgaon forced the Company to sign a humiliating treaty which gave up all territories captured since 1773; the British would not ultimately take Pune until 1819.

However, concerns have been raised about the filmmakers’ decision to fictionalise aspects of the story, including creating a central character of a female warrior who did not exist.

There are also questions over the role of Lt Stewart, who is played by Brendan Fraser: while British historians insist he is a heroic figure, Indian academics claim that he was killed a fortnight before the final engagement and his significance to the battle is limited. Questions have also been raised as to why the positive British contribution to India is not brought out in the movie.

Lawrence James, the author of acclaimed studies of the Raj, warned against taking a simplistic approach to a highly complicated issue. “It is not a question of goodies and baddies, even though it can be so easily portrayed in that way,” he said.

However, Ismail Merchant, the London-based Indian film producer who was responsible for Oscar-winning hits such as Room With A View, Howards End and Remains of the Day, said filmmakers had a right to explore issues which still have an impact on contemporary Indian life.

“The colonisation of India may be history but it is history we are still having to deal with today. As such, it is clearly something filmmakers have to deal with,” he said.

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