TIME: It feels like India's been waiting for The Rising for years. Are you happy with the final result?
Khan: We more or less achieved what we set out to do. It's a film about the choice of freedom and the right of every man to hold his head as high as the next man. The film also questions the right of a superpower to enter another society and take it over and exploit it. It's a very interesting part of our history: the fact that a trading company was ruling a country is itself fascinating. It's bizarre.
TIME: How did you square the differing accounts of history from this period?
Khan: One section of British society calls it the Sepoy Mutiny, but for Indians it is the First War of Independence. To me, it's quite obvious that it was not just a mutiny. It involved the common man, not just soldiers. It was a complete movement against foreign rule. But the film's not trying to point fingers at anybody. I feel it goes beyond the East India Company and this incident. We were trying to make a film which is a discussion of the concept of freedom, through the relationship of two friends: Mangal Pandey and Capt. William Gordon [played by British actor Toby Stephens]. Besides, many of the facts are recorded. The East India company was growing opium in India and it was selling it to China. Mangal Pandey did revolt, was arrested and tried, and hanged. And whether it is true that the British coated their new Enfield gun cartridges with pig or cow fat—which would make them untouchable for Muslims and Hindus—the Indians believed they did. But the film's not about cartridges. It's about freedom and dignity.
TIME: Tell me how you developed the character of Mangal Pandey. He is legend in India, but very little is known about him.
Khan: Mangal Pandey was tough. Only three dates in his life are recorded. On March 29, 1857, he was arrested. On April 3-4 he was court martialled. And on April 8 he was hanged. But he became a symbol of freedom because he gave his life for it, and stories were made about him. He was the spark that united the whole rebellion against the British—the British actually called the rebels 'Pandeys.'
But there was very little recorded about Pandey's personal life. It's very sketchy, and not enough to base a character on. I had to fall back on what he stood for and create everything around that. Mangal Pandey, as we have him in the film, represents that section of Indian society which had begun to question. He questions what he is doing, and makes the journey from being a Sepoy [soldier] who would have given his life for the Company, to someone who fights against it. Mangal is essentially reactive. He's not a Gandhi figure. There's no deep strategy. He just reacts. There's a passion in his actions.
TIME: And Pandey's name still resonates with India today?
Khan: He's a very important figure. There are statues to him across India. He is revered as a martyr. He represents righteous struggle.
TIME: What about Gordon?
Khan: Gordon represents that section of British society which was not happy with how the Empire was being run. He's the voice of reason in the film. His character is based on the letters men like Gordon sent home. Some of the Brits were very close to the Sepoys and were not at all happy with the way things were going. These are soldiers who arrived in India aged 15 or 16, and so by 30 had spent half their lives in India. India was their home, they cared about the emotional concerns of their men and they felt the company was being too heavy-handed. William Dalrymple writes about this other type of Briton in White Mughals. Whether Gordon actually knew Mangal Pandey or not, we do not know. But there was a Gordon who was said to have joined the rebellion. And Toby's given such a moving performance as Gordon. He really caught the character.
TIME: This is the second time in two films that you've played someone who stands up against the Brits. Have you got something against Englishmen?
Khan: [Laughs.] No, no, I'm extremely fond of the British. And I actually find they have an amazing quality of looking back on their history in a very honest and unsparing way. There is no attempt to try to dress it up. They try to see it for what it was. They're not insecure about it, they acknowledge and recognize it. I really enjoyed working with them. I really don't see it as an anti-British film.
TIME: Do you have any concerns that the film might be adopted by the more extreme Indian nationalists?
Khan: I never have any idea how people are going to react to a film. I get quite scared about it. But I think people are too sharp for that. At the end of the day, it's not a film about religion or Hindutva ["Hinduness"].
TIME: As for the international reaction, you seem to be drawing parallels between the East India Company and the US.
Khan: When I read the script, I was reminded strongly of what is happening in Iraq today, or Afghanistan. The film questions the right of any superpower to move into another country and start telling them what to do. I find some of [U.S. President George W.] Bush's speeches so funny, because the parallels to 1857 are so plain. At the beginning of the film, the governor makes a speech in which he says 'We shoulder the burden of the white man without complaint.' That's exactly what Bush said after the attacks on London. And what difference is there between a terrorist who kills innocent people, and someone who kills innocent people, and many times the number killed by terrorists, while saying they are trying to promote freedom?
TIME: The film's getting a mainstream release in Britain, and releasing worldwide in selected cinemas. How do you think an international audience is going to take to it?
Khan: It's difficult enough to make a film that will appeal to north and south India. But it's a mainstream film. And I think in many ways that the Western audience, especially the American audience, is very similar to the Indian audience. Indians like films to sweep us off our feet. We don't necessarily need things to be realistic or subtle. Which is why films like Jurassic Park and Star Wars enthrall Indians. They're huge epics.
On the other hand, Europeans sometimes have big hang-ups about Hollywood. I was on the jury at Locarno [the Locarno, Switzerland film festival] and everyone hated the American films. I asked, why? They make great films. Spiderman was a great film. I loved it. Sure, we can use films to tell a story or relive history, but I see films primarily as entertainment. Anyway, I'm not sure I'll be asked back to Locarno again.
TIME: What are your plans for the future? Any chance you're going to give up the hero roles and play a bad guy?
Khan: I have three films in the works for release this year and next. And I'd love to play a bad guy. I was offered a script by a British film-maker in which I'd be playing an Asian gangster in the north of England, but the dates didn't work. I'll go abroad if the right part comes along. But I'm yet to be offered anything that grabs me.