Synopsis – Story of Rani Lakshmibai, one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and her resistance to the British Raj.
My Take – Ever since filmmaker S. S. Rajamouli‘s two parter Baahubali released a conquered every nearly record at the box office, Indian filmmakers have been clamoring to bring in the next historical blockbuster to the big screen all in the hopes of repeating the latter’s enormous success. As a result it came as no surprise that an adaption of Rani Lakshmibai’s life found itself into the mix, after all even though 160 years have passed since she died on the battlefield during the 1857-58 mutiny against the British, she is still considered as the most badass female to ever set foot on Earth.
Hers is a legend we know all too well, a crimson-colored tale of valor and betrayal whose most enduring image is of the young queen charging into battle on a horse with her infant son strapped to her back. It’s a leap of faith, quite literally, that in casting Kangana Ranaut as the Varanasi-born beauty who dealt with imperialist beasts, this flawed but rousing film pulls off a singular masterstroke. Who better than a Queen to play another? That too in her directorial debut, a credit she shares with director Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi (Gabbar Is Back). However, the film has been a victim to a number of controversies.
The film’s originally sole director Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi aka Krish left the film halfway, forcing Kangana to step in to shoot/re-shoot specific sequences. Actor Sonu Sood too parted ways abruptly after completing 30 days of work, and there were some hushed rumors about Kangana’s interference and high handedness getting into everyone’s way. Not to forget the Karni Sena’s antics and Kangana’s sassy comebacks.
Thankfully the film doesn’t seem to have suffered the brunt of this, as it sticks to a singular tone of being an old-fashioned patriotic film with modern flourishes, that relies on bombastic dialogue, swordplay and a reductive version of history to whip up emotions, courtesy of V. Vijayendra Prasad, director S. S. Rajamouli‘s father and the screenwriter of both Baahubali films.
Sure, it’s no Baahubali nor is it a Padmaavat, but the makers have ensured that the film got the scale it deserved. But what actually drives the film is Kangana Ranaut‘s splendid performance as the icon. If you are fan of Ms. Ranaut, this film is a perfect example of excellent range, but in case you’re not, best to steer clear of this one as Ms. Ranaut is front and center of the this epic.
Set in 19th century India, the story follows Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut), a young woman raised by Baji Rao II (Suresh Oberoi), the last Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. Well-versed in archery and sword-fighting, the young warrior often even manages to triumph over generals like Tatya Tope (Atul Kulkarni) with her skill set. All this while, she is being closely watched by Dixit-ji (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a visiting minister of the kingdom of Jhansi, who impressed by Manikarnika’s skills and worries that Jhansi might be annexed by the British because of the current ruler’s lack of interest in ruling, he suggests her hand in marriage to the king, Gangadhar Rao Newalkar (Jisshu Sengupta).
Upon marriage as it is customary, Gangadhar changes her name to Laxmibai and unlike former queens, she takes no time to mix up with the common folk of Jhansi. However trouble arrives when Captain Gordon (Edward Sonnenblick) and his troops who have just conquered all of the neighboring kingdoms demand the two submit to them as well. Conniving with Gangadhar’s younger brother, Sadashiv Rao (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub), the British make themselves feel at home by beating, stealing from and killing the locals. While Gangadhar feels helpless to stop them, Laxmibai refuses to bow down to tyranny, even after her first child dies, and shortly later, her husband. With the British, now led by General Hugh Rose (Richard Keep), more than eager to capture the kingdom of Jhansi, continue to refuse to accept her adopted son as her heir, a historic war must take place.
The opening scene sets the tone of what is to follow. Kangana’s unwavering gaze as she holds the bow and arrow to hit a tiger, albeit a mediocre CGI creation, while her people look at her from the sidelines, awestruck. While the first half is slow, as it has a multitude of corny moments and a lot of unnecessary song and dance, it really gets going after the death of the husband. Rani Lakshmi Bai truly shines once the legend kicks in, as Ranaut goes around dismembering the British and spouts heavy dialogues at the drop of a hat.
It’s quite obvious that the screenplay by K Vijayendra Prasad is disinterested in the person beyond the legend, as the script drastically simplifies the complicated (and revealing) alliances between the various kingdoms, their knotty relationship with the East India Company, and their ambivalent stand towards the mutiny of 1857, in which Indian soldiers rebelled against their British masters.
There is no dearth of symbolism here. In one excellently staged fight sequence within the confines of the Jhansi fort, the Rani slices and skewers her enemies into oblivion with a larger-than-life figurehead of Ganesha serving as a backdrop. Her scalding and withering gaze. Like the elephantine deity, this woman is a remover of obstacles, especially those that come draped in the colors of the Union Jack. Later on, she trains female combatants in the use of artillery and firearms while simultaneously silhouetting herself against a portrait of Hanuman with the Dronagiri Parvat firmly ensconced in his palm. Faith can move mountains, indeed.
However, the film’s real strength lies in its fiercely feminist leanings. As director Ranaut ensures that she weaves in specific scenes that smash patriarchy, question sexist and archaic conventions, and put forth a strong female perspective that cannot be undermined. In the film’s best sequence, Lakshmibai shuts down an interfering relative when she is advised to wear widow’s weeds. More radical than Lakshmibai charging through the battleground are the moments when she turns up in bridal reds and fecund greens.
Here, Ranaut alongside co-director Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi, are able to create a winning concoction of storytelling, cinematography and background score. Todor Lazarov and Dawid Szatarski choreographed some truly thrilling cavalry and swordsman fight sequences- though I must chastise them for including a scene where a character jumps off a castle turret on horseback- and survives! The sound design and score of this film are on point – they will invoke every emotion of that hunger for freedom in you despite the story being set in a period more than 150 years ago.
Nevertheless the film is filled with flaws all over. Apart from blowing historical accuracy to smithereens, the film suffers from lazy writing, stilted dialogues, shoddy visual effects and bizarre caricaturing of the English. Some scenes are downright ridiculous, like when Lakshmibai storms into British grounds to rescue a calf for a villager, Jhalkaribai (Ankita Lokhande), and then gives an unblemished speech in English, when British officers try to take a dig at her for not knowing the language. Another problem that weighs the film down is its treatment of white characters. They look and talk like villains from 80s films, lacking nuance and depth in their dialogues and the manner in which they deliver them. Too often, they appear to be stock characters who are mouthing lines from a teleprompter.
Also, Jhalkaribai, who later becomes her trusted aide and friend gets hardly four scenes, and we don’t see the inner workings of a kingdom where a woman takes on the leadership role, something that was unheard of in those times.
Yet like I mentioned above, Kangana Ranaut, the actress is the main reason you remained glued to the screen. Her portrayal of one of the most iconic women in Indian history is certainly praise-worthy. It’s an immensely demanding role — that of a mother-figure who adopted a son, and, in the process, an entire kingdom’s populace as well. Her nuanced grasp of the rebel warrior-queen will certainly win you over. Unfortunately, the individual performances by the supporting cast are minimal.
While Jeeshu Sengupta is more than just impressive, other class-actors like Atul Kulkarni, Suresh Oberoi and Kulbhushan Kharbanda are receded into the background. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub tries to make his character seem as formidable as possible. Ankita Lokhande, a famed TV actress who makes her much promoted big screen debut, despite a honest performance is wasted, so is Mishti.
The only one who probably gets to shine to some extent is Danny Denzongpa, who brings the same amount of charisma he has been bringing over the last 48 years. Richard Keep also tries hard to make a mark. On the whole, ‘Manikarnika – The Queen of Jhansi’ is an enjoyable historical epic which despite being flawed keeps you intrigued with its grandeur and strong lead performance from Kangana Ranaut.
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 148 minutes