Comic Book History
If a film buff wants to see a properly researched and authentic film on the Rani of Jhansi, then Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi Ki Rani (1953) is the one to catch. The new Manikarnika is like a comic book version of the warrior queen’s stirring story.
The ‘Khoob ladi mardani’ aspect of the Rani of Jhansi is part of Indian consciousness, since she is just about the only female leader of her time who has made it to the history books.
If a film is made about her, it should either be faithful to history, or there should be some fresh perspective added to it, to make the effort and expense worthwhile.
Unfortunately,Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi, directed by Kangana Ranaut and Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi (she took over after he left the film, so it’s not clear who did what) does neither; just manages a lot of patriotic flag-waving.
The first half is all romance, glitter, flying hair and trailing pallus in Sanjay Leela Bhansali mode, as the horse-riding, tiger-killing Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut) is married to the dancing, bangle-wearing King Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi (Jisshu Sengupta).
The British East India Company has already made inroads into India and is annexing kingdoms; when they visit Jhansi, the new queen, renamed Lakshmibai, speaks to them in English and refuses to bow her head. Later, she tries to become a people’s queen by dancing with the low-caste villagers, after saving a calf from being devoured by the British, which turns its owner Jhalkari (Ankita Lokhande) into a staunch follower.
The Rani’s firstborn dies, followed soon after by her husband. In one of the film’s best sequences, she refuses to wear white or shave her head. She adopts a child, decides to rule Jhansi and fight the British.
In the second half, when the Mutiny of 1857 simmers, the Brits get nasty and Hugh Rose (Richard Keep) swears to hang the queen from a tree and then dismember her, Lakshmibai gathers her meagre forces, trains the women to fight and uses the metal collected by them to make weapons.
In spite of being outnumbered, the people of Jhansi fight to the finish, requiring her to go to Gwalior and regroup, also changing costume from nine-yard sari to male armour. The battle scenes, energetically shot though they are, reduce the queen to a slash-and-shoot action figure, who stops just to utter some deshbhakti lines before plunging into battle again.
She dominates the film, which is completely without subtlety or nuance. Other characters like the treacherous Sadashiv Rao (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub), Ghaus Khan (Danny Denzongpa) or Tatya Tope (Atul Kulkarni) are given nothing much to do. Kangana Ranaut’s presence and enthusiasm are remarkable, more than her one-note performance. Mostly, she glowers, bares her teeth and spouts rhetoric.