Manikarnika Review: An Effective Revision of Your School History Book Chapter

Bollywood

Manikarnika Review: An Effective Revision of Your School History Book Chapter

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The thing about a movie like Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, or any biopic on the life of a celebrated freedom fighter is, you already have an audience eager and willing to like the film — even at the cost of overlooking obvious inaccuracies in the screenplay for the sake of dramatic effect and turning the other way when the desh bhakti sentiment is unabashedly dialled up. It’s tough to mess up a film when you have so much going for it — Kiran Deohans and Gnana Shekar VS’ cinematography is hauntingly beautiful; Nick Powell’s action direction is purposeful, precise and thrilling; and Kangana Ranaut’s body language (if not dialogue delivery) is urgent, unyielding, and on point. And yet, Manikarnika somehow manages the task… Somewhat.

I came away from the two-hour-28-minute saga about the young warrior queen and her heroic exploits on the battlefield in 1857 and 1858 against the British only fleetingly impressed — the overarching sentiment was that of disappointment, and the vague feeling of having just sat through a long, oversimplified, un-nuanced retelling of one of the most important chapters in India’s freedom struggle. If after watching an entire full-length film about a person your knowledge and understanding about said person is exactly the same as what it was after you spent 10 minutes memorising the highlights of her life for a history exam in school, the makers have a problem. There’s no delicate way of saying this — the person that directors Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi and Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika lets down most spectacularly is Rani Laxmibai, the legendary queen of Jhansi, herself.

It’s a pity really, given that in the hands of a more exacting scriptwriter Manikarnika had enough potential to elevate it from the ranks of a good-looking war drama to a biopic for the ages. After all, in a sea of men who martyred themselves for the nation, how many feminist queens has history done justice to?

The film opens with Amitabh Bachchan’s gravelly voice giving us some context about the circumstances of the birth of Manikarnika (Laxmibai’s name before she was married). Within minutes, the film moves on to forced, often exaggerated, scenarios to establish Manikarnika’s fearless and free-spirited nature. Within the first few minutes alone, we watch Kangana Ranaut take on a ferocious tiger as villagers look on nervously from behind a wall. Next we are subjected to a long fencing sequence where she mock fights three men, including the brave Tatya Tope — played with restraint by a tragically under-used Atul Kulkarni —  to confirm her superior sword-fighting skills. She gets noticed by a minister from the royal court of Jhansi, who quickly proceeds to arrange a match between Manikarnika and King Gangadhar Newalkar, the Maharaja of Jhansi.

Rani Laxmibai’s valour doesn’t need crutches or hammy plot devices; what it needed was a richness of detail that has eluded the stories of women warriors in history.

The first half of the film deals with Manikarnika’s marriage and renaming as Laxmibai, the birth and death of her son, the adoption of a cousin’s son, and the death of her husband. The second half is dedicated to her ouster from the palace under the Doctrine of Lapse that rejected an adopted son’s claim to the throne, the subsequent siege of Jhansi, and the bloody battles she fought in Jhansi and Gwalior in 1857 and 1858.

The first half of the film deals with Manikarnika’s marriage and renaming as Laxmibai, the birth and death of her son, the adoption of a cousin’s son, and the death of her husband.

Image Credit: Zee Studios

Historical detail and accuracy get short shrift, as the film dedicates itself almost entirely to self-indulgent chest-thumping about its lead protagonist. Kangana Ranaut’s glaring dialogue-baazi and jaw clenching at every critical juncture commands more screen-time than the complicated process of preparing for and waging two violent wars. The filmmakers make time for a strangely sexualised item number and innumerable scenes to underline the cruelty of the British officers — practically all of whom speak Hindi in a comically accented manner with the exaggerated enunciation reminiscent of foreigner characters in mediocre ’90s Bollywood. Major General Sir Hugh Rose, the British officer tasked with capturing Jhansi and defeating Rani Laxmibai is characterised as a man obsessed with revenge, because a British officer seen as simply doing the job his government gave him doesn’t quite rouse the same emotions of patriotism. Ironically, it was this “evil” Sir Hugh Rose who expressed his admiration for Rani Laxmibai by writing that she was the only “man among mutineers” in his memoirs, a sentiment echoed in Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s iconic poem about the queen: “Khoob ladi mardaani woh toh Jhansi wali Rani thi” (She fought like a man, the queen of Jhansi).

The overdone theatrics could have been ignored if the movie had been about a lesser hero. Rani Laxmibai’s valour doesn’t need crutches or hammy plot devices; what it needed was a richness of detail that has eluded the stories of women warriors in history. As someone rooting for the success of Manikarnika, I was hungry for the movie to delve into the story behind the story — the exemplary queen of Jhansi was an inspiration to her people and generations that came after, but she was also just 25 when she became a widow and took over the ruling of the kingdom. Did she make mistakes? Did she have regrets? Did she ever face a crisis of confidence? What was it like, creating and motivating an army of peasant women?

The overdone theatrics could have been ignored if the movie had been about a lesser hero.

Image Credit: Zee Studios

A little light reading about Rani Laxmibai led me to a fascinating anecdote by an Australian barrister, John Lang, who represented the queen in British court, petitioning against the proposed annexation of her kingdom. Some historians believe that hiring Lang was a move destined to backfire because the East India Company had already been humiliated by him once in a previous case. If the account is to be believed, that decision alone could have altered the course of history. If nothing else, it deserved space in a movie about the queen.  

But continuing the longstanding tradition of biopics that gloss over the greys in the characters of its heroes, Manikarnika stubbornly steers clear of any questions that could have shed light on the interiority of the woman behind the title. It’s tough to come up with a single, agreed-upon truth about a historical figure. But to not even attempt it is a disservice to the person whose story is being brought to life.

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