Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi Movie Review - Money where the mouth is
Manikarnika is a big-budget, wholly star-driven, action-packed, period picture. Except the star is female, which is rare enough.
Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi
Director: Krishna Jagarlamudi, Kangana Ranaut
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Danny Denzongpa, Ankita Lokhande
As a film, this might seem a bit too ultra-patriotic/nationalistic for the fact that it's set in the mid 1800s, when the idea of India itself wasn't as concrete, let alone the concept of "Swarajya" (used here often), which was first popularly coined by Lokmanya Tilak, only born in 1856. The film itself though, right in its opening disclaimer, washes its hands of any pretense towards complete, uncontestable historical accuracy, which is only for the better. Helps you view it as a fabulous legend/fable first.
Be that as it may, the fact that the Indian Revolt/Rebellion of 1857, that began with the Sepoy mutiny, with Mangal Pandey firing the first shot, is widely considered the First War of Indian Independence, among Indians, can't be denied either. At the centre of this piece though, with absolutely no other players even in the periphery, understandably, is Rani Lakshmibai, born Manikarnika, a bibliophile 'brahmin' girl, raised by the Peshwa as a warrior, who eventually takes over as the Queen of Jhansi (currently in Uttar Pradesh). Yes, this is a big-budget, wholly star-driven, action-packed, period picture. Except the star is female, which is rare enough. Even if you consider Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat (or Padmavati), where Deepika Padukone played the eponymous character all right, but the film focused on Ranveer Singh as the antagonist Alauddin Khilji far more. Speaking of which, this is the sort of passion project that Bhansali, as master of magnificence (Padmaavat, Bajirao Mastani, Ram-Leela), has excelled in to a point that subsequently similar works, by most other craftsmen, are likely to somewhat pale in contrast. And so while the inspirations here are obvious, it might be unfair to compare still. This holds just as true for any allusion to SS Rajamouli's astoundingly massive Baahubali, given that the screenwriter (Vijayendra Prasad) is the same.
For, the story here has to be enjoyed for its own worth. It relates to a legend that pretty much remains unsurpassed in Indian history—of a woman, who lost her husband, the king, and her little son, the heir, giving way to the British to take over her kingdom, with help of locals (as they almost always did), and a 'doctrine of lapse', which applied to heirless princely states.
Instead of wallowing in widowhood, as per tradition, the Queen got on the white horse-back, and led a full-frontal attack against the mighty British, all by herself, holding fort until the point that she could, and then creating alliances, organizing her brigade, to go at the Brits all over again. Her valour is a common, modern metaphor. You see a fearless woman, and inevitably go: "Aa gayi Jhansi ki Rani!"
Frankly, as a public figure from Bombay films, I can't imagine anybody as naturally earning that sobriquet as Kangana Ranaut. Dainty but fierce, Ranaut plays Rani Lakshmibai with the ferocity that suits her character best. She leads the charge not just as an actor, but also as director, the baton she took over midway through the making of this film. One can't help but conjecture if there are really two separate movies here, given that two directors were helming it at different times.
Well, there are two huge battle sequences in the picture. And one could argue that the second one, the climax, in its tone and shot-taking, looks considerably different from the first. But then, that could just be me as audience noticing, because consciously searching. Either way, there is nothing to hugely fault this film on technical competence, and indeed the scale at which it's been mounted.
Watch Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi Trailer
The sets are grand. Extras, both Brits and desis, fill up the screen. War scenes look reasonably authentic. Mortal combats appear real. Riding through the artillery lined-up on either end is Manikarnika with her sword, the ultimate symbol of female power, from around the time that feminism as a word had only but been coined (in the West). It is an aspect that's thankfully quite dialed -down here. You can see it. You don't need to be incessantly told.
We've all read about Rani Lakshmibai in middle-school history. But we remember her best from the Allahabadi poet Subhadra Kumari Chauhan's long poem with the famous descriptor, 'Bundele har bole ki muh, humne suni kahani thi. Khoob ladi mardani, who toh Jhansi wali Rani thi.' A genuine, soul-stirring tribute to her phenomenal heroism can at best hope to come close to Chauhan's immortal lines. Yes, this one does.
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