Queen as gau rakshak
Patriarchal Bollywood rarely allows a woman to be as physically powerful as she is, hacking an array of men on the battlefield
The best part of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is seeing images of an Indian heroine, who is fierce, powerful and in command throughout. Patriarchal Bollywood rarely allows a woman to be as physically powerful as she is, hacking an array of men on the battlefield. She is also politically intelligent: her marriage into the royal family of Jhansi is a political alliance for the nationalist cause. And she’s well-read: her husband Raja Gangadhar Rao woos her with books.
Of course, there is Dangal and Mary Kom, but the heroines in those films played a wrestler and a boxer respectively; here, a spunky woman became a queen and warrior because of circumstance. The film, starring Kangana Ranaut, is directed by Radha Krishna “Krish” Jagarlamudi and Ranaut (he gets top billing in the trailer, she in the film). This is a biopic of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi (née Manikarnika), one of the earliest patriots of India’s freedom movement, a queen who resisted British control after she was widowed, and who died fighting them in battle in 1858, at just 29. We all remember her statue, astride a horse on the battlefield, with raised sword, and her baby strapped to her back. Jagarlamudi has directed about nine feature films in Telugu, including Vedam with Allu Arjun and Manoj Bajpayee, and NTR Kathanayakudu with Nandamuri Balakrishna and Vidya Balan, which also released last month.
Ranaut throws herself into the role with relish, and chews the scenery, whether it is attacking the British on the battlefield, or dialoguebaazi. The film is a catalogue of her impressive achievements, but surprisingly for a KV Vijayendra Prasad screenplay (Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan), you don’t really feel for her. This may be because the story is subsumed by two key agendas: the heroine as director, and unabashed nationalism. When a star turns director in the course of making a film, the enterprise becomes film-as-PR, and everyone else a mere accessory, as in this case. That fine Bengali actor Jisshu Sengupta (Ek Je Chhilo Raja, Once There was a King), does himself no favours as her husband. Atul Kulkarni as Tatya Tope, the lovely Danny Denzongpa as her loyal Muslim army official Ghulam Ghaus Khan, and spunky Ankita Lokhande as a woman soldier, manage to shine briefly.
By contrast, the Telugu superstar Kommareddy Savitri (1937-1981), who starred in nearly 200 Telugu, Tamil and Hindi films, even produced and directed six films, featuring top heroes such as Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan and NT Rama Rao — is practically unthinkable today.
Moreover, the film is a nationalist rabble-rouser, with the queen as gau rakshak, saving a calf from slaughter; lines such as “Main rahoon ya na rahoon, Bharat yeh rehna chahiye”; and battlecries of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ through blood-spattered teeth. Kiran Deohans’s cinematography is good, while Rameshwar Bhagat’s editing at 148 mins could have been tighter. The music by Shankar- Ehsaan-Loy is rousing. The set design and costumes are beautiful, but Sanjay Leela Bhansali has set the bar rather high. And when the queen dies on the battlefield, her body is engulfed in flames, like a burning symbol of Om. What’s with all these Bollywood heroines burning in the climax — Padmaavat, Manikarnika? Someone please call the fire brigade to douse Bollywood’s misogynist fires.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.
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