By Faraz Talat
Manikarnika: Queen of Jhansi is the sort of epic for which every feminist history buff had been marking down days on the calendar. Although a satisfying experience, why isn’t Manikarnia as transcendent as it was destined to be?
Rani of Jhansi is an all-important yet under-studied chapter of the subcontinent’s history. It’s a story of the indigenous people’s valorous struggle against British colonial rule, as well as the forgotten contributions of women to the resistance. It is also to some degree an ode to the Indian subcontinent’s glorious multiculturalism, eons before we decided that Hindus and Muslims cannot coexist on the same soil.
It’s clear that Kangana Ranaut and Jagarlamudi – the film’s directors – were well-aware of the sociopolitical significance of this production. A lesser vision wouldn’t be worth the staggering price tag of 125 crore INR. Lamentably, this price tag also suggests that the film can no longer target a niche market of liberal feminists. To remain commercially viable, it must adapt to the expectations of a (pause for long sigh) ‘wider South-Asian audience’.
Those among us who either cringed or broke out into unintentional laughter during the film at the sudden appearance of a racy item song, know precisely what I mean by a ‘wider audience’. The film’s stern anti-colonial narrative with unapologetic villainization of the British leaves little hope for appeal to international audiences. The film, although generally quite respectful towards women and ethnic minorities, seems forced to contradict itself in places by catering to the male gaze and a wide demand for mindless action.
For many, Kangana Ranaut’s performance as the film’s titular character is the biggest draw, and she does not disappoint. Ranaut exudes grace and power in nearly every shot, even when her character is being forced out of her palace by the East India Company. These are the sort of performance that maintain the film’s triumphant overtone, even though it’s no secret how the story ultimately plays out. Spoiler alert: 1857 was not the year India attained independence from the British.
The film manages to find the crux of its own story, which is the primary reason why it excels. It’s creators appear to understand the overwhelming sociopolitical significance of a battle fought by an army of dauntless women – literally, not metaphorically. They’re also cognizant of the movie’s political impact on a heavily polarized country where Muslims and Hindus are being increasingly viewed as two different Indias. The film leans hard into the ethnic background of Manikarnika’s right hand, Ghulam Muhammad Ghaus Khan – played admirably by the highly talented Danny Denzongpa. Manikarnika embraces the narrative of joint multi-ethnic resistance against colonial powers, despite obligatory platitudes Marathas and Hindu glory. No effort is spent on humanizing the British East India Company, which is appropriate enough given the scale of the devastation it inflicted upon India’s indigenous peoples. This film isn’t about good white people who objected internally to a British corporation’s brutality, but the brutality that actually occurred.
Costume designs are almost distractingly brilliant, as are most of the set designs. Given these strengths, the film works best where it features engaging family drama and interpersonal power play. The film fails where it develops anxiety about its own (gasps) ‘femininity’, and makes opposite leaps to keep the traditionally masculine audiences engaged. This is where the film is at its weakest, because it leans hard into elements that it’s least capable of producing: CGI and special effects.
Any person who’s seen a Chinese action film starring Jet-Li understands that you don’t need expensive computer-generated effects to produce a compelling battle sequence. However, because the film relies so heavily on mythology rather than mere history, it’s forced to make awkward stylistic choices to tell its story. It depends heavily on 300-esque alternating slow and rapid motion action shots. At one point during the movie, the Queen’s horse leaps right off a castle tower onto solid ground below which looks every bit as fake as it sounds. Others involve guffaw-inducing fire visuals borrowed straight from the age of ‘Ainak Wala Jinn’.
I’m generally inclined towards excusing Bollywood’s visual effects problem. It’s about the story of people’s resistance, ultimately, and not how realistic the royal elephant looks. But there is no excuse for doing an inferior job at CGI that isn’t even required by the story. Does the hunting scene need a laughably fake computer-generated dupatta flailing behind a bow-wielding Kangana Ranaut? No, but it’s there anyway to distract you from the suspense that the scene is desperately attempting to build. Instead of side-stepping these technical hurdles, the film seeks them out deliberately, launching face-first into them with hilarious results.
Where the film unravels almost utterly is the climactic battle scene, which from the trailer alone promised to be a cheesy, technically-shaky, historically-inaccurate, melodramatic disaster. Visually, the scene attempts to emulate better productions like the fate of 300 Spartans; but Jhansi is no Sparta.
The movie ends abruptly with an unsatisfying textual epilogue. The epilogue terminates with the most insufferable quote from a British officer, deeming the Queen of Jhansi the only real “man” of the revolt. The quote is so abominable, it carries the risk of undoing the entire case the film had been building about gender equality. It asserts that strength and courage are fundamentally ‘masculine’ in nature, instead of genderless traits that anyone may espouse.
The movie’s cringe-worthy, anti-climactic ending may fool one into thinking of Manikarnika as an unworthy film, But having had time to gather my thoughts on the movie as they came to me throughout the viewing, I can say that the experience as a whole was enjoyable. Acting is on point. Dialogue is mostly believable and engaging. Action choreography is quite thrilling. One’s experience overall depends on which parts of the production one chooses to focus on, and the problems one’s patient enough to excuse.
3 / 4 stars.