Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi
Director: Krish Jagarlamudi, Kangana Ranaut
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Ankita Lokhande, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Danny Denzongpa, Suresh Oberoi
Manikarnika, is based on a story that most Indians are familiar with; that of the legendary Jhansi Ki Rani a fearless warrior as brave and courageous as any man. Part impetuous, one who has no fear in speaking her mind or defiantly following her Rajdharma, the Rani of Jhansi is most certainly a character that any female actor would like to sink her teeth into. And Kananga Ranaut, both leading lady and co-director, deserves plaudits for breathing life and humanity into the deified historical character she plays. Ranaut channels her inherent feistiness for the part but also displays great finesse in the way she goes from playful acts of bravery to a deliberated feline like fierceness.
The original lore based partially on historical accounts is rich enough in dramatic twists and turns and instances of heroism for it to be turned into a film. K.V.Vijayendra Prasad’s screenplay, for the most part, follows the historical account of Rani Laxmibai originally born as Manikarnika Tambe in Varanasi. Her father, an advisor to the Peshwa trained her in horse-riding, archery shooting and other skills in warfare. She was chosen to be the wife of King Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, the King of Jhansi. Bengali star Jisshu Sengupta as Maharaja Gangadhar Rao looks every inch the monarch –stately and imperious –the perfect King. The couple had a son together who died a few months after his birth thereby hastening the arrival of the British who were keen to turn Jhansi into a vassal state. The King suffering from ill-health adopted his cousins’ son who was named Damodar Rao but the British refused to recognise him as the successor and applied for the Doctrine of Lapse. According to the doctrine, any kingdom without a legal male heir would lapse into the control of East India Company.
In a scene that follows the King’s demise, Ranaut, haughtily and decisively walks away from the traditional rituals reserved for a widow dedicating herself instead to the service of the kingdom and the country, with a premonition of sorts that the crown she dons is a crown of thorns. From the guileless young girl gambolling with swords to the Queen marshalling her army and taking on the might of the British Empire, Ranaut accomplishes both with enviable aplomb. When she angrily snarls the historical lines “Main apni Jhaansi nahin doongi,” she completely owns the character. Ranaut, astride the stallion wielding the sword with a flourish, is the perfect visual match to the line “Khoob ladi mardani woh toh Jhansi wali Rani thi” from Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem, often used to describe Rani Laxmibai.
The threat of subjugation by the British East India Company is right at their doorsteps. Manikarnika, however, when forced to surrender the kingdom wages a battle against the British and aligns forces with Tatya Tope and Nana Saheb. Joining in the Revolt of 1857, she goes to war against the British with her son tied to her back.
Screenwriter Prasad remains faithful to this train of events in her life but misses the golden opportunity of delivering a memorable story with scenes that rise above the flow of historical events. The script does deserve a pat on the back for not diluting the heroic saga with sappy and oversentimental moments. But, the emotional charge of the key scenes is mostly one-note and not nuanced enough to make them rise to their dramatic potential. The script also does not allow several key characters enough room to heighten the drama. The palace intrigue, mentorship of the Rajguru (a prominent feature in Sohrab Modi’s 1953 film, Jhansi Ki Rani) or the challenges that Manikarnika may have faced in her attempt to being accepted as an equal let alone a leader of men in a war situation, are barely touched upon. The British are shown as mere caricatures with the exception of Richard Keep as General Hugh Rose.
Wherever the script falters, Ranaut’s on-screen charisma comes to the rescue. She is impressive in each and every scene, never missing a beat. Manikarnika would certainly qualify among those rare screen gems with a female protagonist that is an out and out action film, and Ranaut, pulls off this feat with flair. She deserves extra credit for the fact that she co-directed the film along with Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi and steered it through some very tricky behind-the-scenes developments.
It’s a pity though that the film does not permit the talented ensemble of supporting actors with the likes of Atul Kulkarni, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Danny Denzongpa enough scope to establish the historical characters they represent.
Dialogues by Prasoon Joshi sit well with the times it is set in and the music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy infuses the right degree of up the patriotism.
Manikarnika, is a brave attempt at resurrecting the legend of a heroic Indian Queen, a feat that it accomplishes.