“Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi”… A great historical character is dully recreated in a by-the-numbers epic

Posted on February 1, 2019

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Spoilers ahead…

Why can’t we make better cinema about the great, cinema-ready personalities who fought the British in the nineteenth century? This isn’t just about Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey, which careened uneasily between one man’s personal agenda and a country’s political consciousness. There’s also Sohrab Modi’s excruciatingly prosaic Jhansi Ki Rani (1953), with Mehtab playing the queen. That film, too, attempted to conflate the regional and the national, the past and the present. A title card, at the beginning, proclaimed: “Dedicated to those men and women who fought and died so that other men and women live in freedom.” But sometimes, it’s just better to scale back and tell an individual’s story. And what better story than that of Rani Lakshmibai, of whom the older film’s antagonist, General Sir Hugh Rose, V.C., wrote in his diary, “And she was the bravest and the best man on the side of the mutineers.”

And what better actress to play this “man” than Kangana Ranaut, who has made a career out of raising the heroine’s profile to that of a hero! Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi introduces its protagonist like the leading man of a legend, like “The One”. A voiceover booms that she was born when there was evil all around, and we learn that she is destined to have her name scribbled across the pages of history. From the infant, we cut straight to the adult Manikarnika (she became Lakshmibai after marriage), who saves a village from a tiger that terrorises it. Later, during a mock sword fight, she single-handedly takes on three men — behind this action, we see three women sitting on the ground and (as Veeru says in Sholay) chakki peesing and peesing… That is what the rest of the women of the time, apparently, were destined for, unlike Manikarnika.

The ingredients are all there. Intrigue in the palace corridors. More intrigue in the form of a husband who wears a bangle. (This is the raja of Jhansi. At first, I wondered if this king might be… a queen.) And best of all, the unspeakably evil Captain Gordon (Edward Sonnenblick), who comes off like Mogambo and Shakaal time-machined back to the Raj era and made a baby. It appears that the film wants to tell its patriotic story in the masala format, the way Raj Kumar Santoshi did so gloriously in The Legend of Bhagat Singh. But alas, in one of many inscrutable writing decisions, Captain Gordon is killed off during the course of a song. Yes, after all the teeth-gnashing and moustache-twirling, he doesn’t even get a proper death scene. Imagine Gabbar Singh being elbowed off a cliff by Samba as Basanti is dancing on broken glass. It’s something like that.

Manikarnika is all ingredients. There’s no cook. Technically, of course, there are two: Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi and Kangana Ranaut. But there’s very little in the film that looks “directed”. It’s just a dull series of events, with duller dialogues (by Prasoon Joshi). When Manikarnika’s marriage is arranged, an elder says: “Yeh rishta aapke aur mere liye nahin hai. Maatrubhumi ke liye hai.” (This alliance is for the motherland.) That’s what needs to be said, but surely not how you expect it to be said, coming from the man behind the blazing lyrics of Rang De Basanti. A bigger surprise is that the story-screenplay is by KV Vijayendra Prasad, who wrote textbook masala movies like Eega, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the Baahubali installments.

Characters like Jhalkaribai (Ankita Lokhande) and Sangram Singh (Taher Shabbir) come and go as they please. No one gets anything close to a graph. It’s the same with the scenes: the one where Manikarnika refuses to wear the garb of a widow, or the one where women are recruited into the army, or the one where the “good Muslim” character dies. They just don’t build. They just don’t explode. Instead, the film relies on cannon after cannon being set off. But even in these war scenes, the geography is confusing and the editing has no sweep. Compare the stretch where Lakshmibai battles assailants in order to save her young son with the similar sequence in Bajirao Mastani, and you’ll see the difference between a wannabe and a visionary. Even the cinematography is flat. The frames seem to be out of a well-lit jewellery commercial.

Is this mess-up the result of the famous behind-the-scenes trouble between actress and director, which now appears to have been a war on par with the one on screen? There are certainly indications that Manikarnika is something of a vanity project for its heroine. When Lakshmibai charges out of her fort and battles the British amidst exploding cannons and the sand kicked up by the hooves of horses, her face remains untouched by mud or ash, and her lipstick remains indestructible. What about the performance, you ask? It’s a full-throated one — quite literally so. After the death of a loved one, Kangana opens her mouth so wide in anguish that we fear we’re about to catch a glimpse of the royal epiglottis. We see not a bereaved mother but an actress throwing the kitchen sink at us. You want to applaud. But first, you want to duck.

Copyright ©2019 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi