Kangana Ranaut in the official poster of 'Manikarnika: Queen Of Jhansi' Photograph:( WION Web Team )
The film can perhaps be enjoyed more like a fictional tale, where the two directors have taken copious amount of liberty while presenting the story of India's favourite heroine.
Of the stories and heroes that history has given us, Rani Laxmibai’s story is perhaps the most heart wrenching and heroic. A young girl, who has to take on too many responsibilities early in life out of desperation to save herself and her kingdom, and eventually becomes the heroine of her own story and inspires several generations – Rani Laxmibai’s tale of bravery is narrated to almost every child in India.
A film, made on her life, naturally would generate a lot of interest. ‘Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi’ featuring Kangana Ranaut in the titular character attempts to showcase the valour of the brave queen and thus serves the perfect platform to Ranaut to show her talent as an actor and director.
The first half an hour is just spent in establishing how our heroine is not your usual 19th-century girl. A bright girl, who can give veterans a tough fight in sword fighting, is kind to people and animals. Born to a Brahmin family in Varanasi, and then raised by a Peshwa, she is initially a tad hesitant to become a queen of a state. But as she marries King Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi, she does slip into the role of a queen easily- becoming a people’s queen who may break protocols but is a just, kind ruler.
The East India Company’s presence, meanwhile, looms large over the kingdom and everyone is aware that if the new couple does not provide an heir, the Company would take over. The couple does have a child, but he dies soon after. And in order to protect the kingdom, the king adopts a cousin’s child as his own. But as East India Company overrules its own laws and threatens to take over Jhansi, Laxmibai, now a widow, has no choice but fend for herself and her kingdom.
Co-directed by Ranaut and 'Baahubali' writer Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi, the film quite naturally, showcases Kangana in all her glory. The range of the character is long. From a naive, innocent young girl to a courageous warrior, the character goes through myriad emotions which Kangana ably performs. She is feisty, confident and a true leader. Her range is admirable- you feel for her when she loses her son, you look at her with admiration when she decides to take on the responsibilities as a queen and you cheer for her when she is on the battlefield. Kangana looks breathtaking and owns every frame that she is in.
While the film gives a glimpse into Rani Laxmibai’s historic fight with British, it grossly takes liberties with facts- portraying a rather fictional tale which is heaped with token patriotism. Here’s the thing- at the time when Queen of Jhansi went to war with the British- the concept of a consolidated country did not exist. Every king was ultimately fighting to save his own kingdom from the East India Company. Sure, she was a brave, rebellious leader with great courage- but she fought to save her kingdom- not with the intent to set an example for the future generation- as is portrayed in the film.
The film also overlooks almost every other character who in reality had a lot to do with Laxmibai’s emergence as a rebel leader. Tatya Tope, one of the most prominent leaders of the 1857 rebellion, is reduced to a caricature character in the film. So is Gangadhar Rao, the king of Jhansi. His character sketch is almost laughable. Just because the story has the woman playing a strong-willed, brave character, it doesn’t mean that her man has to be borderline effeminate or coward- as is projected in the film.
There are also certain scenes that one can understand have a certain agenda and play to the gallery and those perhaps the weakest links of the film. Even if they had stuck to the story of Laxmibai, it would have made for a heartwrenching, thought-provoking film. She was, after all, an unusual choice for a leader at that time hence her emerging as the warrior queen trying to save the kingdom from foreign rule would anyway make for an epic saga. The frills of nationalism were not needed. Her story, for time immemorial, evokes a lot of pride among the countrymen. A film celebrating her valour would have had an equal impact on the nation.
The ensemble cast comprises of some very prominent actors. There is Ankita Lokhande who plays the feisty Jhalkari Bari- a commoner who joins the struggle because of her admiration for the Queen. Bengali star Jishhu Sengupta plays the King but a poor screenplay doesn't allow him to do much with his character. Neither does Atul Kulkarni have much to do as Tatya Tope with such limited screentime. Veterans like Danny Denzongpa and Kulbhushan Kharbanda also get limited screen-time and are unable to create a lasting impression as a result. The film is written to project Kangana's talent solely and she is there in almost every scene.
While the first half stretches a bit too long and is high on melodrama, the film's second half- especially during the battle scenes- is exhilarating and exciting. Those scenes, despite blotchy VFX, are well choreographed and executed - giving the audience a sense of the catastrophe and havoc that had ensued at Jhansi. The film also has a beautiful soundtrack by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy which enhances the narrative to a great extent.
If you know and understand Indian history well, you will find yourself feeling exasperated on several occasions while watching the film. It can perhaps be enjoyed more like a fictional tale, where the two directors have taken copious amount of liberty while presenting the story of India's favourite heroine. Watch it for Kangana- it is completely her show and she doesn't disappoint.