Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Richard Keep, Danny Denzongpa, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Jisshu Sengupta, Atul Kulkarni, Suresh Oberoi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda
Director: Kangana Ranaut & Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi
It’s a crying shame, really, that Bollywood has finally made a movie about the only female sangrami considered worthy of the epithet “Mardani”, but it’s come in this season of shameless gratification and appeasement.
Rani Laxmi Bai deserved better. At the very least she deserved not to become yet another accessory in the fictitious narrative being spun to burnish the haughty claims of valour and patriotism of a political party in pursuit of power. But then, Bollywood has often dived to crawl on all fours when asked to smile and take a selfie.
Despite that, despite the fact that this film does disservice to a very special episode of our history, Rani Laxmi Bai nee Manikarnika, as played by Kangana Ranaut, stands fierce and tall in a film whose sets have a warm, glamorous, seductive glow, but whose story and screenplay are like a catalogue of trite Bollywood cliches, complete with stock characters.
If all the characters around Laxmi Bai in the movie had been replaced by cardboard cutouts, the viewing experience would be no different.
Manikarnika, as written by K.V. Vijayendra Prasad (of Baahubali: The Beginning fame), and Prasoon Joshi (Censor Board chief), does its best to reduce Jhansi to a political metaphor for a very saffron Akhand Bharat, but Kangana, with her power-packed swag, keeps grabbing the film, making it her own.
Kangana plays her character here — as she does often — with a tinge of very real, very feminine vulnerability. She begins by projecting latent courage as Manikarnika’s primal, driving force till it begins to exude from every gesture and pore of Rani Laxmi Bai.
Kangana walks through the film, at times in slow-mo, at times with the camera glancing at her reverentially from below, with stirring authority and control. Even while delivering long, difficult dialogue, she creates definitive, iconic cinematic moments that will remain ingrained in your brain forever.
As will, sadly, the film’s penchant for propaganda, solely for the benefit of the incumbents of Raisina Hill.
Manikarnika, born in a Marathi Brahmin family in Varanasi in 1828, is introduced by The Voice, and then by creatures big and small — a pandit, a lion, aam janta… They speak of her key traits as she aims her bow at a tiger.
Though we are distracted by the long, flowing pallu of her saree, we get the drift: She’s fierce, but just. She’s a warrior, but won’t kill without reason. She’s a protector and destroyer. She’s destined to be a legend.
One of Jhansi’s mantris, Dixitji (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), sees in her all the qualities required of the maharani of his princely state around which the men of East India Company are circling, sniffing for a way in. He takes the marriage proposal to Peshwa of Bithor (Suresh Oberoi), who is like her father, and both men watch with doe-eyed admiration as she beats her teacher, Tatya Tope (Atul Kulkarni), and two others in a round of talwar-baazi.
The man she is to marry, Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), the maharaj of Jhansi, is more of an arts and crafts guy who wears choodiyan (bangles) as a mark of his shameful weakness for failing to confront the Brits.
He also seems clueless that his cousin, Sadashi (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), is conniving with angrez log for a shot at his throne.
Rani Laxmi Bai begins to chart Jhansi’s course as soon as she arrives, first by taming a paglet horse, and then by confronting a badtameez East India official.
Given that the Brits are nasty, greedy, corrupt, malevolent, the film now turns into a series of clashes, including bloody battles, where even if Rani Laxmi Bai loses, she emerges as the winner — morally.
General Hugh Rose (Richard Keep) is specially summoned to fight her and capture Jhansi. But he is so shaken by her bravely that he wakes up sweating and screaming at night because she gives him darshan in his dreams as the angry, blood-thirsty Kali Ma.
In between happy times and personal tragedy, Rani Laxmi Bai established her political leanings — she’s a cow rakshak, is loathe to the idea of English becoming our matra bhasha — as well as her feminist credentials. She shuns not just the cruel rituals of widowhood, but even smears a young widow with red kumkum while getting women battle-ready.
At least in this, Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika beats Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati hollow. This one would rather die fighting, than lead a battalion of women to Sati.
Manikarnika takes its time to wind its way to the 1857 mutiny in Barrakpore over greased cartridges, to finally arrive at the battle of Kotah-Ki-Sarai in 1858. By this time fight fatigue had set in...
2019 may well be the year in which we have to start rating movies not on their cinematic worth, but on their loyalty to the Hindutva agenda.
It’s impossible to miss Manikarnika’s political leanings and agenda. In fact there are times when it becomes rather crassly obvious, like when some characters abuse Maharaj Scindia, with the emphasis being on the royal surname.
The film keeps going to bizarre lengths to embroider around Manikarnika a Naya Bharat where all that is Hindu is good, worthy, patriotic, and all that is not Hindu is alien, antagonistic, and must be destroyed.
So, beef eating and talking in English is bad. And not the royal Hindu gaddar, but a much lower-down-the-ladder Muslim gaddar is read out instructions of how those who are not Hindus must behave.
The film is so devoted to its cause that it assumes we all are mildly stupid.
Manikarnika repeatedly talks of how doing raj is bad, but doing seva is good, despite the fact that these platitudes come from kings and queens who are not democratically elected, but pass on the throne from one generation of the family to another like an heirloom.
Of course as a nation we must celebrate and take pride in our heroes. But when the stories of their sacrifice get turned into a hollow Trojan horse, hiding insidious political messaging in its belly that is let out bit by bit, we should be alarmed.
We should be alarmed as hell when a nation’s mainstream, popular cinema devotes itself with new-found vigour and zeal to spend its monies and creative energy on stitching together a story just so it can unleash propaganda that’s so obviously slanted to one party, one ideology.
We must be alarmed. And we must see what’s brewing.
Visually, Manikarnika is stunning. Its art direction, lighting department, costume designer all come together to conjure a royal, rich world.
There are several sword fight, battle scenes in Manikarnika and all are choreographed beautifully. Kangana is often at the centre of these and she’s ferocious, nimble and believable.
Yet, after a while, these battle scenes become dreary because they are outlandish and without human drama. They are introduced with hyperbole and are executed in the same vein. We admire them, but remain untouched.
The problem is in the film’s writing, and direction. There is no fluidity to the story-telling. The film’s screenplay is episodic, with each scene highlighting a milestone in the life of Laxmi Bai.
It’s almost as if Prasoon Joshi’s screenplay arrived in smart bullet points, with each scene having an accompanying stand-out dialogue.
While the good guys all speak in jingo, of swabhiman and Hindustan, all the negative characters talk and behave like the burly, hairy, cigar-puffing smugglers and their minions of 1970s Bollywood and are encased in rather idiotic scenes.
Since Manikarnika has very little interest in any other character except that of Rani Laxmi Bai, they are used as props — to establish the superiority of Bharatiya sanskriti, and to express either shock or awe at Rani Laxmi Bai.
Manikarnika is insanely prescriptive. Its dialogue and supporting characters exist only to instruct audiences what to feel about the main character. This is the hallmark of B-grade, middle brow cinema, and is the default mode when the cinematic skills of the team are wanting.
While it’s impressive that Kangana Ranaut has directed Manikarnika, along with Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi, sometimes it’s good to stick to what you do best, and let others do their job.