Kangana’s Ranaut/Krish? ‘s Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi is the kind of film whose best moments are also its most heart-breaking. Amidst all the shoddy execution, unimpressive visuals and just plain lazy action sequences, we get but glimpses, scenes, moments in which you realise what could have been. Rare instances where the spirit of the film and its potential shine through. Moments you dearly cling on to because outside of these, the film is entirely forgettable.
In one scene we see a young girl meet the queen, whose eyes light up with reverence at the sight of her, in sheer awe of her presence because the chances are, for her to come across a fiery female leader such as this is hardly a common occurrence. Or a deeply poetic sequence where women are made to melt their jewellery in order to make weapons. Or the training montage that follows which sees those women prepare for war and the looming battle ahead against the British. Or the numerous moments of sheer swag where a thunderous Manikarnika storms into the courts of other rulers or her utter ferocity in battle.
In these moments, although few and far between, you actually feel..something. A call to arms, a rousing battle cry, the rise of a leader and the utter willingness to follow this person, this symbol into battle. In short, Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi does so much for gender in film, and yet that feels meaningless under the weight of its shortcomings and forgettability. Because that’s what this was intentioned to be – a female Baahubali-like film, the very thought of which is so damn exciting. Alas, a thought is all it remains.
Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi tells the story of the famed freedom fighter, also known as Rani Laxmibhai, who refused to bow down to British rule and became a symbol of rebellion and freedom. We are first introduced to a naturally-gifted, unruly young Manikarnika played by a fierce Kangana Ranaut who, by marrying into its royal family, becomes the Queen of Jhansi. While most Indian rulers, including her husband the king, have made peace with the British oppressors and essentially handed them the keys, she refuses to bend the knee. You can see why Kangana is so ideally suited to the role of a disruptive outsider, here to shake up the status quo, refusing to fall in line as the industry society would demand. A Diana-like figure for her people, she quickly wins their loyalty and affection which later becomes key in earning their support and starting a movement. Later, when the king falls fatally ill, she is left to take on the mantle of Jhansi’s ruler who, in the facing of rising pressure from the British, opts for war over subservience.
Ranaut’s directorial debut – takes so many ‘inspirations’ from Baahubali and SLB’s Padmaavat and Bajirao Mastani, that it’s just plain uncomfortable. Much of the film feels like a like a gastric regurgitation of specific shots, costumes, sets and sequences taken from those films minus their vision or attention to detail of their makers. So much so that you wonder what this film would be without those. The fact is we live in a post-Padmaavat/Baahubali world and in terms of powerful visuals, booming scale and large action set pieces, the bar has been irreversibly raised and Manikarnika feels like a watered down version of those films. The uninspired, tepid cinematography, which offers some sort of period-drama-on-Star Plus aesthetic certainly does the film no favours.
So then, if you don’t stand to have an impact through visual style or execution what then is the appeal here? Unfortunately, what the film lacks in technical finesse it certainly doesn’t make up for in storytelling or characterisation which is equally flat. Let’s begin with the British who are once again plain laughable even by Hindi cinema’s standards of the typical pale-awkward-Hindi-spewing-cartoons we are used to. Perhaps more than the quality of their Hindi is their confused accents. The brief here was clearly ‘literally any white guys’ because many in the film have accents ranging from American to random European to ‘I swear that dude sounds French’.
That said, the first battle sequence does provide some food for thought. We see the British lay siege to the Jhansi fort and while they initially seem to be getting battered, they quickly gain the upper hand by moving their forces behind a temple, effectively using it as cover. This essentially disarms the armada of Jhansi cannons out of fear of hitting the temple. It’s moments like this that make you wonder whether it was this kind of spectacular Indian stupidity that allowed them to cripple the country in the first place. There are also some winning supporting performances, chiefly from the steadfast Danny Denzongpa and Jisshu Sengupta.
In the end, despite its shabbiness and many a moment of unintentional comedy, above all Manikarnika is an opportunity squandered. It has all the right elements in place, it is but in dire need of guidance, filmmaking and ultimately – direction. I’m going with 2 stars.