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Jhansi aap bhi chaahte hai aur main bhi. Farq sirf itna hai ke aap raaj karna chaahte hai aur main apnon ki sewa.” (You want Jhansi and so do I. The only difference is that you want to rule and I want to serve my people.)

This defiant line delivered by Kangana Ranaut sets the stage and tone for Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (Manikarnika) as well the kind of values Rani Laxmibai stood for. As a bonus, Kangana plays the role of the Rani, etching herself once more into the history of Hindi cinema with a refined, fiery and visceral performance. She also makes her debut as the co-director of the movie.

The legend of Rani Laxmibai dwells on the fact that she was mardaani or brave. Yet how many of us understand the woman beneath and why the warrior princess chose to pick up the sword and fight? What drove her to violence? How did she become one of the iconic faces of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (also called the First War of Indian Independence) who charged up the common people enough for them to fight and gain independence less than a hundred years after that?

Freedom fighter and poet Subhadra Kumari Chauhan wrote these immortal lines describing Laxmibai which became a war cry for India’s Independence Movement.

“Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, yeh talwar purani thi,
Bundeley Harbolon ke munh hamney suni kahani thi,
Khoob ladi mardaani woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi…”

(The ancient sword that caught the light in 1857, the story goes, belonged to one who fought like a man —  the valiant Queen of Jhansi.)

Hugh Rose said, of her: “She was the bravest and best military leader of the rebels. A man among mutineers.”

“The Rani is remarkable for her bravery, cleverness and perseverance; her generosity to her subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders,” said Lord Cumberland when describing Laxmibai.

Manikarnika methodically unravels the mardaani perception by focusing on the woman within, through some effective long shots, well-written scenes, sequences and often minimal dialogue. It steers clear of ostentatious drama and emotion, striking a fine balance between fiction and facts and retaining Rani Laxmibai’s identity as well as the fervor of freedom movement. The narrative is simple and stays with her journey. I also loved that it is called Manikarnika, her maiden name. Even though it is part fiction, her spirit remains true to the Queen of Jhansi and effectively shows her contribution in lighting the fire of independence in 1857 mutiny.

Kangana took over the direction because of creative differences with the director Krish (born Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi), as she felt the movie was more about the 1857 Rebellion and less about Rani Laxmibai. It was the right call, and the movie is subtle and gentle despite its violent content. I cannot wait for her solo directorial debut, if her introduction scene is any indication.

The stunningly shot sequence shows Manikarnika aiming an arrow at an errant tiger ferociously attacking villagers. She pats the tiger softly in the neck even as she renders him unconscious. Jhansi’s minister Dixitji watches her and is impressed by this gentle warrior. Swords and arrows were her allies since childhood — she has been fostered by Peshwa Bajirao II (Suresh Oberoi, sublime) despite being born to commoner Moropant (Manish Wadhwa, effective). Soon after, a hesitant princess finds her way into the palace with her prince Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta, outstanding).

Her initiation into her grand new home is a contrast between her disapproving mother-in-law Raajmata and liberal husband Gangadhar. Bangles are not her forte, and while her husband understands that, the Rajmaata doesn’t. Her relationship with Gangadhar is beautifully slow and steady; he woos her with a library of books and prides in his wife’s sword skills. Their romantic sequences are stunning and languid.

When the time is right, Gangadhar hands her the baton of Jhansi, leaving the sorrowed widow saddled with a mission. I found this part well done, and was surprised that even though one expects a woman wielding swords and aiming arrows to be confident of assuming the throne, she is not. She takes on the mantle reluctantly.

Great care has been taken to make sure people around her lift her potential up. Peshwa doesn’t confirm her Jhansi proposal until after a chat. Right before he changes her name, as per the tradition during their wedding, Gangadhar seeks her approval. Jhalkaribai (Ankita Lokhande, sterling), Tatya Tope (Atul Kulkarni, solid), and Ghulam Ghaus Khan (Danny Denzongpa, excellent), her pillars of support are spot on as the supporting leads.

Her character traits are displayed through her actions and dynamics with people around. In a quiet moment, Gangadhar tells her, “You never asked why I wear bangles. Thank you.” She refuses to accept food from Jhalkaribai unless she places it on her hand. In a defiant moment, she declares to her mother-in-law, “I am still married to my land and will not dress like a widow.” She stands with her head held high against the British even when her husband chooses to bow. The scene when Gangadhar seats her on the throne, her bathing ceremony after his death, the confrontation scenes with the British officers, her fight training scene with women, and her speeches, the war scenes, the sword fights… are all evocative.

Considering the modest budget given to a period film of this stature and the double shooting, the production values are excellently toned, with taut direction, robust cinematography, crisp editing, authentic set designs, and elegant costumes. K V Vijayendra Prasad and Prasoon Joshi do a fine job with the script. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Prasoon Joshi rock and roll with the rousing songs.

The special effects are not as smoldering, however. Kangana’s erect spine more than makes up for it. She is a joy to watch in every frame, and all woman in her sword and glory. Be it romancing her husband, taming a horse, giving birth, holding her child, mourning, igniting rebellion, sitting hesitatingly or confidently on throne, cutting a soldier’s head with all her strength, or finally and defiantly perishing in flames.

Right from the first frame to the blazing end, Kangana is glorious. Her eyes, face, gait, spine, and her body language are superbly controlled and in tandem with Jhansi Ki Rani. She proves without a doubt that she is the best among current and past generations. The kitty of her expressions is unbelievable, comparable to Nargis in Mother India. Credit or no credit, the Queen has claimed her throne.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019). Directors: Kangana Ranaut, Krish. Writers: K. V. Vijayendra Prasad, Prasoon Joshi. Players: Kangana Ranaut, Jisshu Sengupta, Danny Denzongpa, Atul Kulkarni, Ankita Lokhande, Suresh Oberoi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Music: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Theatrical release: Zee Studios.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

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