Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi
Directors – Kangana Ranaut, Raja Krishna Jagarlamudi
Cast – Kangana Ranaut, Atul Kulkarni, Jisshu Sengupta, Danny Denzongpa, Suresh Oberoi
Rating – 3/5
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Kangana Ranaut is called Manu in her new film. The full name of the Queen of Jhansi was Manikarnika Tambe, but the film informs us she was nicknamed Manu, like the hero of the Tanu Weds Manu movies where Ranaut found such success as Tanu. This film comes from the actress after she has waged war with industry bigwigs and taken over directorial duties mid-stream, and the messaging is unmistakable: this queen needs no man.
Ranaut makes you believe it. Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi sets up a world where the woman wages war, while the men dance and matchmake. Ranaut is gleeful as she shows the men how its done, fencing expertly while running across the backs of horses and onto that of an elephant. These are cartoonish stunts, but we should ask ourselves if the reason they feel harder to swallow is because she isn’t named Akshay or Ajay and is, instead, a confident woman.
Watch the Manikarnika trailer here
The film seems as historically accurate as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart — which is to say it prizes the valorous myth, and takes ’creative liberties’ to tell its story. This is fine as long as the story is gripping. Directed by Ranaut and Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi, Manikarnika achieves the simplistic ambition of saluting the queen, but feels too long and a bit too cardboard. The budgetary constraints show. The patchwork is constant. However, it must be said that all our period epics look like filmed theatre productions (only in the Baahubali films do swords appear heavy) and there is a straightforward earnestness to Manikarnika, even when craft is lacking. It feels less wasteful than excessive period catastrophes, and I’d readily pick this over a baroque Sanjay Leela Bhansali carnival.
The overall impact is admittedly Amar Chitra Katha, and the storytelling is structured like a children’s film — albeit one with a fair bit of blood — which may not be a bad move, considering how quickly viewers get used to the simplistic syntax. There is much that is laughable, not least the British villains who attend court wearing bowlers and top hats and retire for wartime sleep in black satin pyjamas, but like the history books have always advertised about Jhansi, this is a one-woman show.
Ranaut is glorious. She wears a dazzling smile early on like a cloak of confidence, and later slices down enemy soldiers with a fury that must surely have injured some extras on the set. She’s at her best faux swordfighting with her son, or when — in an undeniably rousing scene — she refuses to have her widowed head tonsured because her kingdom needs a queen to take charge. A couple of supporting actors are good (Jisshu Sengupta and Danny Dengzonpa provide old-school sincerity) but this is all about Ranaut, really.
“I can read English,” Manikarnika once says, dismissively. “It’s a mere language.” It is a loaded line, given how Ranaut faced ridicule and learnt the language later in life, to grow as a performer and storyteller. There is much intent on display, and while Manikarnika could surely have been sharper, its very existence feels like an arrow against cinema’s patriarchy, a broadside against the boys. At the end when we hear Amitabh Bachchan read out those famous lines about the Queen of Jhansi, the first credit declares ‘Directed By Kangana Ranaut.’ It reads like a warning. Heads will roll. God save the queen.