Directors: Krish Jagarlamudi, Kangana Ranaut
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Danny Denzongpa, Ankita Lokhande, Atul Kulkarni
How do you convert myth into movie? Manikarnika or the Rani of Jhansi is the stuff of legend. The warrior queen led an army against the British Empire. In 1858, she died on the battlefield at the age of 29. Her story is engraved into our consciousness. The visual of a woman warrior with a child strapped on to her back has been immortalized on film and television, in poems and plays. In fact, the first Indian film made in Technicolor was Sohrab Modi's Jhansi ki Rani, which released 66 years ago, in January 1953. And even if we don't know the entire poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, we all know that one immortal line in it – Khoob ladi mardani woh to Jhansi wali rani thi.
The first requirement to translate this to screen is to get an actor who can convince us of this incredible courage. And on that count, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi gets it absolutely right – Kangana Ranaut is on fire as the iconic Rani Lakshmibai. Her spine is erect, her eyes are unblinking and she seems propelled by some other-worldly power. She's riding horses, wielding swords, leaping on elephants and making it all look plausible. When she looks into camera and insists on dying for the country, you want to follow her into battle. Her valor is hypnotic. So are her exquisite Neeta Lulla-designed saris and jewelry – this is a queen who wears pearls into battle. And there aren't many leading ladies who can pull that off without looking ridiculous.
The character doesn't have much of an arc. In her introductory scene, she single-handedly fells a tiger and then rides off – like women often do in Sanjay Leela Bhansali movies – with an outsized pallu flying behind her in the wind. From frame one, we know that she's a superwoman. Through the course of the film, we also discover that she's a book lover, a master political strategist, a doting mother and a loving wife. When her mother-in-law tells her, "Dhyan sirf mahal aur rasoi kriya main rakh," you almost want to laugh out loud. We know that's not going to happen.
Early on, we are told that cinematic liberties have been taken and the film doesn't claim historical authenticity. But it does aspire for mythical resonance
Rani Lakshmibai is a fascinating character and Kangana is terrific but the film wobbles because there is too much of her. Almost every scene is designed to underline the queen's bravery or brilliance or leadership qualities. Early on, we are told that cinematic liberties have been taken and the film doesn't claim historical authenticity. But it does aspire for mythical resonance. So the queen is the ultimate feminist icon, who inspires other women to pick up a sword and head into battle. When her husband dies, she rejects the rituals of widowhood because the country needs her. At one point, she kills dozens of British soldiers and then stands in front of a statue of goddess Kali, to underline the point that she is a real life version of her.
The story and screenplay, which has been written by Baahubali writer Vijayendra Prasad, doesn't give the other characters depth or moments to shine. Fine actors like Danny Denzongpa, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Atul Kulkarni, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub and Jisshu Sengupta function as props to enhance the queen. Television star Ankita Lokhande makes her film debut but she has little to do. The British are, as usual, either bumbling fools speaking in mangled Hindi or vicious sadists – in one scene, General Hugh Rose, the arch-villain sent to destroy Lakshmibai, hangs a young girl only because her name is Lakshmi.
This is not, in any way, a naturalistic or layered retelling. It's purposefully simplistic and stylized, structured to burnish the legend. The dialogue by Prasoon Joshi is filled with nationalistic fervor. The action might take place in the late 1800s but the lines are carefully constructed to speak to the present. So when the queen says, "Main tumhare antr aatma ki awaz hoon," she is trying to arouse the patriot in us. It's not subtle but it works. Some of the scenes have a genuine emotional power. As does the music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy – especially the stirring song Bharat.
Kangana Ranaut is an effective storyteller but the actor in her undermines the director. Because the actor becomes larger than the narrative
The film can't match the epic scale of Baahubali or the aesthetics of Padmaavat but there is enough grandeur on display. Even the men are ferociously bejeweled and the fortresses are impressive. But you will have to ignore the inept CGI work, especially in the battle scenes.
At two hours and twenty-eight minutes, Manikarnika is unforgivably long. It's been directed by both Krish Jagarlamudi and Kangana herself. In interviews, Kangana has said that 70 percent of it is her work. If yes, then she is an effective storyteller but the actor in her undermines the director. Because the actor becomes larger than the narrative.
But despite these flaws, Manikarnika reveals Kangana as an artist with boundless ambition and I'm excited to see what she creates next. I'm going with three stars.