Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi goes beyond anti-war — it’s ‘anti-water’. Characters lost in deep, stately thoughts flare up when offered a glass of refreshment; one of them, a brute Britisher, hangs a little girl who brings him a drink of water, only because she shares a name with the belligerent Indian queen. Hoarse with warcry, these throats must remain droplessly dry — the writers seem to insist — and taste only the first splatter of blood. How else can they attain the peculiar croak of angered religiosity?
Kangana stars in and co-directs this sandy opus with Telugu filmmaker Krishna Jagarlamudi, who allegedly left the film midway. The story remains the same. After the death of her husband Gangadhar Rao, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi takes centrestage in the rebellion of 1857 and bathes herself in the blood of the lobsterbacks.
At a textual and sonic level, this is period filmmaking by the books: Amitabh Bachchan does the voice-over, Kulbhushan Kharbanda squeezes in fake dramatic tension with his patently stressful voice, swords clash on swords amid thunderous cannonballs, while Shankar Mahadevan cuts in with melodic sermons on ‘desh-prem vs self-love’, appropriately penned by censor board chief Prasoon Joshi.
Visually, too, the film is instantly identifiable: it opens with a display of blackened warships, not unlike the ones in Vijay Krishna Acharya’s Thugs of Hindostan, and it borrows its majestic forts and darkened entryways from that disastrous 2018 film. But this is no ordinary movie about wannabe pirates leading a half-baked rebellion. This is, mind you, a Kangana Ranaut movie — an actor of formidable spunk and mythology, who adopts the mania and ignition of her similarly-mythicized character with an unceasing, unsettling rage.
The first-half is just set-up. We are introduced to a young, eco-friendly Manikarnika who hunts to rescue a village from a stray tiger, not kill the beast entirely. Married into the Jhansi royalty, she gallops into a British outpost and literally picks a beef with the officers, having arrived to rescue a stolen calf. Quite the linguist, she scolds an arrogant extra, “Of course I know English. It’s a mere language. Language, without culture, is empty.”
The calf is then returned to its owner Jhalkaribai — a brave Dalit warrior of Koli ethnicity who fought alongside Rani Laxmibai and is immortalized in Bundeli folklore, played here (with an easy grace) by TV star Ankita Lokhande. Bengali actor Jisshu Sengupta appears as Kangana’s husband Gangadhar Rao, a king with artistic inclinations who is embarrassed about not seeming butch, and thus wears bangles to stoke his pride. The most interesting character, though, remains a battle-ready Danny Denzongpa, as black-clad freedom fighter Ghulam Ghaus Khan. The actor doesn’t seem to age, and it hurts to see him take a bullet in the back or get knifed by a fellow (read: "Muslim") tribesmen.
To those excited by the film’s trailer, it’s advisable to walk in post-interval. You won’t miss much, and — unlike many of us lulled by the drab writing — will enjoy the butchery you came for. Kangana morphs into an inflamed apparition in the second-half. Her whole demeanour takes on the aura of a vengeful slasher-goddess, beady eyes burning with the rage of a thousand slain mercenaries, the kind of eyes you are likely to spot in a mob, or WhatsApp videos of a certain, violent-kind. In the final battle scene, she performs a spectacular sword limbo — like Neo in Matrix, only funkier — before springing back into action and beheading two soldiers at once. “Har Har Mahedev,” she bellows, like in the trailer, as the sky turns a vicious brown.
The film begins as a biopic, but derails quickly into a surreal showdown of unbridled carnage. The facts, if any, get chewed up in the mess. The writers are too busy rhyming 'shanti' with 'kranti' to fill us in on the details, and the only comic scene in the film is reserved for the Scindia of Gwalior, in an unsubtle jibe at his (politician) descendants.
Released in the wane of January, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi picks up the slack of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. Like that eventfully messy film, it offers warmth and madness to a nation perpetually frozen in parochial pride, eschewed moral and empowerment systems, and a spreading swell of religiously-coloured nationalism. Brace yourselves, for this is a trend here to stay. Those similarly themed endings are not a co-incidence; they are signs. Indian cinema is about to go up in flames.
Film: "Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi"
Directors: Kangana Ranaut and Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi
Cast: Kangana Ranaut, Ankita Lokhande, Atul Kulkarni, Danny Denzonpa, Suresh Oberoi, Jishu Sengupta, Vikram Kochhar, Prajakta Mali, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub, Kulbushan Kharbanda