It is apparent that Kangana Ranaut wears the pants in this period drama – both on and off the screen. The actress is credited as the film’s co-director and she seems to have the reins of control firmly in her hands, whether she is riding a horse or wielding the director’s baton.
Ranaut is front and center of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, a re-telling of one of India’s most famous historical figures. Manikarnika, or better known as Lakshmibai or the Rani of Jhansi, was a leader of the 1857 rebellion who became a symbol of resistance against the British Raj.
Commonly depicted in pictures charging into battle on a horse with her infant son strapped to her back, hers is a story most Indians have heard of or studied in school.
In the 2019 Bollywood version of the story, the special effects are in keeping with the times, and the re-creation of opulent palaces and massive war scenes are adequately breathtaking.
Unfortunately, the story-telling is outdated. This is a plodding, patchy film that takes much too long to get to the point, spending more than half of its 148-minute runtime in the build-up.
We first see our heroine in a field aiming at a tiger with her bow and arrow, her hair and saree blowing in a wind that is apparently only directed at her because everything else including the trees and blades of grass are still.
All this while, she is being closely watched by Dixit-ji (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a visiting minister of the kingdom of Jhansi.
Impressed by Manikarnika’s skills and worried that Jhansi might be annexed by the British because of the king’s lack of interest in ruling, he suggests her hand in marriage to the king, Gangadhar Newalkar.
Manikarnika is named Laxmibai after marriage, and the films wastes considerable time establishing her independence and fearlessness. She answers elders with impunity, looks at the British with scorn and doesn’t care for tradition.
Her husband, Gangadhar (Jisshu Sengupta) is more subdued and often perplexed by his wife’s impulsive behavior, but he doesn’t have too much time to dwell on their differences. The birth and subsequent death of their infant son, his own illness and the looming danger from the East India Company take up most of his thoughts.
The film picks up pace with his death, because it is then that we see the legend of Laxmibai being born. Left with a crumbling army and a few loyal commanders, Laxmibai takes on the British, but the caricaturish characterization of her bete noire Hugh Rose, unnecessary diversions in the form of songs, and long dialogue about the importance of freedom mean the film ends up shortchanging some crucial events in her life.
Jhalkaribai (Ankita Lokhande), her trusted aide and friend gets hardly four scenes, and we don’t see the inner workings of a kingdom where a woman takes on the leadership role, something that was unheard of in those times.
The film is only set on making Laxmibai a hero (but we already knew that). A little insight into her mind would have been nice.
Still, Kangana Ranaut does her best. She is awkward and stilted as the demure bride but comes into her own as the warrior queen. She adds a swagger to her stride and a steely determination to her demeanour that are hard not to cheer for. She is the only thing that make this film worth a watch.
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