“She was the bravest and best military leader. A man among mutineers. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of all rebel leaders.”– British Officer Hugh Henry Rose
The Bollywood movie starring the trailblazing Kangana Ranaut Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi took me back to my old History lessons. I am disappointed at the fact that I never paid enough attention when the subject of her reign was discussed in class. I remember the less-than-stellar picture of a female warrior on horseback, a sword raised in one hand, and a baby strapped to her back.
Manikarnika : The Queen of Jhansi is a biographical account of Rani Laxmibai’s battles against the East India Company. It portrays her journey from the place where she was born, to becoming the Rani of Jhansi, and eventually a warrior queen.
The openeing sequence had me hooked. Manikarnika (Lakshmibai’s initial name) who showed up with a bow and arrow to prevent a tiger from attacking the villagers was magnificent. With the traditional Maharastraian saree draped over her body and the fierce look in her eyes, I knew that the film was going to be an exhilirating one.In the first half of the film, the audience got to understand Manikarnika’s characteristics. We gathered that she had a love for reading, a care for animals and the skills of an excellent soldier. Yes, unlike the women at the time, Manikarnika was taught how to use a sword, proving that she was different, a revolutionary, rather. The turn in the movie, cliched as it is, came when Jhansi’s Minister, Dixit-Ji brought word that the Maharaja of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao, wanted her hand in marriage.
Kangnana Ranaut’s vulnerbaility as the Queen of Jhansi made the film. Aware and afraid of her shortcomings as a queen, those fears were realised when she refused to obey the rules of the palace.
On her wedding day, her name was changed to Rani Lakshmibai and with her husband’s support she took over the kingdom of Jhansi, looking into its political and military aspects; things a woman wasn’t supposed to do.
The second half of the movie is the Bollywoodisation and it was pleasing nonthelsss- action and lots of it. Lakshmibai’s strength, physical and intellectual, against the backdrop of the Revolt of 1857 was the centrepiece of the entire film.
She wowed the Britishers when she refused to bow down her head before the English Commander, and amazed them even more when she spoke the enemy’s language saying, “Yes, I can speak English. It is a mere language. Words without culture have no meaning.”
There were two scenes in the film that brought out my inner feminist. When the king proposed a celebration for the birth of their son and the British refused because it would fall on a Sunday, Lakshmibai argued that the British held simlair events on Sundays and saw no reason why the celebraton be prevented.
In another, when Lakshmibai lost her husband and son, she is made to perform a ritual, a ritual for widows. Lakshmibhai refused, and instead took over the reign.
But, lo and behold, she was made to vacate the palace by the British, as the throne did not have a male heir (Doctrine of Lapse). Lakshmibai, having earned the villagers’ respect, turned the order to leave into a march. Along with the women of Jhansi, she gracefully walked past the British army, leaving them awestruck.
Lakshmibai continued to live among the villagers and strategized a plan to get Jhansi back. But she knew that the number of people in the British army exceeded the Indians, so she proposed something that had never been done before. She called on the women of Jhansi to join the battle, and trained them with the common goal that “every Indian was to kill three Britishers.”
The women and men of Jhansi fought as fervently as they could against a much superior enemy. And although the battle, the event became the catalyst of India’s long and ardous march towards independence.. A battlefield had never witnessed so many brave women before, let alone one leading an army.
“Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi” was indeed refreshing, the trip to the theatre worth it, and the film a commercial success. If only other Bollywood directors chose to base heroic stories on women more often, then maybe we’d have more female-centric movies to love and praise. And maybe we’d do Rani Lakshmibai justice.
Author: Yadawanka Pala
Yadawanka Pala is pursuing a Maters’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. She was Longlisted for The Half and One Prize, 2019, and her poems have been published by Delhi Poetry Slam.