It is savage. It is spellbinding.
Though her fury unleashes too little and in between, when it does, she devours it like a hungry actor and action star. And so for those fleeting seconds, her furious bloodbath evokes the kinetic aggression of South Korea’s The Man From Nowhere‘s final fight in will if not skill.
I wish Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi would explore more of this brute force and go all out in its mutinous pursuits of eulogising a 19th century symbol of honour, valour and tenacity instead of dawdling away precious time to preen in cosmetic grandeur and muddled politics.
I am not sure who is to be blamed more for this inconsistency given Ranaut and Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi are sharing director credits after the latter bowed out to work on another project leaving the actress to wield the baton in addition to her sword.
A vanity project of unclear authorship is not exactly the best way to judge someone’s capability, so the jury is still out on Kangana Ranaut the director.
The legend of Jhansi’s Rani Laxmibai is immortalised in Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem Khoob Ladi Mardani Woh Toh Jhansiwali Rani Thi and Vrindvan Lal Verma’s novel of the same name.
In 1953 film-maker Sohrab Modi, a champion of the genre, adapted Jhansi Ki Rani, but the movie starring his wife Mehtab proved to be an expensive flop. Nevertheless, it is still a rousing classic whose secular, progressive, ideas of leadership and crackling dialogues are worth their weight in gold.
Based on K V Vijayendra (Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan) Prasad’s script, which admits to cinematic liberties, Manikarnika has ambition and passion but certainly not vision.
A historical with an identity crisis, initially the period drama cannot decide whether it wants to chronicle facts or fictionalise them in the tradition of a crowd-pleasing fantasy. After some uncertainty, it settles for the second.
So you have a dramatic entry of Bithoor’s ace archer Manikarnika (Ranaut) and her poetically flying pallu like an unruly-haired Disney princess aiming at a man-eating tiger. He is hardly Sher Khan but the patronising tone of elderly noblemen Kulbushan Kharbanda and Suresh Oberoi deciding on Manikarnika’s marriage to Jhansi’s Raja Gangadhar Rao is no different from Bagheera and Baloo debating Mowgli’s return to the man village.
The makers avoid the creepiness of child marriage by pairing off an adult Manikarnika and acceptably older Gangadhar (Jisshu Sengupta) who dress up in such overwhelming finery only Midas could approve.
The mystery behind Gangadhar wearing bangles in particular is so laughable and bogus, I am willing to forgive Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub’s snarling, throne-thirsty relative stereotype. All the bling cannot weigh down Manikarnika’s (post-marriage rechristened Laxmi Bai) rebellious streak, which sparked off after a series of personal losses preceding the British desire to annex Jhansi.
Rani Laxmi Bai’s spirited patriotism and freethinking ways must have obviously rankled bigots and misogynists. But I cringed at her suffering through overdramatic rituals of widowhood.
Luckily, Kangana’s warrior mode ends the pity party and veers Manikarnika to Mission ‘Main Apni Jhansi Nahi Doongi‘.
A Sir Hugh Rose (Richard Keep) in particular, arrives on the scene like a Sherlock but his pompous Hindi and snappish attitude like a landlord having a hard time getting his obstinate tenant to leave the house screams caricature.
All the British officers are cardboard evil growling incessantly about ‘Woh Aurat‘ and her resolve to flout the Doctrine of Lapse, which forbids her adopted, minor son from inheriting the throne.
There is blood and battle.
Significant characters from history are ruthlessly sidelined into token presence (like Danny Denzongpa’s Ghulam Ghaus Khan) to focus unabashedly on the Queen.
Debutant Ankita Lokhande’s Jhalkaribai gets the worst deal since you will remember her little for the blink-and-miss bravado and more for a gratuitous item song choreographed by Ganesh Acharya (a terrible choice for historicals).
Shankar-Ehaan-Loy’s soundtrack is sublime. But the death-or-glory sentiment is the soul of this heroine, which is sorely missing in Prasoon Joshi’s dull lines. Instead quite a bit of its 148 minutes throw up derivative imagery. I could draw up a long list of similarities.
Manikarnika shows off her fencing skills to brother figures Tatya Tope (Atul Kulkarni) and Nana Sahib like Aishwarya Rai and Sonu Sood (originally cast in Zeeshan Ayyub’s role) in Jodhaa Akbar.
There is a bitter, authoritative, widow making life hell for the new queen like Ila Arun and Tanvi Azmi in Jodhaa Akbar and Bajirao Mastani. The Baahubalihangover is unmistakable in Manikarika’s archery prowess, a la Devsana and Sivagami’s boss lady pose on the throne.
The pulsating background score by Sanchit and Ankit Balhara and production design aesthetics are reminiscent of Padmaavat. Manikarnika and Gangadhar’s rendezvous in a massive library is not too different from the one in Beauty and the Beast.
Manikarnika leaps into battlefield a whole lot like Wonder Woman did in no man’s land. And the final battle heavily borrows 300‘s visual style down to the gnashing teeth in slow motion.
Kangana Ranaut exudes toughness. Whether she is leaping off a fort on her horse in a tacky CGI sequence or burned down to an Om shaped figure, there is a wallop in her daredevilry.
In one of Manikarnika‘s profoundly bizarre moments, she bursts forth as Sir Rose’s Kali-shaped nightmare; it is both — bonkers and ingenious.
Her oddly growing grim baritone seems to be going for a Vijay Dinanath Chauhan vibe, incidentally Amitabh Bachchan pitches in the mandatory voice over. Except her cries are filled with chants of Har Har Mahadev not Agneepath Agneepath Agneepath.
In director Modi’s version they are immediately followed by slogans of Allah Ho Akbar. But Kangana’s political leanings are partial to politician Modi. So you’ve got right wing ideologies on cow meat, minority communities, women empowerment, mother tongue and even a jibe on ‘Scindia’ slipped in for effect.
Is this the Queen we know or need?