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Movie Review: Manikarnika — The Queen of Jhansi (2019)

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

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As pure spectacle, the historical epic Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is top notch, with thrilling battles, dazzling sets, and gorgeous cinematography. However, its narrative fails to make meaningful connections between the protagonist and her supporting characters.

The film is based on the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai, nee Manikarnika, who ruled the Indian state of Jhansi in the 1850s. (A note at the start of the movie admits to taking some cinematic liberties with the story.) From her youth, Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut) was raised on patriotic ballads that sang of spilling one’s blood for the sake of the motherland. She was taught to fight with swords and to tame horses.

That feistiness is just what the bachelor King of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), needs in a potential bride, according to his advisor Dixit Ji (Kulkhushan Kharbanda). Jhansi is one of the last independent kingdoms that hasn’t ceded to rule by the British East India Company or been taken over outright. Gangadhar is a pragmatist, but he’s not happy kowtowing to the Brits. He marries Manikarnika, renaming her Lakshmi Bai in the process. When British officers come to the palace to pay their respects, Manikarnika refuses to bow to them. Gangadhar is delighted.

Manikarnika is unwavering in her judgement of right and wrong. Her character grows as her elevated position allows her to witness a greater spectrum of British cruelty, and she takes responsibility for counteracting it. Ranaut plays Manikarnika as clear-eyed and determined. Her posture is taut, as though she’s always ready for a fight. She’s only at ease when she’s with Gangadhar, who loves her and admires her spiritedness.

Trouble comes not just from the British lurking outside the gates, but from a traitor within: Gangadhar’s brother, Sadashiv (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub). The Brits have promised to name Sadashiv king if he helps depose Gangadhar. Granted, it would be a title in name only, without the limited independence Jhansi currently enjoys.

When the tension between Manikarnika and the Brits turns to all-out war, the movie is at its best. Co-director Krish (more on him to come) previously directed Telugu historical epics, and it shows in the scale of the world he creates. The battles are impressive in scope and require a lot of skilled horsemen and other extras. CGI effects — from injured animals to explosions — are well-integrated, and the fight choreography is exciting.

The plot isn’t complicated, since the Brits are obvious bad guys and the good guys just have to fight them. However, it’s not always clear exactly who the good guys are or how they fit into courtly life in Jhansi or the larger Indian political landscape. When Dixit Ji first proposes a marriage contract with Manikarnika, she’s sword-fighting with three characters who I thought were her brothers–but perhaps weren’t (one of them is played by Atul Kulkarni in a microscopic role). Also present are her biological father and the man who raised her, who is some kind of politician, maybe? She eventually helps one of her probably-not-brothers take the throne of another kingdom, and it would’ve been nice to know why.

There are several female supporting characters who are either from her original home (like Kashi Bai, played by Mishti), from a nearby village, or appointed to take care of her in Jhansi. All are so underdeveloped and shown so fleetingly that they blur together.

This shoddy organization is largely a result of a behind-the-scenes battle for the director’s chair. Krish left the film when it was nearly finished — purportedly pushed out by Ranuat — who re-shot portions of the film herself and recast Ayyub in a role originally played by Sonu Sood. Ranuat is the first co-director listed in the end credits, ahead of Krish, who is credited by his birth name, Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi. According to Krish, many of the scenes filmed with Mishti and Atul Kulkarni were left out of the final film. Perhaps those scenes would have helped to flesh out the characters and their relationships with Manikarnia.

One other complaint is the direction of the characters playing the British officers. The dialogue delivery throughout the film is quite slow, but the British officers speak with an especially unnatural cadence. It’s so strange that I was surprised to discover that Richard Keep, who plays the villain General Hugh Rose, is actually English. I’m not sure which of the co-directors deserves the blame for that, but it’s an unfortunate distraction in a movie that really has a lot going for it.

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