Battle of the Warrior Queens Part I

2019 was a big year for Rani Lakshmibai. She had two movies, a TV show, and an appearance in a third movie. This isn’t the first time there have been movies and TV shows about the Queen of Jhansi, but why this sudden interest? It’s the kind of thing that would happen in Hollywood once upon a time, where a more mercenary studio would produce a movie to capture some of the craze generated by a big blockbuster: Carnosaur in 1993, or Leviathan and DeepStar Six in 1989. I know why this doesn’t happen anymore, because there’s no market for movies that can be made quickly and cheaply, but it’s fun to see multiple interpretations of the same subject matter, especially with that mercenary edge, and especially when that subject matter is something rare like dinosaurs. I love dinosaurs, and I can hardly think of anything I’d want to see more in a movie. Except for maybe a warrior queen.

I was scrolling through Instagram one day and this trailer happened to be there, autoplaying, as they do. “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi,” it said, and my heart fluttered. I had never heard of this character before, but my imagination was immediately captured. I then saw it was certified R for only “some violence,” which didn’t bode well for my hopes of a bloodbath underneath this warrior queen’s march. Either way, extremely exciting, so it was a one-two punch then to discover that apparently, this movie is bad. But fear not, said the Internet, for there’s a superior version. That’s what we’re gonna look at today: Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, and next time, compare it against The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, as soon as I figure out how to watch it.

So, who is this Rani Lakshmibai? She was a key figure in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the first woman to take a stand against the British. As the queen of Jhansi, a city in Uttar Pradesh, she lost her son and husband, the king, when she was only 18. She adopted a son, but he was not recognized by the British government as a legal heir, leading to the annexation of Jhansi. When the rebellion broke out across the subcontinent, Rani already had plenty reason to join the fight, as well as the skills to lead the charge. She is an incredibly important historical figure, an icon for India.

As such, the integrity of any depiction of Rani Lakshmibai is of crucial importance, as author Harleen Singh discusses in her book The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India. Or so I garner from the description of the book, which is somewhat expensive. But you can just look on Wikipedia for that. You’ll find statues of Rani all around India, there are universities and colleges and parks named for her, and most fascinatingly, we had the Rani of Jhansi Regiment in the Indian National Army, an all-women combat unit in the 1940s. So the primary question we’ll use to compare these two movies is this: how effective is each film’s depiction of Rani Lakshmibai? Which of these two is most likely to inspire the next generation of women, or teach everyone else that women can do it all, too?

First, of course, how is she depicted in Manikarnika? Well, in the style of a big Bollywood blockbuster. This is the kind of movie I wish had an analogue in the United States: it’s for everyone, but it doesn’t pull any punches. Rani slashes and shoots through the British, and while it’s not exactly Hacksaw Ridge, it isn’t an old school John Wayne war movie, either. In fact, the action tradition it seems to hail from is the lineage of 300, with all the slow-motion and the kind of high-flying acrobatics afforded by extensive use of green screen. As a warrior, Rani’s abilities are unquestioned. She’s a martial arts master, a master horse-rider, and she’s lethal with the sword or the gun.

But that’s only one part of the equation. She is a warrior queen, after all, and as relatively rare as woman warriors are in popular culture, women in positions of authority have got to be even rarer. Combine the two, and you’ve created something I didn’t even think to ask for. So how does the “queen” half of the equation hold up? That’s what most of the story establishes, as we see her interacting with the people of Jhansi, who are generous and accepting, so that when she says things like: “You want to rule it, I want to serve its people,” we understand what she’s talking about.

And of course, the rebellion isn’t just a war, but a war of values. The British East India Company invades for the purpose of money-making, and the Indians want to be free. This basic dichotomy plays out in the film in both broad and small ways. There’s the moment where the British move their cannons from a tactically disadvantaged position to cover behind a temple, knowing their enemy won’t fire back at something so sacred. This allows Rani to resolve an impossible choice: either destroy the temple or let the British continue their attack on the castle wall. She chooses option C, which is to take to the field and eliminate the cannons at close range.

This is a perfect example of the largely theoretical warrior queen archetype. She makes the high-level strategy decision, and then goes out and does it herself. And what’s more, she is fighting for an idea, in this case, that this temple is more than just a structure, that these spaces and objects don’t transform into capital you can use to purchase an advantage in the fight. Rani is fighting for the future of Jhansi and of India, and that’s about ideas. When you are forced to sacrifice cultural objects, like melting down gold for weaponry, it’s a solemn moment. Rani’s arrival at military leadership is depicted here powerfully, from her deciding that women can fight too, to this first tough choice. From her husband, we understand the potential for symbolic meaning in jewelry, and that meaning is burned away in the industry of war.

The movie puts forth a number of intriguing postulations like this about how a warrior queen would work, how she would claim such a transcendent status by rising up and inspiring her people. As a leader, she is interested in breaking cycles. When the rebels journeying from Barrackpore kill Captain Gordon and take his wife and daughter, Rani shows up to remind everyone who the real enemy is. This is not only about the big picture, but framing the big picture with morality: fighting a war isn’t about vengeance, but the defense of a people. It’s important to keep those two things separate, because we know that appropriation of the latter can be used to justify the former.

In many ways, this Rani of Jhansi is an ideal warrior queen. She’s socially progressive, skilled in combat, courageous in the face of imperialism, and embodying a strong but fair sense of justice. She also jumps a horse off a castle and keeps riding it all the way to Kalpi. I got to think this didn’t happen exactly this way, and that’s kind of the problem with a movie like this which necessarily splits the difference between historical biopic and mythic legend. The true story of Rani Lakshmibai can only be reconstructed, and this gives storytellers some latitude when translating that story to the big screen.

With the story of any extraordinary person, it’s natural to ask how this person came to be. In the first half of the film, we watch her move upward through her society, where she’s constantly breaking rules and challenging conventions. What’s surprising is that people seem to welcome this. The expected friction of an individual against society is missing here. To perilously invoke the embattled “Hero’s Journey,” Rani is not tested. There is certainly drama and conflict, like when she’s convincing those around her to rebel. When faced with overwhelming odds, the early stages of rebellion look reckless. But then we get up-close with those odds and they’re a bit less than overwhelming. She steamrolls over the British in almost all her encounters, and most of the evil acts in the movie are committed by traitorous Indians. While this does relieve the viewer of the kind of misery porn we’d expect from an American rendition, it also relieves the character’s successes of their catharsis.

Not only does this lack of friction lend the film an anti-gravity buoyed by its ever-moving camera and nonstop location changes, no matter how gilded and gorgeous those locations are, it also simplifies the narrative, seemingly for the sake of speed. I know that historical figures, just like anyone, are complicated and wouldn’t necessarily hold up to modern purity tests. In the cursory research I did on Rani Lakshmibai before watching the movie, I learned of events which I don’t believe I saw in the movie, for example, a massacre which she may or may not have commanded. I know she didn’t disable a tiger with a nonlethal headshot, I know she didn’t jump that horse, I know she didn’t scale an elephant like this. If creative latitude means magical realism, why wouldn’t it also mean historical revision? Rani is, again, the perfect warrior queen, an ideal. But is there really an ideal way to lead a rebellion? Even within the context of the film, she may not encourage wanton slaughter, but how then does she demonstrate leadership and maintain emotional objectivity?

Rani of Jhansi here is played by the famous Indian actress Kangana Ranaut, and for all my objections to the film already listed, I can’t deny the power of her performance. In another way, this is the kind of movie I wish were made in America, which allows such a range of emotions and actions for an actress to undertake. She’s playful in her early rebellion against her traditional society, calm and cool in her face-offs with the British, frighteningly committed to the cause, and a force of nature on the battlefield. Get you a girl who can do both, or all? You couldn’t handle this.

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is a passion project for Raunat. From the beginning to the end, when she promised to destroy the people protesting the film; this story means a lot to her, and it’s not hard to see why. In her life, Raunat faced down traditions of her own, like when her father forbade her from a career in movies. Her pushing ahead despite that contributed to a lifelong spirit of independence. And of course, one woman’s independence is another man’s encroachment. As I discover, she’s a notorious public figure who’d be right at home in Beverly Hills. They may not have TMZ in India, but certainly that, uh, journalistic tradition stems from a deeper universal human instinct. Ranaut has made public statements and defended them, about Pakistan, about Hindu extremists, fellow actors. And then there’s the drama of her personal life, reports of turbulent even violent relationships with other high-profile celebrities.

And at that point, “passion” can easily be used to explain away or apologize for problematic behavior, like any given Alfred Hitchcock or Abdellatif Kechiche. For example, you’ll notice that Kangana Raunat directed this movie. She’s first in the credits, and shares that credit with Krish. Per his account, she directed this tiger scene, one of the musical numbers, and reshot some of the battle. That doesn’t surprise me, given the cameo by green screen. From my understanding, what happened was Krish directed the movie and turned in his edit, and then Raunat insisted on some changes which led to reshoots. For example, she wanted the character played by Sonu Sood killed off before the interval, but Krish didn’t want to do that, and Sood didn’t want to take part without Krish. He was recast. That seems pretty harsh, so we might ask, why did Raunat insist on these changes? We likely have some ideas, but Krish stops before blaming it on artistic self-indulgence. Maybe she didn’t want her scenes stolen by other talents, or maybe she thought it was better for the story, for the character. It’s complicated.

And whatever else, Kangana Raunat is a very outspoken woman, unafraid to let feminism inflect very public statements. In response to being called a witch for allegations of abuse, she had this to say in an interview with India Today: “Even in this new age, when we have to project our frustrations on a woman, the first thing we call her is daayan, chudail or whore or psychopath. The mentality is the same. If I can’t get you, I might just destroy you.” Hearing the allegation and hearing her speak like this, it’s easy to imagine people taking sides. By the metrics I’ve seen applied to much-hated American celebrities like the Kardashians or Lena Dunham, from politicians to anyone with a voice of dissent, Raunat embodies the term “difficult woman.” Tempting it might be to evaluate these people, I understand I’d only be doing so based on limited information, not to mention a remote distance from the experience of being a woman or a celebrity.

And judgment is not the point I’m trying to make. This is about Manikarnika, and my original question: is this an effective depiction of Rani of Jhansi? I think we’ve found our measure. She’s perfect, and she’s simplified. If Rani of Jhansi existed today, would we react to her the way people do in this movie? We see how we’re already reacting to Kangana Ranaut, and she hasn’t even killed anybody. So this is the possible danger in an approach like this movie takes: Does a powerful but uncomplicated vision of a woman leader help us believe what women can do anything within the realm of human possibility, or does it disrupt our ability to prepare for the complex reality of women, thereby ensuring we follow our own traditions in perceiving and judging them?

Even though there was a minor explosion of Rani of Jhansi in popular media in 2019, the body of work remains small enough that individual films must bear the burden of ideal representation, as you can see by my own thoughts here. It’s more important that a movie like Manikarnika exist than it be absolutely perfect, and that’s why having alternate approaches to the same subject matter is a good thing. I like Leviathan. We’ll take a look at The Warrior Queen of Jhansi when that becomes easily available to me, and we’ll make our comparison then. The trailer has a more Western-style feel, so this battle of the warrior queens might also be a clash of filmmaking cultures. I can’t wait to find out.

But for now, with just one of two movies, what have we learned? Rani of Jhansi is the voice inside every Indian who doesn’t want to bow their head to oppression, and this is how a warrior queen draws her power. It’s not just about physical violence, as we see when she arrives in Gwalior. In possibly her most badass moment, Rani walks into a palace and takes the damn throne, all without firing a single shot. It’s a depiction of power that rings far truer than that embarrassing girl power moment in Avengers: Endgame — this is earned. But what about when Kangana Ranaut takes the damn throne from the director? When is that earned? I realize they’re vastly different scenarios, but both women are telling the same story, aren’t they?

References

Exclusive: I am not ashamed of witchcraft, says Kangana Ranaut
Her father had refused to let her enter films, but as Kangana put it: “For my life, I need to make my own choices.” “I love that my father resisted my choices,” she said in an exclusive interview with India Today Television. “It gave me a lot more stamina. Even when I was rebelling against my father, the point was to follow my own intuition and instinct,” she added.

Will destroy those who try to harass me, Kangana warns right-wing outfit
“Four historians have certified Manikarnika…The Queen of Jhansi. We have got censor certificate as well. Karni Sena has been conveyed this but they are continuing to harass me,” Kangana said in a statement. “If they don’t stop then they should know I am also a Rajput and I will destroy each one of them,” added the Queen actor, who has directed the film along with Krish.

Manikarnika Director Krish Finally Speaks Out On WHAT WENT WRONG Between Kangana Ranaut And Him
And then, she suddenly rose to say that Sonu’s character should be killed at the interval point. This was completely against history.


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