Battle of the Warrior Queens Part II

Something that strikes me is the notion of international law as it pertains to imperial conquest, that you have to contrive a legal basis for something morally illegal. The British East India Company wouldn’t annex Jhansi unless Rani Lakshmibai’s heir was considered illegitimate. But why? Were they worried about a rebellion? Either way, I think that speaks to the time, the mid-19th century — that even empires were run by gentlemen, and that’s either inherently contradictory, or more true than they realized. But first, I think a recap is in order.

It’s the year 1828, and Manikarnika Tambe, or Manu, is born in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, India, and she marries the Maharaja of Jhansi, who later dies, leaving her in command at a critical moment in British-Indian relations. Ultimately, she takes part in the rebellion of 1857 and becomes a legend. It’s the year 2019, and two movies about the Queen of Jhansi are released: Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, discussed in Part I, and The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, which we’ll look at today. The question I had in the comparison of these films centered on their depiction of a legendary character, someone who inspired so many people she’s partly famous for inspiring people. I thought Manikarnika offered promising insights, but any potential depth of exploration was wringed out by a structural adherence to the biopic. I also found the depiction of Rani somewhat implausible, that she’s uncomplicated and wholly accepted by her society, despite that she seems to delight in breaking traditions. So with that as our frame, what about The Warrior Queen of Jhansi?

This movie is co-written and directed by Swati Bhise, who is better described as an artist than only a director, as she’s primarily a dancer and teacher and overall advocate for the arts. She is also a woman, and that will make portions of this video difficult for me, for isn’t gender that most disrupting thing upon the affairs of men? It’s just that I’m not the biggest fan of this movie. Where I was able to do a closer critique of Manikarnika, I fear that this evaluation will be broader and less concerned — even interested — in the minutiae.

Unlike Manikarnika, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is a British production, with plenty of English dialogue, and I think this will influence any experience with the film. Swati Bhise is an Indian woman, but the presence of non-Indian and specifically British producers will color, for example, the depiction of British characters. It’s a funny paradox, because either way, you’re suspicious. If the British are depicted as rabid, violent psychopaths, I might say your white guilt is showing. If they’re depicted as overly-sympathetic or center, I might say your white guilt should be showing. And even if it’s split down the middle, where some characters are imperial lunatics and some are sympathetic, you know, in achievement of balance, I’m still suspicious. You can’t win, and that’s great, because there are a lot more British characters here than in Manikarnika.

Starting at the very top, we have Queen Victoria, whose scenes with the prime minister are so basically staged and altogether separate from the narrative they take on a sort of “Raymond Burr in Godzilla” quality. Then there’s the British East India Company, who cast-wise represents a successful culling of The Most British People in Britain, and finally this goof troop on the front line who we spend the most time with: Sir Hugh Rose, leader of this jolly little war against barbarous people and also seen in Manikarnika, Sir Robert Hamilton, our resident imperial lunatic, and Major Robert Ellis, spectacular as a grade-A Indiaboo. So it seems that we’ve taken Option C — C+ — the achievement of a balance scarcely invited. However confusing it may be to me that a corporation had the legal power to annex a throne, it’s an opportunity for modern filmmakers to cleave from the empire the company’s imperial machinations. That’s also confusing, but much more so as a concern of this movie.

Our terrible trio is a morality spectrum, with Hamilton and Ellis on opposite poles and Hugh Rose in the middle and flitting from side to side like pickle, despite his stiff upper lip. And the suggestion is, of course, where will we the audience land? Who will we side with? Let’s start with Hamilton, because he’s the opposite of a prime suspect. An unambiguous evil, he reminds me of the one Rouran bad guy in Mulan: Rise of a Warrior. I half-expected to see him carted off to a cartoon jail at the end. We don’t have that, but we are treated to this extraordinary moment: “Keep up.” Now, I used to openly identify as “feminist,” like “college lecture hall” open, but in the years since, I feel I’ve betrayed that identity so frequently I can’t in good conscience make a legitimate claim on it, and yet, those old pin-pricks return here. What are guys you doing?

It’s the year 1858. Like Mulan, this is either hopeful revision or the saddest truth, that allies thrived over a hundred years ago and changed nothing. This is the problem with The Warrior Queen of Jhansi: historical revision, and I hope you can sense my frustration that it’s simply too convenient to say that once out of the hands of Indian filmmakers, it becomes instant apologia for empire. I’m left with this feeling that I’m simply missing something, that it’s not as bad as I’m thinking that the reason this movie is certified R in the U.S. for “some violence,” is because of this throat-slitting of a British officer by an Indian violenceman. In fact, I know I’m missing something, because the brutality of the rebellion is a crucial part of Rani’s story — it weighs the question of her potential involvement with stakes. But we see this first, and in the math of liberalism, it’s not a good look. That being said, this movie does what Manikarnikadon’t, as we have this British soldier threaten and presumably carry out rape. Sexual violence is such an important consequence of war that doesn’t seem to factor into the calculus of statesmanship. In fact, you would hope it didn’t. But where does this leave us? A sort of “both sides” situation?

Well, if Hamilton is such an asshole he slingshots the people around him into the future, Ellis is such a bleeding heart he’s already in the present. A time traveler, and by every attributable descriptor, he is simply absurd. Is this a movie that needed a love interest? And the only thing saving him from being the white savior is he doesn’t save anyone — so, incompetence. Indeed, he’s the proverbial adult in the room, that most compromised of gears within a corrupt bureaucracy. And so he allows other characters to ask the big questions like “Why are you even here?” or “How do we know he’s not a spy?” and these are very good questions. But if it isn’t too out of turn for Queen Victoria’s Indian standing fellow to talk back, maybe incredibly suspicious relations with the enemy can be excused as 11th hour diplomacy. That’s absurd and he’s ridiculous; he’s composed of ridiculous phrases, even.

The influence of xenophobia on international relations, especially conflict, cannot be overstated. And I can say that because it sounds really smart, but it’s actually painfully obvious. However, stuff like this has a familiar ring. It’s like that scene in Mad Men where Don tells Peggy “It will shock you how much this never happened.” That line always bothered me because it’s such modern syntax in a period piece. I feel like racism greatest hits like “Speak American” and “All Asians look the same” are relatively recent developments — but I could be wrong about that. I wasn’t around in 1857 — or was I? But I mean, come on. Are we putting our modern politics into the past? It’s an important and never-not profound lesson that people from long ago weren’t so different from us in whichever way the lesson spins out, but this isn’t that. So why take this shortcut? And this is so critical here because we’re staging an historical figure of unique stature, and every detail counts. You can’t let me feel the seams in these details.

But I’m fixed on them anyway because this movie’s got broad problems; if not deeper, than earlier, namely, what genre is this? Manikarnika was the classic highlight-reel biopic, covering as much as possible from birth to death. While The Warrior Queen of Jhansi also has that biopic “who the fuck is this guy all of a sudden” syndrome, it focuses its narrative on a tighter window, specifically her first battle and the long road to the second. So if we’re stuck on this tactical retreat, maybe it could be a chase movie, take some cues from The Road Warrior or something. I mean, I know that sounds silly, but I am thinking that “historical drama” is an incomplete genre, and that its filmmakers are sometimes allergic to genre. Think about Steven Spielberg movies, like Munich, also an historical drama but it plays like a paranoid thriller. The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is most probably a war movie, but there isn’t a lot of war that happens, or any of war’s correspondent affairs.

And you know what? This might be it. In terms of production values, the film bears the unfortunate texture of a documentary dramatization. That’s very harsh, and I do apologize. There isn’t that color grading you expect from a period film — which is kind of refreshing but here leaves a very plain look. Manikarnika had stunning imagery, from the architecture to the jewelry, it was all so intricate and colorful. And it was composed accordingly. Here, crowds shrink as they get larger, action is cropped by the frame, and we’re missing about a dozen establishing shots by my count. When I close my eyes and think about this movie, well, I first see the awesome logo, which I might get tattooed on my back, but then I think about tents. There’s just a lot of action inside of tents. Important scenes unfolding on stages with the affect of a blank canvas. The problem is that this is where these scenes would take place, and you can’t really change that. Maybe put them outside looking over their vast army, but this can be done. I’ve seen a couple Exorcist movies and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I don’t remember thinking about tents then. And this problem of tents provides us an answer to this anachronistic Rani characterization. Dramatizing historical material must be hard and I want to talk about why that might be. Oh, but speaking of Steven Spielberg, I’m pretty sure I heard a Wilhelm scream in this movie? Twice. So that doesn’t help.

So, the British are seeking a nonviolent resolution and the Rani is rallying her people, and both are a problem for either. This is information we understand early. New developments in the plot come along and they don’t complicate but replicate these two points, and this makes sense because it’s not a plot, it’s a life. Historically, the deaths around Rani — her son, her husband, her father — are all undoubtedly significant and require representation in a film, but narratively, and I feel awful saying this, they don’t advance the character, and nothing can happen in a story unless it has a narrative purpose. And I’m not just being an asshole here; it feels strange. The actress, Devika Bhise, the co-writer of the film and also the director’s daughter, has her first cry when her horse dies. She talks about how everyone leaves her, so this is pent-up emotion about her dead family members now overflowing. That’s fine. But what does this point to, what foundation does this lay for the next step? Well, she has another rallying speech. You’re already on the road to Kalpi.

And so we arrive at a character who is ultimately inscrutable. She does things like this, with horses, also jumping on them from the castle wall — again! Is that part of the legend? Along with an allergy to genre, these filmmakers might also have a fear of really getting inside a legendary character’s headspace. Who is Rani of Jhansi, really? We find ourselves at a remove. And that’s unfortunate, because a character like this presents a creative problem whose solution would better reflect the author, pulling now so many more human beings into a story. I don’t feel I have a better sense for the Bhise family through Rani after watching their film because aside from the off-key imperialism business, there wasn’t a point of entry. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s step aside and have our favorite guy speak edgewise: “You said you fight to be true to yourself or whatever.” I knew I could count on him.

This is a movie that attempts to connect us to the past by delivering the past to our doorstep, rather than asking us to sympathize with people made foreign by time. Rani has to embody modern universal values, even be defined by them, when they themselves are so undefined, so unspecific. It’s possible that the real Rani of Jhansi took part in a civilian massacre, and we know she was a military leader. I can’t square that with now two rather similar depictions of uncomplicated womanhood. She’s just so fucking awesome, I mean she won over Ellis, and you can’t just do that. And I’m fine with awesome women, but if the path to reach her is cobbled by historical revision, we might in the end find one of those Looney Toons fake tunnels sooner than we hope.

In Part I, we talked about the contradiction of Kangana Raunat, famous “difficult woman” playing what appeared to me an uncritical depiction of Rani Lakshmibai. Portrayals of difficult women are important because women are difficult, and in the Year of our Lord 2020, being difficult still constitutes rebellion. That’s just how bad it is. Sometimes quoting actual historical testimony, Rani in this film is called a Jezebel, or “Like Joan or Arc,” which was one of the better clunkers, and yet we’re not sympathetic to that perspective. We’re like Ellis, even more so than we’re like the Indian characters. 

During the ending sequence, we’re reminded in summation why this historical figure is important, at around the time I’m wondering myself. Not because I don’t think Rani of Jhansi is important, but I realize my own reasons might be different than the filmmakers’. Taking an inventory, what caught my eye about this in the first place? Honestly, it wasn’t what it should be. Absolutely, Rani is important for inspiring a legend which is clearly important still to Indian culture. But what gets me is that she was a warrior in the most archetypal, traditional, masculine sense, and if you’ve taken anything away about me from these videos — that is everything to me. And the only reason I mention it and even favor it in this written-out-beforehand video where self-restraint is possible, nay encouraged, is because it’s also what makes her unique. Many if not all historical figures have left a legacy. Rani did so in her own way, a rare way, and so a movie chronicling that story might hopefully focus on the how rather than the why. Maybe. I don’t know, but I do know that the why in this case has come up short again. The point is, I don’t believe you have to adapt an historical character to a modern audience. If she worked once before with an audience, in 1857, she might work again, because you never know what kind of fucking weirdos are out there.

I mean, let me tell you, over the course of my many years on this Earth, I have suffered — nope — I have been sometimes frustrated, because I don’t choose my movies wisely. Gone are the days of TV Guide and therefore we ask, “Who’s watching our children?” I’ll tell you who: new media. Bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers — a proper rogues gallery. And they suggest, with their low-effort productions and diversity that you can and should forge your own opinion, as an individual. Don’t let me recommend to you The Mandalorian, for I can only show you the door. My voice doesn’t carry the authority to open it. I don’t watch movies when people tell me they’re good, because I don’t need a good movie. I watch a movie if I think there’s gonna be an action movie lady in it. And that is a most unfortunate road, a road of lost sinners, and if you happen to be a fellow traveler, you might gaze upon me, stopped along the miserable path, bent over and inspecting a new tease, maybe The Rhythm Section from earlier this year, and you will judge me, but I caution you… nothing. It doesn’t work, as my own videos about Mulan movies can attest. So I’ll tell you, my heart has ached, whereupon in 2020, watching The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, I find I am defeated. No sword to raise, no indignation puffing up this long deflated chest where once I could feel my heart beat. It’s all right. I’m finished.

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