But you should totally watch it! Life is pretty scary right now. We here at Frock Flicks HQ live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and so we were the first to get the “shelter in place” order last week. Now the entire STATE is sheltering in place, and it’s been super stressful and emotionally exhausting. To that end, I’m bumping up a post that I was thinking of saving for Snark Week, because levity is one of the few things keeping me sane right now. Some readers were commenting on Facebook that a bonus Snark Week would be glorious right now, to take our minds off of the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. Snark Week is HUGELY exhausting for us (so much content to create!) and there’s no way we could do it right now, but I thought one funny post might help cheer us all up. So here is my gift to you!
Now, I want to be 1000% clear: I LOVED Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019)! It was highly entertaining both on a shlocky entertainment level and ALSO on a real dramatic level, and the Indian costumes were stunningly beautiful. But the costumes of the British characters left a lot to be desired — no doubt due to budgetary limitations — and I couldn’t help but cackle as little bits and pieces of WTF popped up. So I’d like to share them with you!
I went into watching Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi — on my flight over to Italy — thinking I was firing up The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, the 2019 film about Lakshmibai, the historic Queen of Jhansi who personally led her army against the British East India Company in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. That film stars Devika Bhise as Rani Lakshmibai aka Manikarnika, with Jodhi May as Queen Victoria, Derek Jacobi as Lord Palmerston, and Rupert Everett as Sir Hugh Rose (and is currently as of this writing unavailable to stream anywhere, but I’ll be watching and reviewing it as soon as it is). It turns out this is a classic case of dueling studios/production teams making movies on the same topic in the same year. Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is a Bollywood take on the same story, with Kangana Ranaut as Manikarnika/Lakshmibai and Ankita Lokhande as Jhalkari Bai.
Now, Manikarnika is two and a half hours long, so I don’t say lightly that I was ENTERTAINED. Enough that I had started watching it on my flight over, was interrupted by landing, and then picked it back up on the flight home! The acting is great — Kangana Ranaut gives amazing “We shall endure/We shall triumph” death stares; the few musical numbers are well choreographed and entertaining; and the Indian costumes are really gorgeous, although it’s hard to know just how historically accurate they are.
The costumes were designed by Neeta Lulla, who is the “go to” costume designer for Bollywood, especially historical films including Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and Devdas (2002).
According to the Hindustan Times, Lulla spent over eight months conducting research for Manikarnika:
“It all begins with reading and dissecting the script. I like to know the backstories of every character, where they are coming from, why they behave the way they do. I have multiple discussions with the filmmaker in general about the feel of the film, what the film is trying to convey, what each character stands for. The second stage is of research, reference, deciding on the palette, making sketches and mood boards. Once the look has been developed it’s about getting the samples, doing look tests, making lookbooks and finally the suppliers, tailors and assistants come in for measurements. The last stage is building a comfort level with the star cast” (Manikarnika costume designer Neeta Lulla talks dressing Kangana Ranaut, khadi and more).
First, let’s look at the good: the Indian costumes! And then the funny: the (allegedly) British costumes.
Manikarnika‘s Indian Costumes
Lulla notes that there were few historical sources to work from: “We had some pictorial references of the Rani of Jhansi wearing angarkhas [aka jamas, men’s coats] with a child tied at the back, but apart from that, there was no evidence” (Neeta Lulla on recreating Rani Lakshmibai’s wardrobe for Manikarnika); and that “The problem was most of the material, I found were textual and not pictorial. Reading books and how historians discussed Manikarnika and her attire, I came up with the looks” (Khadi And The Warrior Queen). On the other hand, she told a different publication that “There are plenty of visual references and historical documents that give us an idea of the queen – what she looked like and how she dressed. There are paintings, illustrations, and fabric samples that give you a fair idea of the royal attire of that era” (Neeta Lulla on the theme driving the costumes for ‘Manikarnika’: ‘Strong and elegant’). Lulla made a particular point of using Khadi, a cotton fiber, hand-loomed fabric made in eastern India, noting that “handspun and woven cotton fabric was endorsed by royalty in the 19th century” (Khadi And The Warrior Queen).
Now, I recently got into a bit of a tiff on Facebook with a reader who was irritated that my post on Exodus and Troy didn’t include extensive scholarly research. I had a whole post in mind about how “Frock Flicks is not an academic publication,” but I’ve realized it’s silly to write a whole rant aimed at one person. The thing is, the three of us have our own expertises, and sure, if there’s a film/series set in an era/place that I don’t know well, but another of us does, I’ll leave it to them to review. We also sometimes bring in guest experts. But no academic can possibly know every sub-area of their field, and finding guest experts is a big pain in the butt, so yeah, sometimes we review stuff that’s outside our specific expertise. And honestly, we need content five days a week! So I’m not going to watch a film like Manikarnika (or Exodus or Troy) and NOT review it simply because I don’t know much at all about 19th-century Indian dress (or ancient Egypt or Greece), given that neither does either of our other regular writers. This is a blog, not an academic publication. Personally I’d rather read a review where someone admits their limitations rather than pretend they know more than they do. And nobody is getting paid or getting tenure from this here blog.
So with that in mind, here’s a rough look at mid-19th-century Maratha (Manikarnika/Lakshmibai’s caste) dress, with a massive note that this is totally outside my area:
Now compare those sources to the women’s wear shown in the film:
For the jewelry, Lulla said, “Decoding the bridal jewellery that took two days to put into structure of design and visit frequently to interact with the team of designers, we did a lot of research together, we went back to their archives and had deep discussions about the look and setting especially for the wedding sequence for Kangana” (Neeta Lulla gives a sneak peek into the making of Manikarnika costumes and jewellery — check out the link for some nice images of the jewelry designs!). That being said, Lulla is open about having mixed historical and modern references; she says the jewelry was “an amalgamation of Maharashtrian and modern Indian jewelry” (Neeta Lulla on designing Kangana Ranaut’s wardrobe for Manikarnika: Took me over two months of research).
I’m not going to get super into the menswear, except to make one point. The men of this period wore the jama/angarkha coat, which had a cross-over torso and full skirts, as well as turbans:
At least in the images I can find, the real Manikarnika/Laksmibai isn’t pictured in men’s dress, but in what appears to me to be an adaptation of women’s dress:
In the film, however, she’s shown wearing the angarkha/jama when she’s practicing swordfighting or actually fighting:
And, for the final big battle scene against the British, she gets an angarkha with extra badass/sexy leather armor, including ridiculous unnecessary straps that would do little to protect her, but she’s gotta look good, right?
Manikarnika‘s British Costumes
And now we come to fun, as I look at the costumes worn by the British in the film, which were overwhelmingly TERRIBLE. Again, I want to say clearly that I REALLY ENJOYED this movie and thought the Indian costumes were well done. What I am about to do is unfair, because most of these are extras who are barely on screen for a hot second and totally in the background, except for the British soldiers, and I’m guessing they must have had ZERO budget for any of these. But it was so hilarious as the movie unfolded and I realized just how bad the British costumes were, and I just need to share it with you. So I’m offering no sources, just comedy.
I hope these images gave you a chuckle!
How can my poor brain rationalize the contradiction that is Manikarnika‘s costumes? Discuss!