Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi Is Not “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi”

18

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!

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

SO MUCH GORGEOUS BLING

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.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Okay, so there were some cheesy moments, like when we first meet Manikarnika/Lakshmibai in full Merida-from-Brave mode.

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:

William Johnson and William Henderson, Mahratta Women of the Konkan, c. 1855-62, from Photographs of Western India. Volume I. Costumes and Characters, Southern Methodist University

This photograph shows four women from the Maratha caste wearing saris over choli blouses and petticoats. Obviously they are much further down the social scale than their queen, but it’s the right case and the exact right era | William Johnson and William Henderson, Mahratta Women of the Konkan, c. 1855-62, from Photographs of Western India. Volume I. Costumes and Characters, Southern Methodist University

Marathi dancing girls, The India collection at the International Exhibition (1872), via Wikimedia Commons

These women are from about 20 years later, but again, right caste | Marathi dancing girls, The India collection at the International Exhibition (1872), via Wikimedia Commons

Marathi women in traditional Nauvari sari, no date, via Wikimedia Commons

No date on this lady, but again, right caste | Marathi women in traditional Nauvari sari, no date, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ranee of Jhansi, Chambers's History of the Revolt in India. London, 1859

Here’s a contemporary British image of Manikarnika/Lakshmibai. She’s wearing similar clothing to the images above | The Ranee of Jhansi, Chambers’s History of the Revolt in India. London, 1859

Bodice (choli), Tunic (kanchli), and Shawl (odhani), Sindh (India), 1855, Victoria & Albert Museum

This Bodice (choli), Tunic (kanchli), and Shawl (odhani) are from Sindh, in modern day Pakistan, but they give an idea of the basics of mid-19th-century Indian women’s clothing, 1855, Victoria & Albert Museum

Now compare those sources to the women’s wear shown in the film:

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Manikarnika/Lakshmibai’s wedding ensemble is probably the most ornate. She’s wearing highly decorated sari over a choli blouse.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Here she is dressed very formally, with her son on her lap.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

This is later in the film, when she’s leading troops and had to leave her palace.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Jhalkaribai was a real figure who went from rural soldier’s wife to leader in the queen’s army.  This definitely looks like that Khadi fabric.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Jhalkaribai again.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Are these sari ensembles historically accurate? I have no idea. Discuss!

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).

Rani of Jhansi, c. 1857, found in the Nawab of Farrukhabad's palace, National Army Museum

This contemporary, Indian image of Manikarnika/Lakshmibai shows her wearing ornate jewelry, including maangtika (the forehead jewel) and nath (nose ring) | Rani of Jhansi, c. 1857, found in the Nawab of Farrukhabad’s palace, National Army Museum

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

And yep, Manikarnika/Lakshmibai is blinged up the wazoo in the film. I do have questions about the hair, but what are you gonna do?

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

A more toned-down look.

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:

William Johnson & William Henderson, A Mahratta Chief and his Attendants, c. 1855-62, from Photographs of Western India. Volume I. Costumes and Characters, Southern Methodist University

Men from Manikarnika’s caste/period | William Johnson & William Henderson, A Mahratta Chief and his Attendants, c. 1855-62, from Photographs of Western India. Volume I. Costumes and Characters, Southern Methodist University

Boy's robe (jama), Lahore (Pakistan), 1855, Victoria & Albert Museum

The jama or angarkha coat: Boy’s robe (jama), Lahore (Pakistan), 1855, Victoria & Albert Museum

Gown (jama), c. 1850, northern India, Victoria & Albert Museum

And another: Gown (jama), c. 1850, northern India, Victoria & Albert Museum

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Manikarnika/Lakshmibai’s husband, Maharaja Gangadhar Rao, wears an ornate version of the angarkha.

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:

Rani Lakshmibai from a painting, supposedly contemporary but printed in The Indian War Of Independence 1857 (1947 Ed.) by Vinayak Damodar Sawarkar

Rani Lakshmibai from a painting, supposedly contemporary but printed in The Indian War Of Independence 1857 (1947 Ed.) by Vinayak Damodar Sawarkar

Rani Lakshmi Bai, c. 1885, painted in Kolkata (India), Victoria & Albert Museum

Rani Lakshmi Bai, c. 1885, painted in Kolkata (India), Victoria & Albert Museum

In the film, however, she’s shown wearing the angarkha/jama when she’s practicing swordfighting or actually fighting:

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi 2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi 2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

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?

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

That’s … a lot of straps.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi 2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

 

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.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

I quickly spotted Blondie on the Right in the background of the wedding scene, and thought, “Wait, what?” I didn’t even see the left-hand “ladies” til I went to screencap. I do believe they’re wearing fascinators??

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

The British soldiers are pure, campy evil. I was amused by the mustache-twirling acting style…

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

And then I started wondering, “Did British soldiers really wear sheer beige scarves instead of cravats?”

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Then there was the NUMBER of soldiers wearing what appear to be baggy Dockers and non-regulation haircuts.

"Battery at Lucknow -- the defenders on the look out," from 'The History of the Indian Mutiny' by Charles Ball, London, c.1858

A comparison with a contemporary source shows what those pants SHOULD look like | “Battery at Lucknow — the defenders on the look out,” from ‘The History of the Indian Mutiny’ by Charles Ball, London, c.1858

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

And then this is when I nearly choked to death. Has someone been saving that brown suit since 1972 for just this occasion? WHAT’S WITH THE JAUNTY LEPRECHAUN OUTFIT?

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

On the left, we’ve got a three-piece suit that Jack Tripper (Three’s Company) would be proud to wear. On the right, I’m afraid that’s a too-small tribly (a hat style dating to 1894) … and PLAID SUSPENDERS??

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

OHH we’re in Wonderland, now I get it!!

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

The governor? appears to be wearing a modern tuxedo shirt with another questionable cravat.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

I was VERY SAD that this quick shot of a massacre didn’t give clear views of the British ladies, but note the historically accurate ombre hair on the left.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Weird, Honey Boo Boo isn’t credited on IMDB! Guess it’s because she didn’t get any lines?

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

The Evil Blonde British Captain’s daughter and wife. Maybe wife was midway through hair styling when this battle started?

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

No idea what these randos are wearing!

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

WAIT THEY JUST PUT THE GOVERNOR IN A BLUE VELVET SUIT THAT WOULD MAKE JOHN TRAVOLTA PROUD

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Whoever was in charge of civilian hats has no concept of scale.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

SCALE, I TELL YOU (also, I’ll bet you $50 that’s a clip-on bow tie).

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

General Hugh Rose. Why does he look like he’s wearing a white turtleneck under his uniform?

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

I feel like this is a still from a 1970s cop show.

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

Sir Hugh stole the leprechaun’s suspenders!

2019 Manikarnika- The Queen of Jhansi

YOU KNOW HE’S EVIL BECAUSE HE WEARS BLACK SATIN PAJAMAS

I hope these images gave you a chuckle!

 

How can my poor brain rationalize the contradiction that is Manikarnika‘s costumes? Discuss!

Tags

About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

18 Responses

  1. Tanisha Kohli

    You see the reason that us Indians don’t have many textual or pictorial sources is because the British either stole them or they have been destroyed.So it’s only recently that Indians have started taking an active interest in historical fashion. You should try out Mughal-e-Azam. It’s a Bollywood classic and the costumes are absolutely gorgeous. That entire movie is just a visual feast and provides some really interesting interpretations of Mughal era fashions.I really enjoyed the review and would love to see more non-western content.

    Reply
    • Shashwat

      I watched Mughal e Azam,but noped out with the theatrical acting,actually inaccurate story and inaccurate sets.But seriously,how gorgeous Madhubala looked as Anarkali.

      Reply
      • Tanisha Kohli

        My Nani made me watch that film as a child so I really like it. I doubt it will hold to my memory though.Btw what are your thoughts on Lagaan? I think the costuming is certainly more accurate and it also captures the social trends of the era better.

        Reply
        • Shashwat

          Lagaan was certainly very good,and I loved what it showed of the relations between Indians and British.I loved it did not overdo the oppressed natives and wicked colonizers trope.The involvement of the White lady was beautifully handled.Ashutosh Gowarikar was at the top of his game in 2000s,don’t know what went wrong in 2010s.Btw I don’t think the costumes in Lagaan fared any better.The story was the star there.
          Um,you watched MEA,so I guess you watched Pakeekah too?That movie suffers a bit in the second half,but watching Meena Kumari croon her swan song in what is perhaps the most beautifully picturized ode to the bygone era carries the same enthusiasm as watching the titanic wreck,and the positives balance the unevenness for me.Those songs,costumes,cinematography,set design,poetic elegance,and Meena,uff,why did she have to leave so soon.Chalte Chalte leaves me breathless every time.I thought the train was the hero there,not Raaj Kumar.

          Reply
          • Melanie

            Rachel Shelley was decent in Lagaan–but oh, those dresses she wears in O Re Chori! :D

            Reply
  2. grace p brady

    I have a stupid quip but, Lakshmibai’s eyelashes…. I just wanted them to be either on or off. They distracted me lol

    Reply
  3. Shashwat

    Oh goodness!I really didn’t expect FF to review this.I saw the movie on tv and well,I was underwhelmed.Ranaut is one of the,if not THE best marketable actresses in Bollywood.Her acting is really admirable,sometimes creepily glorious,but her diction is so horrible that I like,no,love-love-LOVE to watch her on mute.
    By the way,the costumes are certainly too blinged up than they would have been.The somber looks of the latter half actually suit the historically aesthetic more and even the hairstyles are more accurate there.But the sort of embroidery on Manikarnika’s sarees is something seen on Rajasthani lehengas.Marathi sarees actually were more about flat fabrics with broad tinsel woven plain borders.We can excuse that royals might have worn imported luxuries,but I doubt that would have been the case with the identity conscious Marathas.One nice detail was King Gangadhar Rao wearing angrakhas tailored in European style to show his subservience.Jamas are actually Mughal garments.They look similar to angrakhas but differ in way of fastening.The hair in the first half was wrong,wrong,wrong.It should have been up,braided in the back and held together by a golden comb.That image of dancing maratha girls is exactly that-tawaif or baiji,not royals hence nothing to do with the movie.And that jewellery is accurate but too modern in its details,sleeknes and all.I have seen museum pieces and they might have been worn out,but nothing can convince me that a disc used to be a filigree.
    The movie is set in a very interesting era but failed to explore the conditions of the time.The grievances of Indians were portrayed as what have been shown on countless media portrayals(I would not have been bothered if they decided to borrow footage from another production)and caricaturized Britishers.The songs were actually not required here.But I lost my patience with “dankila”.
    The movie that comes closest to capturing that era is Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj ke Khilari”.Impeccable costumes,gorgeous production values,gripping story(it is actually a comedy!sort of)and insight into what eventually led to the 1857 War of Independence.It actually tackles so many sections of the society and does not caricaturise British at all.They are more like corrupt aristocrats that came to India,took to its lifestyle and seized it to our misfortune and their fortune.It captures the pageantry of the bygone age of awadh that modern Bollywood cannot imagine to conceptualise through its cheap,ostentatiously mounted but meaningless musical(that stays on ears and never seeps to the soul)numbers.Even Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan(1981) did quite good with this era.I liked how it focussed less on Ameeran’s romantic failures and more of her poetic endeavours and financial troubles following the decline of royal patronage.Now,this movie had some real music.But the camera quality in outdoor scenes is sooooooooo crappy,it distracts from Rekha’s mesmerising performance.

    Reply
  4. Boxermom

    Thanks for the much-needed giggle, Kendra! I literally did a facepalm when I saw some of those British costumes.

    Reply
  5. Sarah Jones

    I guffawed at the Mad Hatter. Nothing can top that. Well, maybe Honey Boo Boo.

    Reply
  6. Susan Pola Staples

    Enjoyed reading this and will look forward to finding it on a streaming service.

    Reply
  7. Saraquill

    I know little about East Indian jewelry, which makes me want to take a closer look at the pieces in the movie. Are the gems mostly cabochons, are they non calibrated sizes what does the back of the jewelry look like, etc.

    Reply
    • Fran in NYC

      I’ve read some books on Indian jewelry and seen some in museums. Diamonds were faceted but the other gems like sapphires, rubies & emeralds were cabochons. The backs would be enameled with designs or engraved. The backs had to be as impressive as the fronts; you could wear them either way (this applies to necklaces & pendants).

      Reply
  8. GrannyK

    I don’t know anything about the accuracy of the saris but I absolutely love the green one.

    Reply
  9. Damnitz

    It seems to me, that the movie just is not thought for the European market. Many pictures show that this was not a low budget production. But I have the Impression, that they just didn’t care about how stupid the British would look.

    I saw some similar stuff before. If the movies are co-produced (UK + India for example) then they are looking OK. I think that they just had their own taste.

    Reply
  10. MrsC (Maryanne)

    I actually love the symmetrical balance of a movie where the British people’s costumes are sort of “Meh, who cares what they wear they’re just colonialists” it makes up in some degree for all the movies where an indigenous people’s clothing is treated with the same WTFery!

    Reply
  11. Serac

    I think this is tit for tat for years Indian culture depicted as so called “Exotic” and Weird in western movies without any logical context or research like in the Indiana Jones and James Bond movies and now we have repaid the Goras (whites) with their same currency.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Melanie Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.