I was excited to see that The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (2019) was finally available on one of our streaming services. But when I sat down to watch it, the first 15 minutes looked and sounded very over-the-top, and I realized, oops, I was watching Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019), which Kendra reviewed already! Same topic, but what she reviewed was the Bollywood production, and what I was looking for was the Anglo-Indian Hollywood production. Trying to cover all sides here. The one I was looking for is currently on Hulu, while the other is currently on Amazon Prime, in case you’re wondering.
Both movies are about Rani Lakshmibai, the historic Queen of Jhansi who personally led her army against the British East India Company in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In this one, Devika Bhise plays Rani, whose life is shown starting with her marriage to the Maharaja of Jhansi in 1842. They have one child who dies shortly after birth, so they adopt a nephew as their heir. When the Maharaja then dies in 1853, the British refuse to recognize the young boy as heir and decide to annex Jhansi. Rani proclaims herself queen and defender of her territory, and as such, begins training for battle.
Rani’s story is intercut with the actions of the British East India Company’s army and Queen Victoria and her government. The British soldiers are nominally lead by a tired, put-upon Sir Hugh Rose (Rupert Everett), who is constantly overridden by the pushy, brutish Company official (and not an actual military officer), Sir Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker). The Queen (Jodhi May) is hugely sympathetic to the Indian plight, especially because of her Indian attendant Saleem Khan (Omar Malik), who has family in Jhansi. Queen Victoria argues with her pig-headed prime minister, Lord Palmerston (Derek Jacobi), who wants to use all possible force against the Indians.
Indian artist and educator Swati Bhise wrote and directed this film (her first movie), and her American-born daughter Devika Bhise co-wrote the script, in addition to starring. Actor and writer Olivia Emden also contributed to the script. In a First Post article, Swati Bhise said of this collaboration:
“I was born and brought up in India and in spite of having lived in the U.S. for so long, my cultural perception is intrinsically Indian. Devika and Olivia Emden brought in an international perspective to the script. As I was finishing the script, they lent it a younger, fresher outlook which helped shape the dialogues in a way that would be easier to grasp by a global audience. I wanted younger people to relate to the voice of the film and they made that happen. As we worked through this process, I relied heavily on her judgment.”
I only watched a little of Manikarnika, so I can’t properly compare, but this one is definitely going for the Serious Biopic angle and not the singing-and-dancing Bollywood style. In several interviews, Swati Bhise makes it clear that she based her script on historical research and this is the big difference between her film and Manikarnika. Bhise told SheThePeople.TV when asked about the other movie:
“I do have friends who have seen it and from what they shared with me of their review of Manikarnika, I gleaned that our film is a story about East India Company on a very large scale canvass which I don’t think is the focus of the Bollywood film. I also have five big western actors who have played crucial characters which I don’t think are parts in Manikarnika so that itself is a different approach. I believe Manikarnika also have several lovely songs and dances which we don’t have too.”
And in First Post, she gets in what seems like a sly dig:
“My film is my film and Manikarnika is someone else’s film. We should celebrate every film because every filmmaker is telling a story from their perception, and the audience is free to choose what they want to see. I feel immense pride in being from the country of Rani Lakshmi Bai and saying that I grew up with my own Wonder Woman, that I did not need to look for an imaginary one.”
In a Shockya interview, Swati Bhise describes her research:
“If we just drew on the British text, Indian audiences would have said, ‘This is not true to Rani’s story, and is inaccurate.’ So I also drew from Majha Pravas’ 1890 travelogue, ‘Vishnubhat Godse,’ which was in the Indian language, Marathi. The travelogue chronicled how he traveled through India in 1857 and 1858, worked for Rani, and witnessed the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The travelogue was later translated into English, and matched what the British said.”
Bhise also noted to India-West:
“My research was very thorough and detailed. I wanted extreme authenticity and detailing. In fact, because Laxmibai became the queen of Jhansi, which is in Uttar Pradesh now, few even know that she was a Maharashtrian. When we do not present facts to the world, the wrong things become history.”
For all this historical accuracy, I felt like some things were made noticeably contemporary — well, I noticed them! I may not know Indian costume of the 1850s in depth, but there were a few dialog / character things that stood out to me. I’m guessing these come from the influence of Devika Bhise and Olivia Emden to make the movie more “global” and relatable.
Things that seemed a bit inaccurate:
1) Most of the male British characters are complete and total douchebags, which, fine, it’s a cliche but one with colonialist truth behind it. What was probably more of a cliche is that there’s the one valiant Englishman who is practically in love with the Rani and his loyalty to his own country vs. India is questioned. There’s just no nuance here, which, again, fine, we don’t need to give subtlety to the white invaders, but then maybe don’t give them as much screen time with relatively big name actors?
2) Queen Victoria’s personal sympathies to India seem overplayed. While the men of England (save one) just want to exploit India and kill Indians, the Queen is super duper invested in protecting the people of India and not offending them. She’s very influenced by Saleem Khan, who is a fictionalized version of the several Indian attendants she had starting in the 1880s — such as Mohammed Abdul Karim, yeah, the one in Victoria & Abdul (2017).
3) Rani has several close handmaids, one of whom thanks the Rani for this position even though she is from the lowest Indian caste. Rani specifically refers to her as “Dalit,” which is a rather modern term for the caste. It was popularized in the 1930s, though usage may trace back to the 1880s.
What could have seemed inaccurate but I felt was handled well was Rani Lakshmi as a female leader in this time and place. She has to fight for her place and her rights over and over again, against her father, against her people, against nearby rulers, and, of course, against the British. She’s heroic and infinitely capable, but it’s clear she is not a typical woman of her time and she’s going against expectations. It didn’t feel like the anachronistic feminism we sometimes see in frock flicks because she did meet resistance from the men around her, and often it was only other women who believed in her.
In an interview with A Book Of, Devika Bhise talked about what this film meant to her:
“We’re seeing a lot of stories now with Marvel and DC comic superheroes that show how women can lead films and action films as well. And I think that is fantastic. However, I think we do need to see more true stories and historical tales about women who existed and realize that we don’t need to make up stories about women. These real stories existed. They are there. Telling those stories is very important to me.”
The script and the acting do get at the essential truth of the Rani’s story without wildly glorifying stuff. Likewise, the costumes aren’t over-the-top, even though a lot of care and time was put into them. In a Rediff article, Swati Bhise said:
“The character of the Rani has more than 50 made-to-order special design nauvari [the traditional nine-yard Maharashtrian] saris. We researched the patterns prevalent in the era and wove each costume in a process that took over a year. Vidhi [Singhania], my friend, also created custom shoes to match the outfits.”
Vidhi Singhania, one of the credited costume designers, is a textile artist who has been working since the mid-1990s to revive Rajasthani weaving styles and was apparently in charge of all this custom weaving for the film. The costume team was rounded out by Riyaz Ali Merchant, who Swati Bhise discussed working with in the Shockya interview:
“The costumes took 13-14 months to make. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to make the costumes, but I couldn’t find what I wanted. We tried to find costume designers, but they were mainly from Bollywood, so their ideas were glamorous and glitzy. So I realized that we had to go to the weavers, and create the costumes from scratch. I gave my friend Riyaz the colors and designs that I decided that I wanted from my research, and then we both decided on what kind of embroidery that we wanted.”
Devika Bhise mentioned the costumes in A Book Of as well:
“The best part about playing the Rani of Jhansi was definitely the costumes. I wore nine yards of heavy royal outfits with pearl inlay and gold brocade, I also wore real jewelry that was lent to us by jewelers in India, 24 karat gold, big emerald, uncut diamonds, and all of those things. On-set I was always walking around with guards because I was wearing very expensive, and very iconic antique jewelry.”
Pointing out another little difference between this and the Bollywood film in First Post, Swati Bhise said:
“When Vikram Gaikwad did the makeup, we decided that none of the actors would wear mascara or eye shadows or have their cheekbones highlighted. That would be a travesty. It’s a film about warrior women!”
Devika Bhise did a lot of own horseback riding and stunts in the film and mentioned the costumes in the Shockya interview:
“What was great was that I had to ride on horseback with these nine-yard, beautiful Sarees that were inlaid with delicate textiles that were made in gold and coral. So there was a part of me that was a bit terrified that I would ruin the costumes in the process of filming, but everything worked out beautifully.”
While overall it felt to me like a somewhat typical biopic, I appreciated seeing the format used for a woman from India. As Devika Bhise in A Book Of:
“With regards to India, I think in the West there’s a pretty narrow view of what India is. There’s a lot of what’s called poverty porn, where you’re showing just the slums, poverty, and rape and other sorts of things but India is a broad country — a very heterogeneous country, extremely culturally rich, and have a rich history, and I mean that literally. I think it’s very rare in the West to see depictions of Royalty and women warriors and leaders in India and India has a ton. So I think just showing one of those stories and educating people about that is very important right now.”
Have you seen either of these movies about Rani Lakshmibai?
No, but I certainly want to see this one. Years ago, I had seen “The Bandit Queen” about Phoolan Devi, who went from child marriage to leading a gang of bandit raiders to becoming a member of the Indian parliament, and was assassinated by a woman whose husband she had killed back in her bandit days. Over time, more stories are coming out about women who have fought alongside men and even led men into battle. I’d like to see films about Col Botcharevka and the Company of Doom, during WWI and the Night Witches in WWII.
Yeah, I wondered about ‘Saleem Khan’. I know something about Queen Victoria’s private life and her Indian attendants appeared long after the Indian Rebellion.
However if she’d even heard of Lakshmibai Victoria probably would have sympathized with her situation as it’s pretty clear the British were in the wrong and Vic would have likely sided with her sister ruler. Victoria was also remarkably free of class and racial prejudice.
Thank you for reviewing this! I’m Maharashtrian; I feel seen! There is a famous statue of the Rani of Jhansi fighting with her son strapped to her back. Probably apocryphal.
@Roxana, given that all this happened during the 1857 Rebellion, and specifically in Jhansi was provoked by the British attempt at usurping the throne after the Maharaj died without a biological heir, and the whole thing ended with Victoria declaring herself Empress of India (having already stolen the Koh-i-noor and “adopted” Maharaj Duleep Singh of Punjab whom she didn’t allow to see his mother or return to India for the rest of his life) …. I’m thinking whatever personal sympathies Victoria may have had, she certainly didn’t let it stand in the way of political machinations.
Vic might have personally sympathized with Lakshmibai but certainly not after the Indian Rebellion which was characterized by horrific crimes on both sides.
Vic was very proud of her imperial title and while lacking the usual European color prejudice that doesn’t mean she was sensitive to Indian aspirations.
I want to push back against the “both-sides-ism” here. One side was an occupying colonial force; the other was a hastily assembled band of soldiers and civilians. It’s closer to what American settlers did to Indigenous people (both actual events and the stories of “raids”) than any sort of equivalency.
I’m no expert on the Indian Rebellion but I do recall a number of Indian princes were involved, as well as mutinying sepoys. The fact is a mass movement like the uprising is a carefully orchestrated operation and not spontaneous in any sense of the word. Which IMO by the way is much more creditable to the Rebels than blind hysteria. I personally feel the mass murder of British women and children was beyond the pale. As was the indiscriminate killing of Indians in retaliation.