Period films will often tell you more about the state of the country than contemporary ones. A little over halfway through Manikarnika, the British lay siege to Jhansi. Their canons fire upon the fort but aren’t met with any response – the guns are positioned behind a temple, which the Indians won’t risk destroying even if it means losing the war. But wait. I have a plan, announces Jhansi’s queen and commander, Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut). Audience waits expectantly for brilliant tactics.
What we get instead is the queen bursting out of the gates on a chariot, reins in hand, charging the British troops. Even with the element of surprise, she has a lot of ground to cover, and a whole army to shoot at her and a few followers on horseback, but the British seem incapacitated by this straightforward frontal attack. A couple of them fire at her, but she ducks. Apparently, one can duck bullets. She takes out the cannons, then hacks her way back to the fort, unscathed.
With its mixture of pumped-up nationalism, religiosity and utter stupidity, this scene feels like present-day India as much as it does something out of 1857. Manikarnika, directed by Ranaut after Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi left the production, is a slow-building, sustained surge of patriotic fervour, as messy and inflammable as a geyser on an oil rig. It’s based on the story of the Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, who assumed charge of the kingdom after her husband and son died, defied the British and ultimately died in battle. Her story passed into folklore, and it’s the legend – not the historical figure but the mardani of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem – that has made it to the screen. You can't blame the makers – films on early Indian freedom fighters based strictly on fact would be depressing viewing.
The film begins as Baahubali did, with a special child being lifted out of the water (the two films share a screenwriter, KV Vijayendra Prasad). She’s named Manikarnika on the advice of a priest, who says she’s made for great things. The film then jumps ahead in time, and we see the grown-up Manikarnika, blue sari billowing like she’s in the Alps in a Yash Raj film and not standing in a field holding a bow and arrow. Her tiger-shooting and sword-fighting abilities land her an offer of marriage from the royal family of Jhansi (she’d grown up under the patronage of the Peshwa in Bithoor). And so she becomes Lakshmibai, wife of Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), who loves the arts and fears the British.
Manikarnika is sledgehammer-simple. Gangadhar is a gentle soul and not much interested in warfare, so of course he wears bangles. Manikarnika, on the other hand, melts her jewellery to make weapons. Love for the motherland is expressed non-stop, issuing florid from the pen of Prasoon Joshi, current Central Board of Film Certification chairman and one of the architects of the BJP’s “acche din" campaign. The Peshwa talks about “matrubhoomi ke liye niswarth prem (selfless love for the motherland)" as the highest ideal. There’s a song with the refrain “Main rahoon ya na rahoon, Bharat yeh rehna chahiye (Whether I’m there or not, India should remain)". There are more exhortations to die for one’s country than there were in the war film Uri a fortnight ago.
This patriotism is mixed with religion until the difference between the two fades. I noticed more gods here – as idols, paintings, sculptures – than in any Hindi film I’ve seen. The battlefield rings with cries of "har har Mahadev". Gangadhar watches a musical performance about Shiva. Manikarnika tells her adopted child the story of infant Krishna. She’s described as “saakshaat devi ka roop (a goddess come to life)". She appears in the nightmares of the British general as the avenging Kali. The last image in the film is an “Om" written in fire.
It’s not much of a jump from here to Manikarnika turning up to save a calf from being slaughtered. Ranaut knows that whatever liberal cred she loses by extolling gau raksha will be more than made up for by the mass audience that’ll lap up the scene. She’d laid the foundation for it months ago, when she told Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev on his talk show that people on the unit had warned her against shooting a gau raksha scene. “The prejudice is really agonising," she said. “But then a lynching takes place and you look like an idiot. And then you jump to the other side, which has always been criticising and never wanting to protect cows." She went on to talk about how liberals were always criticising the armed forces. Weeks before that appearance, she’d endorsed Narendra Modi as prime minister, saying that he hadn’t gotten the job “because of his mummy-papa" and that the country needed to be “pulled out of a pit". Manikarnika is the culmination of this political positioning, a film which shares the obsessions of the right: religion, nationalism, the military.
Ranaut, as first-time director, brings some of her own can-do spirit to the film. Lakshmibai is cast as a proto-feminist who says things like “Jab beti khadi hoti hai toh vijay badi hoti hai (when daughters stand up, the victory is bigger)." When she’s informed of her meagre military strength, she sets about training the women of Jhansi to fight. Throughout the film, it’s the women who take important decisions and the men who are weak or greedy. Manikarnika is almost superhuman; fine for the film, less so for Ranaut, who’s at her best playing brittle, life-size characters.
Manikarnika is the sum of what it’s saying – it doesn’t have visual stratagems strong enough to distract the viewer. It lacks the intricate design of Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat and the muscular drive of Baahubali, only coming to life when it borrows the bloody graphic-novel look of Zack Snyder films (such as the sequence where the queen slashes her way through a dozen enemy soldiers). The CGI work is slapdash, though, to be fair, rendering “queen jumps off fort wall on horseback, survives" would tax the best in the business. The production and costume design is budget Bhansali, Ranaut’s sarees paling in front of the many, many silly hats worn by the East India Company men.