Rani Laxmibai, the queen of Jhansi has over the eons has become the epitome of valour. She’s considered one of our foremost freedom fighters. She not only personally made life hell for the British, her immortal deeds inspired millions to revolt against the British Empire even after her death. Folk singers and poets sang songs about her, songs that are still popular in rural India. Whatever her political reality maybe, her personal bravery can’t be denied. No wonder she’s still much revered today. In the present era, she’s become a feminist icon as well.
To make a film on a figure so clothed in folklore and myth isn’t easy. The makers made it known from the start that they are basing their film on the legend of Rani Laxmibai. It’s their homage to her heroism. And they pulled off both aspects. The film ignites a slow fire of both nationality and patriotism in your hearts that collectively bursts forth during the fiery climax. Manikarnika is written by the writer of Baahubali films, K. V. Vijayendra Prasad, and hence usage of Baahubali motifs is much evident in the film. The opening sequence of infant Manikarnika rising from the river, her hunting a Tiger using bow and arrow, her scowling at a British officer through a torn flag, her taking the oath to protect and serve Jhansi, these and more scenes all have echoes of the Baahubali films. What Prasad has done is to reimagine the life of Laxmibai as a heroic epic a la Ramayana or Mahabharata. Through his screenplay and through the songs and dialogue of Prasoon Joshi, she seemingly becomes an avatar of the Goddess who rises to rid the land of the evil forces of the British.
The film’s original director was Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi who left in a cloud of controversy and Kangana Ranaut took over the reins. Given the facts, the film could have turned into a disjointed product and it comes as a pleasant surprise that it’s not. We don’t know who directed what scenes but the merger isn’t uneven. The war sequences are life-like and are balanced by the emotional sequences which form the core of the film. The rousing background score, the artful cinematography, deft editing and fine art direction all add to the film. Music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy too is an asset.
Kangana looks to the manor born playing Laxmibai. She channels the spirit of the warrior queen and is her fierce best in war scenes and also manages to give us the glimpse of the icon’s soft side. She’s aided by a talented ensemble cast comprising Atul Kulkarni as her mentor Tatya Tope, Jisshu Sengupta as her husband Gangadhar Rao, Suresh Oberoi as father-figure Bajirao II, Danny Denzongpa as her war chief Ghulam Ghaus Khan and Ankita Lokhande as Jhalkaribai, the woman who pretended to be her and helped her escape.
Today, in a world growing more cynical by the minute, we need to be reminded of real heroes who lived and died for their beliefs. Manikarnika manages to reintroduce one of the most awe-inspiring figures from India’s past. A legend gets reborn, at least on screen, and maybe that’s the only reality palatable to us right now…