Zee Studios & Kairos Kontent Studios present “Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi”

Produced by: Kamal Jain

Directed by: Kangana Ranaut & Jagarlamudi Radhakrishna

Written by: K.V. Vijayendra Prasad & Prasoon Joshi

Music: Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy

Starring: Kangana Ranaut, Jisshu Sengupta, Danny Denzongpa, Suresh Oberoi, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Taher Shabbir, Ankita Lokhande, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Atul Kulkarni, Suparna Marwah, Mishti Chakraborty, Edward Sonnenblick, Nihar Pandya, Pir Ali, Unnati Davara, Richard Keep & others

MUMBAI— A well-known legend as a freedom fighter, especially in school books, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi is an iconic but little-known historical figure. We all know the popular facts about her, but who really was she? How was a Maharashtrian girl the queen of Jhansi? What was the role of her husband, the king? How did she fight the British? Finally, how did she die?

Since historic literature on her is also not all that voracious, K.V. Vijayendra “Bahubali” Prasad has spun a very basic story on her evolution from Manikarnika, the daughter of a simple Brahmin, Moropant (Manish Wadhwan), who is also the adopted daughter of the Peshwa (Suresh Oberoi).

Manikarnika, despite her Brahmin origins, is a Kshatriya in her mindset, a courageous fighter, and protector of the weak and the oppressed. Fully trained in sword-fighting, she can tame the wildest horse and literally face a ferocious tiger.

Dixit (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) sees her in the last mentioned situation and approaches the Peshwa for an alliance for the king of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta). Jhansi is a much-beleaguered state that the British are eyeing, and the king is weak. Dixit feels that a steely woman will make the difference Jhansi needs to stand up against the British who are annexing kingdom after kingdom.

Gangadhar’s brother Sadashiv Rao (Mohammed Zeeshan Quadri) is siding with the invaders and also wants to be king. He thus murders Laxmibai’s (that is what Manikarnika has been christened after her wedding) newborn son. Gangadhar cannot take the trauma and soon dies, exhorting a promise from his wife that she will protect his kingdom. Before that, the royal couple adopt a son for certain reasons also connected with the British policies but dramatized here as an excuse for sending away the renegade brother, who refuses to accept this.

Widowed, Laxmibai refuses the conventional life of a widow and takes on the role of a warrior. Over a long period of confrontations with the British, she escapes, conquers Gwalior with Tatya Tope (Atul Kulkarni) and ultimately wages a do-or-die battle with the British. Once again, for dramatic effect, her death is shown differently from what is largely documented.

If “Manikarnika” has one shortfall, it is in its time of release: had it released in early 2015 or still earlier, with everything being the same, it would have ranked as a better film than it now is for this reviewer! And why is that?

It is simply because since then I have seen four movies – the two films in the “Bahubali” franchise, incidentally by the same writer, “Bajirao Mastani” and “Padmaavat” where content and drama have been fused with a far greater emotional impact against the backdrop of a grand visual experience. For me, consequently, there is something lacking in comparison here. For starters, the early parts of the first half of the film are engrossing, but overall, it is too languorous and slow, and too much time is spent in setting the scenario for Laxmibai to be what she became.

On the credit side, we do not see a heterogeneous feel despite one director (Krish) stepping out and Ranaut stepping in and even reshooting several parts of the film. All credit also to their respective cinematographers V.S. Gnana Shekar. and Kiran Deohans for the uniform look, and obviously to the DI team as well. The writer does keep the drama intact, intriguing and exciting, and Prasoon Joshi’s dialogues, though uneven (as they follow the clichéd line on too many occasions) help out.

The scale is lavish, which for a film like this, all things considered, can be a deterrent in return on investment. The production design (by a bevy of designers), costumes (Neeta Lulla), and action (Nick Powell, Todor Lazarov and Habib Riyaz) are of high order, and the background score (Sanchit Balhara and Ankit Balhara) decent.

Once again, a film of this kind (note the four films above) and the historical genre needs superb music, and this is where composers Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy fall very short. Not one song has recall value, despite some good lyrics by Prasoon Joshi, especially in “Hum Rahen Ya Naa Rahen Bharat To Rehna Chahiye.”

On the performance front, Kangana Ranaut is all fire and brimstone, and it is for this reason that her uneven looks and make-up stand out even more sorely. Jisshu Sengupta is miscast – he looks too out of place and does not complement Ranaut even physically. Danny Denzongpa impresses as Ghouse, but Zeeshan and Edward Sonnenblick (as general Gordon) ham. The rest of the cast make a decent impression, with Suresh Oberoi standing out.

Overall, the film makes for a good watch, as it is a sincere effort. If the flaws and shortfalls had been corrected, it would have been a repeat-value, memorable epic.

Rating: ***1/2

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