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Meet Mehtab, the original Jhansi ki rani of Hindi cinema

On her 20th death anniversary today (10 April), we examine how actor-filmmaker Sohrab Modi brought to life the story of the legendary Laxmibai in 1953 with leading lady Mehtab.

Sonal Pandya

Sohrab Modi's magnum opus Jhansi Ki Rani, which was released in 1953, was a labour of love. The maker of previous historicals like Pukar (1939), Sikandar (1941) and Ek Din Ka Sultan (1945) had cast his wife, Mehtab, as the fierce Maratha warrior queen who did not bow down before the British East India Company in 1857.

The story was largely adapted from Vrindavan Lal Varma's Hindi novel, Jhansi Ki Rani Laxmi Bai (1946).

Sohrab Modi with Mehtab in a scene from Jhansi Ki Rani

Modi left no stone unturned for this grand historical drama. The film was processed in London at a high cost as it was India's first feature in Technicolor. He also got Hollywood technicians to help him achieve his vision.

Jhansi Ki Rani was shot by Ernest Haller, the Academy award-winning cinematographer of Gone With The Wind (1939). The film was edited by Russell Lloyd, who went on to enjoy a long association with John Huston as his right-hand man on Moby Dick (1956), Unforgiven (1960) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Jhansi Ki Rani got a theatrical release in English as The Tiger And The Flame in 1956.

The film was praised unanimously by the press for its attention to detail and the scope of historical events it attempted to portray. Filmindia, a trade magazine notably sparing in its praise, wrote, "There is almost everything for the eye, for the ear and for the heart in this unforgettable picture and because of Technicolor one wakes up for the first time to the boundless colour and beauty that is inherent in our land."

Mehtab as rani Laxmibai

Surprisingly, the public, however, resoundingly rejected the 35-year-old Mehtab's portrayal of the 29-year-old queen. Alongside Mehtab, the cast included Mubarak, Sapru, SB Nayampalli and Modi himself, as the queen's rajguru, or royal adviser.

Despite the public's disconnection from the film, Mehtab's performance, especially her delivery of the immortal line, "Main apni Jhansi nahin doongi [I will not give up Jhansi]," remained one of the best of her career. The film was almost like a swansong for the actress. Her next, Samay Bada Balwan (1969), was her last on-screen appearance.

Modi, however, bounced back from this colossal Rs1 crore failure with accolades and awards for Mirza Ghalib (1954). Mirza Ghalib won the President's Gold Medal, precursor to the National Film awards; it was the first Hindi film to receive this honour.

In 2009, a television series on Jhansi's queen, Ek Veer Stree Ki Kahani... Jhansi Ki Rani, was commissioned with artistes Ulka Gupta and Kratika Sengar essaying the younger and older versions of Laxmibai, respectively. There remain several doubts about the actual depiction of historical events in the daily show though it ran successfully for nearly two years. Later, Jhansi Ki Rani Laxmibai, directed by Rajesh Mittal, featuring Vandana Sen Kashish in the lead was released in 2012, without any fanfare.

Now, filmmaker Ketan Mehta is attempting to succeed where Modi failed. His upcoming feature, Rani Lakshmibai, will focus on the Maratha queen and serve as a companion piece to his earlier film on another freedom fighter, Mangal Pandey.

National award-winner Kangana Ranaut was slated to play the lead, but recent reports have suggested that she has backed out of the project and signed on for Telugu director Krish's project Manikarnika, the queen's maiden name.