Mumbai, 30 Nov 2019 7:00 IST
Unconvincing performances, a jarring English narrative, and a meandering screenplay make this a forgettable tale.
The legend of the Rani of Jhansi was told and retold a few thousand times before it occurred to filmmakers to translate it on screen. Some films manage to capture the queen's presence, others her story. Sadly for Swati Bhise's The Warrior Queen Of Jhansi, neither come across too well. The film is undercooked and weighed down with a plodding screenplay that does not translate well on screen.
The story begins mise en scène with the Indian mutiny of 1857 in full bloom, with English blood being spilt without control. The Rani of Jhansi (Devika Bhise) finds herself trapped between squabbling kingdoms and the rising threat from the East India Company. The death of her husband Gangadharrao (Milind Gunaji) brings things to a head. The company chooses to enforce the Doctrine of Lapse and annex the kingdom of Jhansi. So begins the siege.
This could suffice as an overall description of a tale. But the magic of cinema lies in its narrative. In that, Swati Bhise's film fails spectacularly. The story jumps from Jhansi to Queen Victoria's meeting halls and back to Sir Hugh Rose (Rupert Everett) in a series of crosshatched narratives that fail to come together well enough.
In addition, the screenplay lacks a certain dramatic heft. While it works as an attempt to objectively look at the battle as a queen's attempt to protect her principality, and the ruthless ambition of the East India Company's officers, it does not bring to the fore the intensity that turned a local incident into legend.
The switch among three languages — Marathi, English, and a smattering of Hindi — only affects the flow of the story. Devika Bhise, while composed in her portrayal, seems to struggle with the Marathi lines. It proves to be a major flaw since the language arrives at the high and extremely intense points of Rani Laxmibai's determination. The forced enunciation of the language takes away from the key emotive moments. Perhaps sticking to English would have worked better. Not that it would have improved the scenes greatly, which sometimes feel amateurish.
The greater sin, though, is the positive spin induced to the English view of the mutiny. The story portrays several English personalities as morally upright citizens understanding the cruel nature of the East India Company. One of these is Queen Victoria herself. While it is entirely possible that the queen had some sympathy towards Indians, it seems very unlikely that she would have had any sympathy for the rebels.
In their attempt to maintain objectivity, the makers try to whitewash the crimes of the English empire builders as the misdemeanours of a capitalist company that got out of hand. This is also shown in the portrayal of Rupert Everett's Hugh Rose. While Sir Hugh did praise the courage of Rani Laxmibai, to have him portrayed as a kindly, doddering, fatherly general is both an insult and a lie. He was craftier than that.
The anglophilia is perhaps the biggest flaw in the film. It takes away the little objectivity of the historical film. But then, it would be difficult to play the story any other way from the Western perspective.
The other big flaw is the action choreography. Several of the fight sequences, a key part considering the film is building up to the final siege and clash, look theatrical and amateurish. The cinematography of the siege of Jhansi has several minutes shot in the dark. While it can be understood that the siege did take place at night, for viewers the images on screen are dull and hardly visible.
In all, the film is a half-baked attempt that simply does not translate the legend of the queen of Jhansi well.