Rani Lakshmibai never turned 30. Hers is a legend we know all too well, a crimson-coloured tale of valour and betrayal whose most enduring image is of the young queen regent jumping from the ramparts of a fort — on horseback, no less — with her kid, the heir to the throne, strapped to her back. It’s a leap of faith, quite literally, and in casting Kangana Ranaut as the Varanasi-born beauty who dealt with imperialist beasts, this flawed but rousing film pulls off a singular masterstroke. Who better than a queen to play another?
The flame of discontent has spread far and wide. Mangal Pandey has just carried out a coup d’état on the Barrackpore parade ground, the garrison at Meerut has broken into open rebellion, Nana Sahib is nowhere to be seen, and Bahadur Shah Zafar has been publicly proclaimed as the Emperor of Hindustan. Bundelkhand is not to be left behind. Prostrating sepoys are shot in cold blood, hapless old villagers are thrashed into submission by the end of an Enfield rifle, and the countryside is littered with corpses. The Victorian enslavers, of course, share precious little in common with the natives they hold to ransom, but it is death that unites them all.
Ranaut is exemplary. In one overwrought sequence towards the beginning, she leaps onto the skulls of Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope and Rao Sahib, one after the other, before launching herself onto the back of an elephant, proving how she’s, well, head and shoulders above the rest of this film. She’s a markswoman without parallel, one who doesn’t hesitate to put a (poorly animated) tiger in its place but only ever goes so far as to incapacitate him. This is a warrior with a difference: a warm-hearted bibliophile who gushes over Banabhatta’s Harshacharita when she’s not engaging herself in equestrianism or fencing. It’s an immensely demanding role — that of a mother-figure who adopted a son, and, in the process, an entire kingdom’s populace as well. This is a film worth watching just for the sheer imperiousness of Kangana’s eyes.
There is no dearth of symbolism here. In one excellently staged fight sequence within the confines of the Jhansi fort, the Rani slices and skewers her enemies into oblivion with a larger-than-life figurehead of Ganesha serving as a backdrop. Her scalding and withering gaze. Like the elephantine deity, this woman is a remover of obstacles, especially those that come draped in the colours of the Union Jack. Later on, she trains female combatants in the use of artillery and firearms while simultaneously silhouetting herself against a portrait of Hanuman with the Dronagiri Parvat firmly ensconced in his palm. Faith can move mountains, indeed.
The film, however, is padded with far too many storytelling hole — a Doctrine of Gaps, so to say. Danny Denzongpa, Ankita Lokhande and gang exist merely as narrative fodder with no substantial arcs of their own, and Prasoon Joshi’s overwritten, verbose dialogue handicaps these otherwise fine actors with dialogues that are more suited to Zee’s televised rendering of the story. “Main kisi saadharan ladki se byaah nahi kar raha hoon,” Gangadhar Rao proclaims while leading his betrothed in a walk around the ritual fire. Later, when he finds himself with the crisis of lack of heir, the king laments about the sheer irony of his burnished existence. “Mera sab kuch hokar bhi mera kuch nahi hai.” A horribly spineless British villain even remonstrates the queen for having one. “Unhe pata nahi ki Captain Gordon ke saamne sab ko sar jhukana padhta hai,” he declares, as if it is HDFC Standard Life that he is waging a war against. It’s all very operatic and tacky, but it’s a good thing this film has a warrior princess of its own.
When the film finally culminates in the rugged landscape of Kotah-Ki-Serai, we know for a fact that Lakshmi will never see the light of day again. A carbine eventually finds its mark, and the young queen smiles a blood-spattered grin. Her mightiest adversary, Field Marshal Hugh Rose, thinks she’s down for the count, galloping hastily in a bid to drive a sabre through what was once the beating heart of Jhansi, but much like Alauddin Khilji in last year’s Padmaavat, he’s eventually reduced to watching embers fly. History, of course, might have a different take. It’s said that Lakshmi had asked her own grief-stricken followers to consign her remains to the flames.
It doesn’t matter: either way, the final word was unmistakably hers. Rose might have gone on to describe her as a “man among mutineers”, but the Rani, as always, was one step ahead. In death, she taught this unabashed chauvinist to bow his head in deference to a woman. At the very least, he learnt when to take his felt hat off. She came, she fought, she lost. And she won.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Shreehari H. is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.