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Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi
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by Jay Seaver

"Making a fascinating heroine a stock character."
2 stars

There's a thin line between an a biographical film embracing that its subject is larger than life and it seemingly trying to prove that she is significant, and while "Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi" lands on the wrong side, it may not be possible for it to have done otherwise. This is a woman who did significant things but was in a position to do them in large part because people saw the potential for greatness within her, and while there's an important lesson to be drawn from that, this filmmakers aren't quite able to apply it to the life in question. The history and battle is interesting, the framing less so.

Take, for instance, the very first scene, which director Krish Jagarlamudi frames to show Manikarnika as a baby practically being born not from a man and woman but from the waters of India itself, just before a mystic tells her birth father that her hand has an exceptionally strong fate line, though her life line is impossible to read. That is how she is bestowed a name that evokes the strength of goddesses and mountains, presumably leading to her being raised in the home of the local chieftain. That's why, years later, an official from Jhansi (Ram Gopal Bajaj) is able to see Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut) fell the tiger that has been attacking the local livestock with a single arrow, despite there being enough wind to make sure her hair and clothing billow majestically, and realize that betrothing this extraordinary young woman to his state's morose Maharaja Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta) may be just the thing to both strengthen his resolve against the British and produce an heir who will be more inclined to resist than the current next in line.

It's a bit much, and that's with the filmmakers letting the audience do the necessary math to figure out Manikarnika would have been 14 when this betrothal occurred on their own (star Kangana Ranaut is made up to look young-but-maybe-not-that-young in those scenes because that's a whole minefield itself) - a lot of time is spent telling the audience that she is extraordinary, with a couple of early interludes showing that she was trained to proficient with weapons, but it leaves a lot unsaid. Does this warrior upbringing contribute to her defiance when introduced to the British East India Tea Company's representative, or is it her youth? What is her relationship with Gangadhar like? He seems nice enough, but he's a bit of an enigma; there are references to his being more interested in the arts than governing early on, and while he would obviously rather not bow to the British, it's hard to get a bead on his politics more specifically, or how Manikarnika's arrival changes them.

Certainly, a part of this dissatisfaction on my part may simply be viewing it as an outsider; an Indian viewer is going to have a better understanding of pressures on the characters and motivations that may be invisible to those of us who may have the film's villains in our family tree, as well as being more educated on the general history of this time and place. Even considering that, what the filmmakers choose to show and what they choose to omit shapes the story as a satisfying narrative and how a modern audience relates to it and finds themselves in this history, and there are times when things seem to be included because they were happening at the same time without a lot of care to showing how they affected Manikarnika's thinking.

It leads to some performances that aren't as interesting as they perhaps should have been. Jisshu Sengupta gets very little chance to make any sort of impression at all as Gangadhar, which may be somewhat deliberate - if history has deemed his greatest contribution to be marrying a teenager with potential, how charismatic should he be? - but it's hard to judge (though the actor does a fine job of not milking the king's rapid deterioration despite it being that sort of story-advancing illness). The sketchy start for Manikarnika means Kangana Ranaut starts out somewhat wobbly as well, although clarity of purpose and the chance to show Manikarnika doing something rather than just being described as important lets her shine more.

And she does get to cut loose in the film's second half. There's not a lot of need seen for nuance when fighting breaks out between Manikarnika's forces and the British, and the action gets more ferocious as it goes on, winding up quite bloody by the time things are done. Ranaut is graceful in the first half of the film, but gets to dive into her character's rage and massive, elaborate battles toward the end, hacking away with swords and hanging on while cannons fire from battle-wagons. It's well-staged practical action, although seams start to show when visual effects get involved, from the tiger that doesn't quite look real to the protruding blades that don't quite stay in place after somebody has been run through with a CGI sword.

"Manikarnika" is not an actively bad epic most of the time; the acting isn't bad and the bloody payoff is cathartic, even if it stretches out for a while. It just never has more to say than that its namesake was formidable against a ruthless, uncompromising foe, and while that may be true enough, it tends to make a heroine who by all rights should be vital and easy to connect with feel less knowable, surely the opposite of what a film like this intends.

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originally posted: 02/05/19 15:17:15
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  25-Jan-2019 (NR)

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