Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi

It appears that I arrived at my seat just a bit too late to see a fair number of disclaimers before this, citing historians consulted and the like. Not unusual for Indian movies, I've found, and not exactly a bad policy, although I do wonder if that commitment to accuracy is why the film often seems drier than it should - it covers events and embellishes a bit but is loath to get into motivations or the parts of the history that can't be well-researched. There's an interesting story there, I think, about how Manikarnika was apparently groomed for greatness from birth for seemingly arbitrary reasons (or, alternately, some really flagrant myth-making), and maybe as a result was able to shake up a more privileged group. Or maybe her youth was a factor; I kept thinking about how Mary, Queen of Scots seldom explicitly referenced that queen's age but certainly made the impulsive nature that went with it a key part of her story. Manikarnika never really gets something similar to ground the character, and it shows in the characterization.

That's early in the movie; by the end, I'm pretty sure that I wasn't the only person in the theater thinking of something more along the lines of 300 (I'm pretty sure I overheard bits of conversation along those lines). I haven't seen that one, so I don't know if any shots were cribbed directly from it the way one seemed right out of Wonder Woman (not that Gal Gadot is the first woman to lower a shield that just stopped a bullet from hitting her face), but the final act makes a hard shift into bloody swordplay without a whole lot of room for consideration of individual motivations all around. Which is fair enough, although it's a marked contrast from the woman who wants the tiger attacking her neighbors subdued and taken back to the jungle.

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi

* * (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2019 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge/Fresh Pond #3 (first-run, DCP)

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.

Full review at EFC.

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