Almost every time Bollywood decides to set a film in ages gone by, the filmmakers also opt to go back in time in the art of filmmaking. Whether it is biopics or stories set in the past, more often than not Bollywood films give the audience more experiences in history than perhaps would be advisable!
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi unfortunately carries forward the same trend in its execution. Another trend it loudly and proudly upholds is Bollywood’s unflinching disregard for historical accuracy. It is one thing to dramatize history, another to rewrite it as and when deemed best – which more often than not is directly related to the number of whistles or tears a particular scene can muster.
But let’s put the historical verisimilitude aside and judge Manikarnika purely as a piece of art. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t fare much better with that criterion either.
As discussed in this space last week, there is a surge in Bollywood releases propounding a certain hyper-nationalist narrative aimed towards upping the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with general elections in India just a few months away. While unlike Uri: The Surgical Strike and The Accidental Prime Minister, Manikarnika might not be obvious propaganda for the BJP, but it does propagate a similarly regressive brand of nationalism.
Kangana Ranaut, who plays the title role and has jointly directed Manikarnika as well, created quite a stir last year after voicing her support for Narendra Modi. It came as an especial shock to many who had been backing Ranaut’s growing avatar as the politically incorrect rebel taking on the many evils of Bollywood.
The portrayal is akin to how Pakistan Studies glorifies the aspects of history that it chooses to, and how the BJP led government has been busy fabricating similar narratives on the other side of the border
Ranaut’s own embrace of hyper-nationalism is evident in Manikarnika as she chose to exhibit the legend surrounding one of the most influential figures in South Asian history without sifting fact from fiction. The portrayal is akin to how Pakistan Studies glorifies the aspects of history that it chooses to, and how the BJP led government has been busy fabricating similar narratives on the other side of the border.
Manikarnika also seems to showcase the conflict within Ranaut’s own brand of feminism. There is more than one instance in the film where one wonders whether she and the filmmakers completely overlooked the misogynistic undertones of the words or actions being portrayed.
How can one err at any level when one is a feminist, creating a biopic of one of the most prominent feminist figures from the history of one’s homeland?
Indeed, one’s follies – should one choose to interpret it as such of course – don’t undo the positive that one might have to offer elsewhere. In Manikarnika, however, there are few positives to offer –barring one.
The longer the film lasts, the more one realizes that the film is supposed to tell us less about Manikarnika, or Rani Laxmibai, than it is designed to tell us about Kangana Ranaut. It is very evident that the legendary Jhansi ki Rani is the vehicle that Ranaut is using to showcase her complete skillset. The film itself, however, falls victim to the self-aggrandizement.
This, however, is not to take anything away from that skillset. Ranaut remains one of the most talented actors in the industry, and that is clearly on display in large parts during the film. But that, also, is what appears to be the sole goal of the film itself.
Kangana Ranaut, whose matchless aura owes a lot to the film Queen – undoubtedly one of the finest feminist movies to come out of the region in recent years – cares less about the depiction of The Queen of Jhansi than she does about that of The Queen of Bollywood.
That she might very well be, or might eventually turn out to be. For, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi only adds to the cult of Kangana Ranaut, which can only bode well for her future in the film industry or indeed politics.