7 Reasons why Manikarnikais a movie worth watching:
1. You might be a regular movie watcher who enjoys movies indiscriminately or, you could be someone who only watches movies that stir the usual air of social norms. Luckily, this movie fits the bill in both categories. It is a fairly well-made movie, with a gripping story line.
2. The Time-Period it covers: It is based in a time around the year 1857 – which was when the Sepoy Mutiny spread from Delhi/Meerut, all the way to the west and east of India, setting the course for the first ever pan-India Freedom movement against the British Rule. We see the urgency which must have reverberated through India at that time and allows us to see why it took an additional ninety yearsfor India to finally gain Independence. We see that what was lacking in 1857 was not bravery, but a concerted leadership on the part of the Indians. With that realization, we can certainly appreciate the roles that freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Patel played as central figures of the freedom fight that eventually led to the British exiting India in 1947.
3. The Subject of the movie: The movie is about Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi, who till date is one of the extremely rare breeds of women warriors to appear, not just in Indian, but in the world history. She is married to a king who suffers from a feeling of weakness against the British that contrasts starkly with his wife’s youthful valor and an amazing grip on ways of warfare to match. She is superbly trained in horse-riding, archery and sword-fighting, and also exhibits a thorough read of the ways of the world. We see an example of this latter, when widowed and childless, she soon assumes the status of the leader for her region of Jhansi, and takes many decisions that she thinks will ensure the protection of the people of Jhansi. It is impressive to see that one of the first things she does as an independent ruler is to send a letter to the then British High-command in India, extending a diplomatic channel for the two powers to engage with one another. The British of course reject such a channel, and instead send troops to bring the Rani to her knees. The movie then is a continuous saga of the young Rani’s unabated courage and skill on one battle ground after another, till she finally dies at war.
4. The Details: While the movie is about an important and interesting topic, the devil, as always, is in the details:
a. Rani’s courage is palpable from the start and gradually becomes truly larger than anything one has seen on a big screen. Thus, while as an unmarried youngster she can shoot a leaping tiger mid-air with her arrow, by the time she is the Queen of Jhansi, she wields her sword on the enemy mercilessly, literally decimating multiple opponents with one swoosh of her sword, balanced atop a racing horse. She is fearless, and every part of her presence says that. In fact, there is a scene where she stands in front of a large idol of Goddess Kali (the goddess of destruction of the evil and ego), having just slayed a large number of enemy soldiers within a short time. No co-incidence that the posture she assumes with a sword in hand, ferocity in her eyes, and the dead foe at her feet, compels the viewer to liken the Rani to the Goddess herself. I think it is this viewpoint which is an interesting take on how someone named Laxmi (the goddess of wealth) demonstrates that women’s appreciation and gravitation towards the non-violent forms like knowledge and wealth, and motherhood and love, should not be misconstrued as an inability to take to destructive forms.
b. Continuing on the same lines, the Rani, when faced with a shortage of men to fight in her army, invokes participation from women. She addresses the women of Jhansi, thus: If God has chosen for women to do the most important task and bear human children, then surely taking up arms and fighting in wars cannot be any challenge to the strength of women. It is an amazingly poignant moment to see women giving up their metallic jewelry to melt it to make arms for them. No ballad on women could compare with the poetry of this scene. It is not just a slap on the face of the many myths that are perpetuated about women’s obsession with vanity, but also builds up women, queens and ordinary women alike, in newer light of not just softness and maternal instincts, but also of intelligence combined with sheer physical power. In fact one of Hindi language’s most popular poems by the late poetess Subhadra Kumari Chauhan that immortalizes the Rani by saying “She fought a lot, she fought like a man!” can be read in a new light now, “She fought a lot, she fought!”
c. Rani Laxmibai embodies the true essence of a liberated woman, who is a daughter, a wife, and a mother, but more than just that. She cares for the family she is put in, but does not take any role as given. She writes her own script wherever she is placed.
i). As a daughter, she outlearns her brothers in all skills taught to them. As a wife, she is her husband’s true consort in appreciating and participating in his love for books and arts. As a mother, even when her own child is poisoned to death, she extends her full protection to the child they adopt.
ii). In fact, even as a queen she is not just a beautifully dressed doll, she is also a ruler, who goes out to her people to see their ways of life first hand. To me, personally, it is one of the most fabulous twists on a typical Bollywood narrative to see that the only supposedly ‘item number’ kind of song and dance, where one finds dancers swaying their hips and busts on a somewhat raunchy number is being performed not for a man or a band of men, but for the Rani who sits on a throne like seat in a tribal area lavishing her praise at the performers. (To put the dance in context, it is a tribal dance about a bumble-bee stinging a passerby). This contrasts sharply with how Indian cinema has often portrayed women in history. For example, most recently in the blockbuster film Padmavat, the Rani was full of beauty, glamour, coyness and a great sense of right and wrong as laid out by the traditions of the time, and thus to protect her pride, at the end she prefers to jump into fire than be caught by enemy. However, isn’t that exactly how patriarchy wants to see women- as beautified commodities abiding by the norms laid out by religions and cultures dominated by men as priests, kings and lawyers.
iii). Rani Laxmibai, is a gender-bender in the true sense. As a widow, she refuses to have her hair shaved off, and does not take to wearing white clothes, nor to retiring to a life of an ascetic in the devotion of gods in the holy city of Kaashi.
5. For all the physical beauty the Rani possessed, nowhere in the movie, are we forced to think of her as a beautiful temptress. Infact the movie is a no-brainer to show to even little tween girls, because seduction or titillation is not the path taken by the director. Thus even when creating a male heir is a big premise in the movie, since the British threaten to take over any kingdom that has no male heir (so much for gender equality by the West!), there are no scenes of love-making. The movie is a slam dunk in succeeding to single-mindedly portray women in their often underplayed, and ignored, avatar of fierce strategists. The image of the Rani with the enemy’s blood dripping from her sword and smeared on her clothes, will surely inspire little children to embrace the fact that courage, and (unfortunately) violence, is not a prerogative of males. The disposition to violence is not a natural to any gender, and thus the stereotype of ‘boys will be boys’ when it comes to disruptive behavior definitely needs to be re-considered.
6. For lovers of period costume, especially amazingAmrapalijewelry, there is plenty to relish. The jewels are charming in their sheer size and variety, and remind the viewer once again, why India had beckoned invaders from all over the world again and again.
7. The movie is a labor of love for the female director, Kangana Ranaut, making her debut. She claims that she wanted to show patriotism as a mission larger than any life. Interestingly, this sentiment, and perhaps her own history of being outspoken about all casting couch advances made towards her, has earnt her the wrath of the popular Bollywood group. Her movie has been shunned by Bollywood big names, who have maintained a tight-lipped disapproval for a woman claiming right to patriotic fervor, a prerogative retained typically for male protagonists like Manoj Kumar back in the days, or for newer crop of male soldiers like Hrithik Roshan in Lakshaya. And it is just when, those inside the movie-world decide to ostracize Ranaut, that people at large, like you and me, stand up to show our support for a voice of dissent, not for the sake of dissent, but for the sake of stirring the air which otherwise continues to stifle many who even remotely imagine a world different from one ordered to them by the system.
Seven stars for a 5-star project!
Go, watch the movie….you can read this later too!
Nidhi Thakur is an economist, with specialization in labor and health economics. Her interest in Gender issues, is an on-going evolution of her resistance to the many systemic biases that are perpetuated through political, social and unfortunately even religious institutions, in order to preserve a power hegemony which perversely favors a small section of society. She believes in empowerment through education, skills, financial independence and political voice. She has published in academic and non-academic journals, and is currently a Lecturer in Kean University, Union, NJ, where she hopes to interact and hopefully influence, and be influenced by, the lives of many a first-generation college goers from minority backgrounds. She has an M.A. in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, a Ph.D. in Economics from University of Arizona, and a Post-Doc from University of Chicago.