Manikarnika is a film that could have raised important questions on patriarchy and the struggle of women to leave their mark. However, the weak storytelling and absence of critical inquiry made the film fail to raise questions.
Deendyal Singh is a Ph.D. Research Scholar at TISS/ Mumbai.
The year was 1857, the enemy the British
Swords old were sharpened to bring their rule to a finish
Bundelas’ and Harbolas’ sang the courage of Jhansi Queen
We learnt how she fought like men, the brave Jhansi Queen
In the battlefields of Jhansi like a man among men
Rani Lakshmi Bai stood armoured, ready to defend
The above lines are from a very famous poem by celebrated Hindi poet Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. The emotionally charged poem describing the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai is sung in a good numbers of Indian schools and is also part of Hindi textbooks .This poem not only attempts to convey courage and valor of Lakshmi Bai but also conveys the many hidden messages which are at times part of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in the school that has a very deep psychic impact on children during the early years of education.
In the midst of biopics based on powerful men, Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi (Krish) and Kangana Ranaut directed Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is a partial attempt to understand the Rani beyond the lines of the poem. However despite having chosen such as an important theme, the film fails because at many junctures it ends up negating fundamental questions about gender roles and a very important opportunity to give some stimulus to the audience to think about these important issues.
Releasing just a day ahead of the Republic day, Manikarnika starts with the heavy voice of Amitabh Bachchan mentioning about the ‘great civilisation’ and the selfless love for the nation. Amitabh Bachchan voice quotes a few lines from Sir Hugh Rose’s biography of the queen where he remembers her as a ‘man among mutineers’.
Apart from a mixed and problematic message that the film gives about women, the film has done little to challenge social hierarchies and the class divide retaining the raja-praja(ruler and subjects) distinctions.
While due credits have to be given to this film for going beyond stereotypes like fighting by women, protecting animals’ rights, drinking cow milk from an untouchable etc., however, Rani Lakshmi Bai apart from wearing gorgeous sarees and jewelry seems to be less than appealing. The film could not be courageous enough to raise some pertinent questions on various themes like the name changing ceremony after marriage, using of bangles as a sign of servitude which the King of Jhansi wears, shameful of being bullied by the Britishers, and last but not the least the most important question that is the adoption of ‘son’ for Jhansi.
Stepping into the role of director for her first feature film Kangana Ranaut must realize quickly that women’s empowerment in Bollywood will not come only by giving more roles and screen time to females but by changing the basis of orientation from which women are looked at.Maybe it’s time that we give our sincere apology to both Subhadra Kumari Chauhan and Sir Hugh Rose for not using the ‘Mardaani’ tag or its various versions in our future textbooks and movies anymore.
Manikarnika could have been a great effort and contribution if it had probed deeper into this historical story and revisited it in the light of the contemporary times to acquire larger relevance.