(2019) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Devika Bhise, Rupert Everett, Derek Jacobi, Ben Lamb, Nathaniel Parker, Jodhi May, Milind Gunaji, Arif Zakaria, Siyaa Patil, Omar Malik, Ajinkya Deo, Yatin Karyekar, Nagesh Bhonsle, Arush Nand, Naina Sareen, Auroshika Dey, Glenn Marks, Spandan Chaturvedi, Deepal Doshi, Mihai Iliescu, Francisco Raymond, Sonia Albizuri. Directed by Swati Bhise
India is not known for being a bastion of feminism. That’s what makes the importance of Lakshmibai (D. Bhise), the former Rani (Queen) of Jhansi, so intriguing.
The young Queen of the strategic city of Jhansi was widowed, her much older husband (Gunaji) passing shortly after their own son had died as an infant and in order to maintain the succession, they had adopted their nephew Damodhar (Nand). This was in 1857, mind you, and the rapacious East India Trading Company was the de facto ruling body of India, so decreed by Queen Victoria (May) and supported by her Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston (Jacobi). However, the company has turned into something toxic due to their overwhelming greed and overt racism, as embodied by their representative Sir Robert Hamilton (Parker) who snarls about the Indian people and yearns to butcher as many of them as possible. He may be the most unbelievable villain based on a historic person in cinematic history.
Following the death of the king, the East India Company turns its greedy sights onto Jhansi, ruling that Damodhar was not the legitimate heir because he was adopted; therefore, Jhansi would become company property. Lakshmibai was loathe to see that happen and went on a letter writing campaign to plead for help, up to and including to Queen Victoria herself. The only sympathetic ear she received was from Major Ellis (Lamb) who carried a bit of a torch for the Rani.
Pushed into a corner and wanting to preserve her city, Lakshmibai stood up to the British and Jhansi was put under siege for her trouble. Sir Hugh Rose (Everett), whose politics were somewhat convoluted, served as something of a mediator between the villainous Hamilton and the ore moderate Ellis. It took longer than expected but the superior firepower of the British eventually led to the fall of Jhansi – although the Rani managed to escape with much of her army.
Even though Jhansi had fallen, the Rani became a symbol throughout India, and as the Great Mutiny spread, she was regarded as a hero. The East India Trading Company couldn’t afford to let her live and so they brought all their resources to bear in the hopes of capturing or killing her.
The movie is gorgeous to look at with the colonial-era costumes, the sumptuous sets and the large-scale battle sequences. This was the debut feature for Swati Bhise and her inexperience shows; some of those set pieces are shot in a rather static fashion and there is very little dynamic camera movement.
This was actually a Hollywood production, not a Bollywood one (two other films on the Mutiny have already been released this year including one focusing on the Rani herself, both made in India) and it has both the advantages and pitfalls of Hollywood productions. The advantages are in the production values I mentioned earlier; the pitfalls in the way the writers played fast and loose with history. The quasi-romance between the Rani and Major Ellis was without basis; also, Khan (Malik), the Indian adviser to Queen Victoria, wasn’t born until five years after Lakshmibai passed away and wasn’t her adviser until the end of the 19th century.
There are a lot of clichés here as well as some clunky dialogue; the ending, narrated by the younger Bhise, is a bit precious and doesn’t serve the film well at all. Like most Hollywood productions, this isn’t meant to be a history lesson, although it does get some of the salient facts right. It is entertaining enough to recommend with Devika Bhise’s performance as the Rani being to a large measure responsible for that. She has the screen presence to pull off a role that is so iconic to the Indian people. It’s a shame she didn’t write a film that is worthy of her performance.
REASONS TO SEE: The production values are gorgeous. Devika Bhise does a fine job at making the Rani larger than life.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit rote in places with a twee ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, instances of institutional racism and references to rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Swati and Devika Bhise, in addition to directing and starring in the film (respectively), also co-wrote the film – and yes, they are related; they are mother-daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews: Metacritic: 25//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Manikarnika: Queen of Jhansi
FINAL RATING: 7/10