Review by James Lindorf
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi tells the true story of how one young woman went from a widow, to freedom fighter, to feminist icon and finally to legend. From Queen Elizabeth to Queen Victoria, nearly two-and-a half-centuries, the East India Company ruled over India until passionate leaders fought to free their land from colonial rule. In 1828, Manikarnika Tambe was born in a city on the banks of the Ganges in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1842, at the age of 14, she married Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, the Maharaja of Jhansi, and was given the name Rani (Queen) Lakshmibai. In 1951, the young Rani gave birth to their first son. Sadly, he died at just four months old, leading the couple to adopt a young child so they would have a male heir to satisfy their British rulers. After the death of the Maharaja in 1953, the British chose to ignore the adopted heir and set out to reclaim Jhansi as their own. Over the next five years, Lakshmibai would become one of the most prominent figures within the independence movement of India. You can watch her fight for freedom in theaters starting November 15th.
While we are shown the most important moments of the Rani’s life, the majority of the film takes place between 1857 and 1858. The lead up to the final battle over Jhansi finds the Rani and the British trying to prepare their troops. The British have the training and the weapons, but illness and a lack of rations have depleted their strength. The Rani has well-fed and well-rested soldiers that she has trained herself. With most of the Rani’s army consisting of women, the preparations came with a steep learning curve, but her unusual upbringing helped prepare her for this task. As a child, she was trained in martial arts and became proficient with various weapons and riding horseback. War seems inevitable, but some are trying to give diplomacy one last shot. The Rani (Devika Bhise), British officer, Ellis (Ben Lamb), even Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) believe a peaceful resolution is possible. Rupert Everett’s Sir Hugh Rose thinks they are dreamers but that there is no harm in trying, while Sir Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker) believes a public death for the queen and her followers is required.
While it is great to present such a division of thought, it would have been better if they were coming from full-fledged characters. Other than showing that women, even queens, are not truly respected by men around the world, Queen Victoria has nothing exciting to say or do. Even that one thing puts her above Hugh Rose, who is entirely ineffectual and lacking in original thoughts or motivations. He exists purely to be the middle point between Ellis, the Rani’s most ardent admirer, and Hamilton, a misogynistic racist who thinks Muslims and Hindus are savages. Removing a few characters, more time writing the script or time in the editing bay could have really enhanced the film to the level of the performances.
The Bhises chose to seek out talented, established collaborators for nearly every portion of the film making process. Angelica Monica Bhowmick and Riyaz Ali Merchant, who were responsible for the production and costume design, deserve special recognition because the film looks spectacular in those respects. Devika also deserves credit for her commitment to the film. She trained for two years to be a capable rider and fighter, even working with martial artists who trained the great Jackie Chan. Her scene utilizing an urumi, a flexible whip-like sword, is the most exciting and best choreographed moment in the entire film. The biggest question remaining as the credits begin to roll is why didn’t they seek the same level of help with the script. The Indian Joan of Ark deserves an epic film to celebrate her around the world and there are many reasons to love The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, but inexperience in the writing room and the director’s chair prevent it from being as memorable as its subject.