THE WARRIOR QUEEN OF JHANSI – Review
It’s Hollywood history time at the movies this weekend, though there’s more than a bit of Bollywood in this new release. Yes, history is explored in this week’s big studio crowd-pleasing FORD V FERRARI, set in the 20th century. This other film goes back to the previous century, at just past its midpoint. While in the states the stage was being set for the Civil War, an even bigger conflict was ‘boiling over” into violence on the other side of the globe. The British (in support of the British East India Company, yes a business) were fighting the rebellious forces of the locals in India. And one of the most revered leaders of the “mutiny” was a woman, royalty actually. With her courageous spirit, hunger for freedom, and fierce fighting skills she fits right in at the multiplex alongside any of our female superheroes. But she was a real person, celebrated as THE WARRIOR QUEEN OF JHANSI.
After a brief prologue detailing the exploitation of the land by the British East India Co. (England allowed them to have their own military troops), we get to meet seven-year-old Rani as she is trained in archery by her father (who performed the same lessons with the soldiers of the Jhansi district/kingdom). Upon her 15th birthday Rani (Devika Bhise) is wed to the older Maharaja of Jhansi, and soon bears him a son who sadly dies four months later. Prior to his own death, the Maharaja and Rani adopt the toddler son of a cousin, Anand, making him a prince. Meanwhile, the conflicts between the British and the locals increase when it’s revealed that cow and pig fats are used in the rifle cartridges, forcing those Indians working with the army to violate Hindu and Muslim laws. Back in England, Lord Palmerston (Derek Jacobi) informs Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) of the growing rebellion, but, thanks to her Indian advisor Saleem (Omar Malik), she urges mediation rather than violence. This news sits well with the commander of British forces in India, Sir Rose (Rupert Everett), but not with the East India Company rep Sir Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker). Luckily an old friend of Rani, Major Ellis (Ben Lamb) also believes in peaceful negotiations. But those chances are shattered when the Company sends the news to the palace that they will not acknowledge the adopted Prince and declares that the kingdom will be acquired by them. Rani declares that they will not give up their homes and begins training her people (including the women) to fight. But the foreign forces are overwhelming, with superior weapons. Their only hope is to unite with hostile nearby kingdoms. But will that be enough, or will Rani have to relinquish her crown and bow down before the “invaders”?
This unique real-life hero is brought to vivid life by the charismatic Ms. Bhise. She seems equally at ease in the exotic high court fashions (wearing gold jewels from nostril to brow) and in the training arena (those twirling twin swords are astounding) and eventually the battlefield, keeping a platoon at bey with merely a belt (of course, she has the skills). It’s easy to understand how Rani rallied her people, and though the speeches are compelling, Bhise is just as interesting in her quieter moments, conversing with her father and the ladies-in-waiting. And it helps that the camera loves her (perhaps a “rom-com” could be next). The supporting British actors aren’t given much to do, really. Jacobi and May pop up every 12 minutes or so to provide historical info, debate, and exchange concerned looks before she angrily dismisses him. Everett paces around his tent and bemoans the upcoming battle fatalities on both sides, while Parker, as the hawkish Hamilton, twirls his mustache (though it’s part of a thick full beard), in gleeful anticipation of the carnage, almost rubbing his hands in anticipation of personally executing Rani. At the other end of the spectrum Lamb (appropriate for his character’s demeanor) as Ellis, passionately argues for restraint, making both Hamilton and Rose question his loyalties. Of course, we get to see the flashbacks of his intimate meetings with Rani (nothing more provocative than a spirited game of chess), as he follows her about with the look of a smitten schoolboy.
Director Swati Bhise (she not only co-wrote the script but contributed costume designs) conveys the volatile era and slowly builds up the tensions that lead to violence. She helms the battles with great energy, and a clear vision, swiftly cutting to the most compelling sequences, often reminiscent of iconic swashbucklers like GUNGA DIN and KIM. Unfortunately, the time in between the action set pieces feels too repetitive, with characters from both sides debating and “revving up” the troops. Bhise gives us much to celebrate and admire about Rani, but we rarely get to see the flesh and blood woman behind the legend. Any self-doubt fades quickly, while we never get a sense of emotional connection to either the Maharaja (he seems more of a mentor) or Ellis (history denies us a Romeo and Juliet forbidden tryst). THE WARRIOR QUEEN OF JHANSI is deserving of the old-style epic studio treatment (Cinemascope comes to mind), but this retelling feels like a better than average offering on a basic cable TV educational channel offering, only worth watching for the dazzling heroics of Ms. Bhise in the title role.
2 Out of 4