This is my third post on this movie, after one that dealt specifically with the worst bits of propaganda in it, and my general No Spoilers review. And now I will dig into the details of the plot. Feel free to read this even if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a familiar story so there’s no big surprises.
Let me start with a general outline of the real Manikarnika’s life. I haven’t done any real research on her, or read a book, or anything. This is just the basic dates of her life. She was born in 1828, and raised in Uttar Pradhesh. At 13, she was married to Gangadhar Rao, ruler of Jhansi. I can’t find his age anywhere, but he was ruler of Jhansi since 1838, when Manikarnika was 10. So figure a 15-20 age gap on the low end, and 30-40 years on the high end. They had their first child in 1851, when she was 22. The baby died, and knowing that Gangadhar’s death was eminent, they adopted a child of a relative just before Gangadhar died. The British had been in and out of Jhansi for years, with the death of Gangadhar, they claimed that the inheritance had lapsed. Manikarnika was given a pension of 60,000 rupees and sent from the kingdom. I can’t find a way to calculate the value of that today, but I am just going to guess it is A LOT of money.
She continued to live in Jhansi, and when the 1857 revolution began, she asked permission of the British to raise an army for her protection. The Mutineers arrived in June and massacred the British and, Manikarnika paid them off to leave. Manikarnika took control, and wrote to the British that she had done so. Her kingdom was then attacked first by more mutineers, then by neighboring kingdoms. She appealed to the British for help, but none came as the British headquarters now suspected she was involved in the original massacre. She successfully defended the fort against the Indian attackers in August, and then the British arrived. They defeated her, she fled to an encampment of allies in March of 1858. There was another battle there in May and they lost, and fled again to the city of Gwalior which was already held by other rebels. In June of 1858, the British attacked Gwalior and killed Manikarnika. After the battle, 60 of her followers fled, including her son. In May 1860, they surrendered themselves to the British and her son (age 9ish) was given a pension of 10,000 rupees and 7 servants.
Now, let us move on to how this movie handles this story!
We open with Manikarnika as a princess shooting a tiger with an arrow. But not killing it, just drugging it (because she is just that good and womanly) while Kulbhushan Kharbanda watches. She is more of a warrior than a princess, loves to practice sword fights and so on. Kulbhushan thinks she might be perfect for his kingdom and proposes a marriage with the king of Jhansi, Jisshu Sengupta. Manikarnika is afraid to leave her home, but her adopted father and biological father sing a duet about loving her homeland. It’s strange. She goes to Jhansi, with her favorite maid Mishti. Her new husband is interested in “Arts”, is “not like a man”, wears bangles, and basically the movie screams at us “HE’S GAY!!!!! GAAAAAY!!!!” Post-marriage, very slowly he stops being gay. Manikarnika stops being “like a man” too. Although first she rides off in a huff after an angry confrontation with the British and attacks a bandit, only to learn he is stealing to help the peasants who can’t survive thanks to British taxes. And she also has her little cow protection adventure. But then she discovers she is pregnant, and is thrilled with her baby.
But! Jisshu’s evil cousin, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, is plotting with the evil British against them. First he poisons the baby and Jisshu (maybe, it’s very poorly filmed). And then when Kangana adopts another baby before Jisshu dies, he convinces the British not to recognize the child, and the British take over the fort and throw Kangana out with nothing. An unspecified time later, the 1857 mutiny starts and the same bandit that Kangana stopped earlier is now a mutineer. Kangana saves the women and children (well, woman and child) from being killed and then they are killed anyway when Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub secretly kills them and frames her. Following the massacre, the British are furious and bring in a new commander who is determined to destroy Kangana. Kangana prepares for battle by teaching all the women to fight and inspiring them, and accepting help from some mutineers. They have a big battle but are defeated when Mohammed Zeeshan shows the British how to sneak into the fort, and one of the new mutineers betrays them and is killed by Danny Denzongpa in one of few scenes where he actually gets significant dialogue. Ankita Lokhande also gets one of her few scenes, as the low caste village woman who pretends to be Kangana to cover her escape. Kangana flees and unites with Atul Kulkarni and his army. They go to Gwalior where she inspires the warriors to mutiny against their king and takes the fort for her rebel group. The fight the British again there, and Kangana dies.
I won’t bother going into the details of the way history is changed about, I think you can get that just from the opening of this review. Some of it I don’t mind, changing Manikarnika’s age is reasonable, either they do that or they start the story well after marriage when she would have a chance of looking like Kangana looks. Simplifying the 1857-58 era makes sense from a narrative sense of things, why confuse the issue by bringing in the other enemies when the British are the ultimate enemy? But it is a little irritating, because it simplifies the whole era to “united India against Britain”, instead of “many Indian nation-states squabbling between each other, and also the British”. Her allies are a bit downplayed, she convinces Gwalior to fall to her and chases away the ruler instead of it already being rebel territory. But again, I can forgive that simply for making our hero more heroic. Really, from the side of “but that’s not what REALLY happened!!!!” this is about 1,000xs better than Padmavat, which even changed who killed the King, a matter of clear historical record.
There is a really interesting film that I can unbury here, which I suspect is the film Krish intended. The story is the journey of this wild joyful young girl to a fierce sacrificial warrior. It’s all building to this amazing moment at the end when Kangana turns into an angry goddess, burning up in hatred as she dies in battle. But that moment would have no meaning if we didn’t see what brought her there, the little moments of rebellion and learning and growth. So we start with her young and carefree before marriage. Then the shy growth of her love story with her gay husband until they come to truly care for each other. And at the same time the constant balance of dealing with the resident British army without losing her own respect. Then the experience of motherhood, the heartbreak of losing her child, the bonding with her new child, and then the heartbreak of her husband’s death and refusing to live life as a widow, instead insisting on ruling as regent. All of these moments that lead to the end of her journey, as she left all of that behind to turn into the avenging warrior goddess. As we can see by her hairstyle, which goes from wild and curly before marriage, to slightly waved after marriage, to straight and pulled back in widowhood, and finally to Warrior Braids.
Told that way, it becomes less a historical film than a fable. A series of small stories surrounding this one woman on her journey to becoming a Goddess. But then there are the other moments that feel less like a fable and more like…I’m not sure? A lesson for the audience? The absolute worst moment is when Kangana is in the middle of rescuing the calf, and bursts out this very odd precise English, a short sentence spoken very slowly and clearly. And she uses this English to say “Yes, I speak English, so what? It is only a language”. It is a logical response for Kangana-the-actress to her critics, but it makes no sense within the film. It’s super indulgent and takes me right out of things.
Although maybe the Krish version would be worse? I’m not sure. The fable-of-a-woman bits are good. But then that also means we don’t spend any time with any of the other characters. Ankita Lokhande is based on Jhalkaribai, a young woman of a lower caste who married a soldier in Manikarnika’s army and ended up being trained as one of Manikarnika’s bodyguards. In this film, she is introduced with no explanation, we go from the palace to a farm where she and her husband tease each other and mention that they still don’t have children. Then their calf is stolen, and Kangana shows up to save it, then parties with the low caste people and has a dance with Ankita. She appears again much later when Kangana is training female warriors. And has a conversation with her husband about how she is finally pregnant, but is happy that she and her child can be martyred for Jhansi, and then blows herself up. That’s the extent of her role. There is no attempt to thread her into more of the film, to extend her backstory, to help us relate to this character. But if there had been, we might have lost the focus on Kangana.
Danny Denzongpa is the one where it is most obvious. He is…..something in the Jhansi kingdom. It’s never clear what. Herald, adviser, head of army, he seems to do all these things. He doesn’t even get an intro scene, he’s just suddenly there cheering on Kangana from the crowd. The first scene I remember him having where he does more than cheer and announce things is when he confronts Kangana about writing the British to ask “permission” to name her adopted son heir. He has another scene after the first battle when Kangana tends to his wounds and they joke as though they are close to each other (but we have never seen that before). And finally his death scene, fighting another Pathan (oh right, Danny is the only Muslim in the kingdom), when he suddenly calls the other Pathan by name and says something like “I should have known not to trust you”. It is clearly a follow up to some earlier scene, perhaps him expressing doubts to Kangana about this man, perhaps him recognizing him earlier and being convinced not to say something. But whatever that was, it is lost. And all that remains is this one line of dialogue in the middle of the final fight scene. Which, come to think of it, they could have removed! It wouldn’t have been hard to redub, but I guess Kangana missed that. Or else Danny refused to come back and do it.
And then there’s Sonu Sood/Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. According to Krish’s recent interview, and what Sonu said earlier, he had a substantial role. It wasn’t just a mindless villain part. And I can imagine some way that could happen. Zeeshan feels he is passed over for the inheritance of the kingdom. He allies with the British in order to get his kingdom back. Along the way, he (maybe) kills a baby and his cousin, and massacres the British (just the two or three of them, not the 40-60 families it was in reality) in order to frame Kangana. And then at the very end he has a slight change of heart, frustrated to realize that the British will NEVER give him what he wants. This could be a fascinating figure, either someone with an increasing hidden level of evil that finally implodes, or someone who grows a conscience over time. Or someone who is turned to evil by the British playing mind games. Instead, we get Zeeshan’s role which is just sort of bland. He is evil because he is evil, including big black turbans and so on. And then he gets angry because he isn’t getting his kingdom, and dies.
Zeeshan’s scenes are the ones that we KNOW that Kangana directed. Most of them are fine, not terribly interesting but not terrible. But there are two that stand out as just really really bad. First is scene of him planning with the British, structured around a croquet match. The British costumes are laughable, that’s part of it, but also the pacing, the way they talk to each other, even the blocking, it’s all just kind of odd. Feels stiff somehow, like I am watching a high school theater performance.
And the second is one that is another oddly personal scene. Kangana claims that Sonu fired/stormed out of the film because he refused to work for a female director. In the film, Zeeshan (playing the role Sonu would have played) storms out/is banished by Kangana because he refuses to serve a female ruler. But it’s also boring. I think it may have been re-edited to insert Zeeshan? He tends to be limited to reaction shots instead of interacting with the other performers. And it all feels slow and less exciting or dramatic than it should.
To balance those scenes that were definitely Kangana, there are two extremely powerful scenes that I suspect are from Krish. There is the moment that Kangana is thrown out of the palace, and all the woman servants (and some men, but they focus on the women) grab torches to go out with her, calling out “the Queen is Leaving! The Queen is Leaving!” as they go. Very powerful sound, all of the voices raised up, and very powerful image, all of these torches raised up. And there is a scene during the attack on the fort, when Kangana fights off dozens of men with two swords until they are finally all dead at her feet as she stumbles and leans in front of a Kali statue. There are others I don’t remember as well, but those stand out. And again, make me curious for the Krish version of the film.