Is “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi,” a new film Swati Bhise a case of printing the legend? This reviewer would never deign to suggest that he knows enough about Indian history to even hazard a guess. What is clear about this film which focuses on Rani Lakshmibai (Devika Bhise, who also co-wrote the work) is that she is shown as being as close to a perfect individual as possible. This is not to say that she necessarily wins every fight that she enters, but even the perfect can lose when they take a small band of people up against the might of the British East India Company in the 19th Century.
In fact, the biggest detriment to the Bhise’s film are the moments when there are out-and-out villains pushing a policy to force Jhansi under the East India Company’s rule. The best are when the work of the Rani is seen opposite someone like Rupert Everett’s Major General Sir Hugh Rose. Rose is put in the uncomfortable position of having to try to find an amicable solution to something to which there there can never be such an end – in this case, having the Rani give up Jhansi to the Company. Rose knows that the discussions are highly likely to wind up in a contest of physical force, and he will lead his troops, but it is an uneasy decision.
We also see this sort of deep introspection in the character of Major Robert Ellis (Ben Lamb), who has a personal relationship with the Rani, and even in Queen Victoria (Jodhi May). It is not that they will necessarily stand up to the East India Company, but they will plead for the best outcome, one with minimal deaths and the least destruction.
Of course, while those characters all inform this story, the tale is not theirs, it is the Rani’s. Devika Bhise infuses the historical figure with more than a little derring do, hesitant though that derring-ness might be. She is a freedom fighter, urging those who live under her rule to stand up to a far greater force, and pleading with those in nearby regions to come to her aid. And, all of this in a time when women were not usually in such roles.
The Rani’s efforts are wonderful to watch, and Devika Bhise is charismatic and engrossing, but all too often we get the results of her actions with too little time spent on the process of her getting there. That is, while there are feints towards giving the audience answers as to how she became the general she is, the movie never quite gets at the nuts and bolts of it. It makes the Rani more two dimensional than she otherwise might be.
More than just in this aspect of “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi,” the basic brushstrokes of the larger story are present without the details being filled in. So, the Maharaja and Rani’s son dies and instantly they adopt a nephew. There is no discussion as to having another child, no explanation. The story just moves forward. Clearly there is a problem somewhere, but it isn’t clear where. Despite the fact that a member of the East India Company, Sir Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker) is present at the adoption ceremony, the Company states it doesn’t count and thereby decides that they can control Jhansi (as per the law). But, how is it that the Company can just not count the adoption? The movie doesn’t explore the issue as much as it needs.
There is, quite clearly, a powerful story to be told here (and one that has been told before), but too often “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” seems to content to sit on the surface of it, just skimming along from beginning to end without ever plumbing the depths. There is more story to be told here and one wishes that the movie did so, but it feels as though all the pieces are in place to make it happen. The two Bhises (mother and daughter) deal with this legendary tale in a touching, familiar, down to Earth fashion. Leaving the audience wanting more is often good, but this time we are left wanting a little too much.
photo credit: Roadside Attractions