After a liberal dose of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat and Baahubali, it is only natural that we expect a great deal out of a period war film. While SS Rajamouli had the crutch of fiction to aid his unparalleled vision, Bhansali had unmatched aesthetic at his disposal. Kangana Ranaut and Krish, the co-directors of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi have neither.
Vijayendra Prasad, also the writer of the Baahubali franchise, pens a screenplay that limps on its way to the war ground.
The first half introduces us to the titular character (Kangana Ranaut), but it is weak as it offers little besides a few laugh-out-loud lines and a fairly predictable narrative. However, once the Britishers announce their arrival, the intensity, and more importantly a sense of purpose, kicks in. A historian could elaborate on whether the path shown in Manikarnika mirrors reality or not, but the story does not unfurl as dramatically (not to be confused with melodramatic) as Prasad’s Baahubali did. Prasoon Joshi’s dialogues are a let down, besides a few royal cliches, especially because he was the brains behind the arousing and memorable lines of Rang De Basanti.
As far as aesthetic is concerned, it is just adequate. Costume designer Neeta Lulla’s palette changes according to the mood of the film and the phase of life Manikarnika inhabits. The cinematography, editing and action work in tandem to save us from excessive slow motion sequences that have populated the best of period dramas recently. But diluting the indulgence is too less an achievement for a film touted to be of epic scale and standard. To their credit, there are some compelling original sequences, but those are too few to pat their back generously.
Similar is the case with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music. There are only a couple of songs, like ‘Bharat‘ and ‘Vijay Bhava‘ that provide the pulsating poetry that a patriotic film inherently demands. Most of the other tracks are inconsequential, if not distractions. However, Shankar Mahadevan fronts the vocals and deserves a standing ovation for the command over his choice.
Danny Danzongpa, who plays Manikarnika’s general Ghaus Baba, plays his part so emphatically (again, with great command over his powerful voice) that he stands out in a huge supporting cast. Atul Kulkarni and Suresh Oberoi only play serviceable parts despite being cast as integral forces in the 1857 Mutiny. Jisshu Sengupta does not miss a beat as the supportive husband of Manikarnika and an empathetic statesman of Jhansi. Ankita Lokhande makes an impressive debut and uses her experience in daily soaps to get her pitch just about right. Zeeshan Ayub has shades to his character but is perennially dressed in black, making it too difficult to think of him as anything beyond the stereotypical villain.
It is then Kangana Ranaut who has to do most of the heavy-lifting. She knocks it out of the park by invoking her inner Kali on the battlefield, particularly in one stunningly choreographed sword fighting sequence. Ferocious and poised, she embodies Jhansi ki Rani like her 21st century incarnation. Where she scores over popular male actors who have played warriors, is by bringing unadulterated intensity, even to intimacy. The intimacy here includes both in the long takes of sword fighting sequences or in scenes where her eyes, wide open, display the vulnerability of a woman who has lost it all, yet has something to live for.
One only wishes her direction was as aspirational. A great leader, like the Queen of Jhansi, inspires everyone around her to give it their all for the common vision. It is there that Kangana falls short.