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In Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, the script is black and white, obvious and spoiler-filled. In the opening frames, a child is baptised in the Varanasi River as Shankar Mahadevan melodiously sings a song that literally tells us that this baby will die by the end of the film.

That’s a pretty big revelation for the international audience who don’t know that Rani Laxmibai (her maiden name, Manikarnika) — a revered historical figure in the Indian rebellion of 1857 — was mortally wounded fighting the East India Company. When she dies in the film, Shankar Mahadevan’s song booms once again with a ‘told you so’ attitude.

Keeping Mahadevan’s songs aside (he and his buddies Ehsaan and Loy handled the songs of the film), this epic good-versus-evil fight of righteousness in history is translated into a classy, if bland, film by directors Krish Jagarlamudi and Kangana Ranaut (FYI: Ranaut only helped finish the film because Jagarlamudi had conflicting shooting dates with another project).

Classifying Manikarnika as good, bad or mediocre is easier said than done

With exception to Amitabh Bachchan’s narration bookending the story (an obvious, overused staple of epic Bollywood films), Manikarnika doesn’t have any other big names except Ranaut, making this, literally, a one-woman show.

Jumping straight into action, the film’s second scene shows us that a grown-up Manikarnika, raised in a royal household, is gifted in the art of combat and has a soft spot for animals.

Standing in unflinching stylised poise with one end of her blue designer-made saree flying high in the wind, she wounds a tiger with a single arrow. When a village simpleton asks why she didn’t kill the beast (which, if I remember from an old tale, was threatening a village), she says that it was never her intention to kill the animal. Just capture it and return it to the jungle.

Unknown to her, Jhansi’s minister (Kalbhushan Kharbanda) had seen her actions and felt her to be the right wife material for Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), Jhansi’s Maharajah. If anyone can make a man out of him it would be her, he subtly argues.

Manikarnika only uses English for dramatic effect. In the latter half of the film, she resolves most matters with her sword, but only because both she and her kingdom don’t have much of a choice.

Gangadhar is portrayed as a metrosexual who favours fashion, dance and culture in place of swords. Even on his wedding day, he wears bangles to the utter dismay of his mum.

Although not a fighter, Gangadhar is far from a nincompoop. Seeing the natural leadership potential of his would-be wife when she is brought in for the wedding (she had just tamed a rowdy palace horse), he tells her culturally uptight mum to not shackle the young woman with old customs.

When they marry, Gangadhar gives her a new name (Laxmi), introduces her to his massive library and the two soon have a baby.

In the meantime, British officers from the East India Company begin their slow conquest of the state with petty acts of subjugation. In one scene, a British officer hits an old man with a rifle butt for not bowing down to the marching army (the old man was complaining of joint pain, and actually wanted to bow down); in another, two officers steal a newborn calf from a poor village couple.

Laxmi, who roamed her kingdom without notice or royal protocol, saves the calf by putting the officers in their place in their native language — English. Like Rekha in so many films, Manikarnika only uses English for dramatic effect. In the latter half of the film, she resolves most matters with her sword, but only because both she and her kingdom don’t have much of a choice.

During the two-and-a-half hour running time screenwriter K.V. Vijayendra Prasad (Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijan) condenses history into an epic narrative with short, un-taxing, one-dimensional scenes. As an after-effect, with exception to Sengupta pulling off the role with sublime intelligence, every character including Manikarnika comes off as stereotypical space-fillers. By intermission time, one gets bored with the filmmakers’ predisposition to play it safe.

Ranaut, with the role tailor-made for her, has a fitting screen presence. She, of course, looks gorgeous if a little fashionably modern to those times, changing exquisite dresses that complement the overall look and design of the film sets. One can also see that Ranaut has put her back into her sword-wielding and horse-riding skills; her on-cue monotone acting, however, is painfully evident in almost all scenes.

Simply classifying Manikarnika into a good, bad or mediocre mold is tricky. On the one hand its bland ambitions take one’s interest away from the experience. On the other, the faux-epic ambiance, a quick-enough pace, grand production design, sweeping cinematography and even the play-it-safe storytelling gel quite well.

By sheer logic, the pros outnumber the cons, so one might as well see Manikarnika on the big screen.

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 3rd, 2019