It’s hard to believe it’s more than five years since I wrote my (last) review in this blog of the 1953 film Jhansi Ki Rani. When I watched the film again half a decade later, it felt as though I had seen it almost yesterday. But this time around, I was also finding quite a few other works about Lakshmibai for comparison. (By the way, if there is anyone who does not already know whom I am talking about, this was Queen Lakshmibai of Jhansi – originally named Manikarnika – who famously led a battle against the British in the Indian rebellion of 1857. There is a nice description of the legendary queen over at Wikipedia,.)
As far as I know, after the 1953 film, there was not another movie made about Lakshmibai for a long, long time. But now that situation has completely changed. By the end of the present year, 2019, we will have had two highly visible and much-anticipated films about the Queen of Jhansi released on the international market. On top of that, I found out about two substantial novels on the subject that came out within the past dozen years, and I have also noticed that on YouTube we can find a Lakshmibai serial and Lakshmibai cartoons and all kinds of documentary works. It’s Lakshmibai Mania!
I’m not even going to list every work revolving around Lakshmibai that I have noticed (especially considering all the titles I saw on YouTube), but I have decided to give a brief survey of the ones that I now feel somewhat acquainted with. A few are works that I have read or watched already – for which I am providing somewhat informal reviews – and a few are things that I hope to read or watch very soon (for which I can provide a little bit of advance information that I have found). I do intend to review the items I haven’t seen or read yet a little later, which means that this post will no doubt continue into a Part II. But in the meantime, it’s high time that I got a new post up on this blog, so here’s what I have so far.
Jhansi Ki Rani (aka The Tiger and the Flame) (1953): This film remains my favorite work on the subject. Since I still agree with everything I said before, I’ll just add a few points here. In addition to Mehtab’s fine performance and a few other things I mentioned in my last post, I would like to stress – especially in light of another movie that I watched (which I will get to in a minute) – that this film stands out because of its solid, sympathetic characters on both sides. We certainly are encouraged to root for the Queen of Jhansi, but at the same time, the British enemies are not all depicted as cardboard-cutout villains. The dialogue seems a little stiff in the English-language version, but that may be because it is the English-language version; it might seem more natural in the Hindi one. (By the way, the English-language version was a special American release, but sometimes the actors sounded awfully British to me!) But the characters can be very moving nonetheless. The scenes of tragedy in the film – such as the death of Lakshmibai’s child or the death of the queen, herself – are actually quite heart-wrenching. The ending is marvelously moving, too. In addition, the cinematography is very impressive and some of the scenes are quite spectacular to watch. In the English-language version that I saw, there are a couple of excellent dances (one of which tells a story that is the origin of the English title of the film: “The Tiger and the Flame”). I have noted before that there was a curious lack of songs in that version too. But, as Tom Daniel pointed out, this was because the English-language version/American release was very truncated. (And he does know a bit about that, because he’s the one who posted this version on YouTube!) There are longer versions available on YouTube also, but they are corrupted black-and-white copies that are almost unwatchable. I would recommend this color version no matter what it might be missing, and I would like to repeat the feeling that I expressed years ago, that it is a shame this film was not more successful at the box office.
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019) : This is the latest Hindi-film version of the tale. And it is a film that helped me to appreciate the 1953 version even more for a few reasons, including (as I mentioned) the older film’s depth or nuance in its character portrayals, especially with regard to the enemy forces. The British enemies in Manikarnika are cardboard-cutout villains and the film is plagued by one-dimensional or exaggerated characters in general. The queen, herself, is just too much of a superhero, and some of the action scenes – which are obviously aided by computer animation – are utterly absurd. (I could really have done without some of those slow-mo jumps.) This is a shame because the star, Kangana Ranaut, actually is a pretty good actress, and it was nice to see her perform her role so well, even given that she didn’t always have the best material to work with. On the other hand, since she is one of the film’s three directors, Kangana should also be held accountable for the film’s more silly qualities, no mater how good an actress she is.
But I don’t want to totally pan this film; overall, it’s not really that bad to watch. The pace is decent, the cinematography is very nice (it seems that we get nice cinematography in all the Lakshmibai films), and the action sometimes is colorful and exciting, outside of the more ridiculous scenes. The music is also very pleasant, though none of it stuck out in my mind. (Of course, most music in contemporary Hindi films doesn’t stick out in my mind like the music in the old films – not by a long stretch.)
There is also another actress who did a very nice job in this film – Ankita Lokhande, who played Jhalkaribai. Actually, I was very pleased to see the sections of this film devoted to Jhalkaribai. Jhalkaribai was a Dalit member of Queen Lakshimbai’s female guard who bore a strong resemblance to the queen and who legendarily acted as a decoy to allow the queen to escape (for a while) during the climactic Siege of Jhansi. This part of the tale of Laskhmibai is very memorable, and apparently (as I found while doing a small bit of research), some people feel that Jhalkaribai was the true greatest hero of Jhansi. It is unfortunate that in the 1953 film – at least in the version I saw – there was no attention given to the tale of Jhalkaribai. In fact, in that film, there was no attention given to any of the famous women in Queen Laskhmibai’s female army (though women guards were clearly shown in some scenes). But in more recent times, the queen’s all-female guard seems to be a strong area of focus in every major version of this tale that comes out. I suppose that’s one reason to be grateful for 21st century feminism!
Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran (published in 2014): Speaking of the queen’s all-female guard, they certainly get enough attention in this novel! That’s because the main character and narrator of the novel is not Queen Lakshmibai, but a member of her guard named Sita. And in the novel, at least, Sita is also best friends with Jhalkaribai. I suspect that some people might have been disappointed in this book because they expected it to be from Lakshmibai’s perspective, but we don’t even get any glimpse of Laskhmibai’s thoughts and feelings except from the perspective of Sita. Personally, though, I think it was refreshing to see the tale of Lakshmibai told from the perspective of one of her female soldiers. It was very clever, maybe even ingenious, for Michelle Moran to write it this way.
In many ways, this novel is a treat. There certainly are solid characters here – though there are also a couple of traitorous villains within the ranks of the Indians whose evil qualities might have been a bit overdone. There also are some twists at the end regarding the “real” (but fictional) cause of certain deaths that are a bit hard to imagine as real, possible history. And one more quibble I have regarding Rebel Queen is that Ms. Moran is sometimes a bit superficial in her depiction of certain aspects of historic Indian culture (at least compared to the depictions in some other things that I have read). For instance, I was a bit annoyed by her easy generalization about the devadasis. There is a point early in the novel when Sita faces the threat of being sold to the temple to become a devadasi because her evil grandmother (who is actually an evil step grandmother, as we learn at one point) does not feel that the family can be responsible for her anymore. (Sita’s mother had died and her father is sometimes left oblivious to things that are going on because he was deafened by a war injury.) Then Sita relates in her narration that everybody knew how terrible this was, because devadasis were just prostitutes – and when Sita’s father finally catches on to the plan, he arranges for Sita to seek a much better fate by training for a famous all-female army. Of course, that generalization about devadasis is a bit of an oversimplification, and I don’t think that devadasis began to acquire such a degraded reputation until the moralistic anti-nautch movement that occurred half a century after this part of the novel takes place. And, of course, in this novel, there is no mention at all of the devadasis’ great dance tradition. (Maybe I found this more troubling than others might because I am a big fan of classical Indian dance and have eagerly read some of the dancers’ history.)
Michelle Moran actually is not a specialist in Indian culture, though she married an Indian man and she was inspired to write this book while living in India around the time of her wedding. (She was originally from California, which is also her regular residence now.) In her various novels, she delves into different historical cultures, and her most popular novels take place in ancient Egypt. But I don’t get the impression that her specialty in historical fiction is revealing intricate historical facts. Rather, it is making people within the historical novels seem like characters we could easily sympathize with. While I was reading the scenes in Rebel Queen that took place within the residences of the women’s guard, it sometimes felt as though I was reading conversations between college girls in a contemporary dormitory. I think it’s because the characters’ humanness seemed very real, in a way that transcended time periods and historical circumstances. I also wondered if young women and teenagers might be the novel’s biggest intended target audience – which would be interesting, because that was no doubt the demographic of the main characters, too.
The way the novel is written, it should be broadly appealing. It’s certainly smoothly done. For instance, though there are a lot of plot elements to relate, the novel never becomes wordy or plodding. And while a lot of horrible and tragic things happen toward the end (after all, this is the 1857 rebellion), the more hopeful changes in the plot at the very end actually help to make this novel uplifting.
And here are a couple of items that I hope to check out in the near future – maybe to be discussed further in this post’s Part II. (By the way, I can’t guarantee that Part II will be my very next post, but the more I think about it, the more I feel that I am going to want to write it soon!)
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (2019): This mostly English-language film and mostly UK production is scheduled for release in the U.S. on November 15. I hope to see it when it comes out or not long afterwards. It’s directed by Swati Bhise, who was originally known as a Bharatanatyam dancer but who also obviously has delved into many other artistic endeavors. She comes from Mumbai but, apparently, she currently teaches in various arts programs in New York City. The star of the film is her daughter, Devika Bhise, who has had some acting experience of her own, in addition to being trained in martial arts. (So, obviously, she has some qualifications for playing the Warrior Queen in this movie, in addition to being the director’s daughter. Actually, as I just found out, she also ended up directing part of the film during a time when her mother landed in the ICU with a respiratory ailment.) The film received some praise at a few film festivals and private screenings earlier this year, when it had a slightly different title, Swords and Sceptres: The Rani of Jhansi. Maybe the new title was chosen to give it a more popular kind of appeal, especially in the U.S. I hope that it will get a wide distribution, and that I’ll be able to find it easily in November so I can review it soon, in Part II of this post!
Rani by Jaishree Misra (published in 2007): There might be some people who’ve been reading this blog regularly who will recall that I mentioned this book Rani at the end of my post from five months ago, Freedom Fighting Courtesans and Warrior Queens of 1857. That post centered on a novel about another warrior queen (slightly less known than the Lakshmibai), Begum Hazrat Mahal. That novel was In The City of Gold and Silver, by Kenize Mourad. At the end of the post, I did bring the Queen of Jhansi up a little, not only because she obviously should be included under the subject of that post, but also because she is mentioned in Mourad’s novel. But I also brought up the fact that Mourad’s novel is compared to Jaishree Misra’s novel in a review written for The Hindu by Suneetha Balakrishnan. In that review, Ms. Balakrishnan said that Jaishree Misra’s novel was more engaging, and I have wanted to read Misra’s novel ever since. Now I know that Suneetha Balakrishnan also reviewed Misra’s novel directly for her blog Suneetha Speaks. After reading that review, I am even more interested in reading this book!
One thing I know from her review of Rani – which I am pretty sure I also saw mentioned in a book review elsewhere – is that Queen Lakshmibai is depicted as having a romance with a British man, which is an idea that some people might consider heretical. There was an old British childhood friend of Lakshmibai who appeared as a character in the 1953 film, and though he is married at the time when they unite as adults, he and Lakshmibai obviously do admire each other. The British friend, unfortunately, is also stuck with the job of pursuing Laskhmibai during battle (and, of course, it is he who is killed). I am pretty sure that this British friend is based on a real person, and I suspect that he might be the same man who becomes Lakshmibai’s romantic interest in Misra’s novel.
I do intend to read Rani soon, though I might have to sit in a research room to do it, because I haven’t been able to find the book anywhere in New York City except at the New York Public Library’s research center in Midtown. Or I may do something that I rarely do (for various reasons) which is to find a way to get the book online. In any event, I think there is a good chance that this novel will be reviewed for real in this post’s Part II. As I was saying, I am not sure if Part II is going to be the very next post, but if you want to read even more about this Lakshmibai Mania, stay tuned!
[Note half a year later: Well, I was a little slow in getting to the later items, but I really intended to sometime in the earlier part of 2020. Unfortunately, then we had a global pandemic, and at the very least, visits to the library and bookstores or DVD stores became impossible (and forget about any film showings in theaters). And I guess my attention strayed to other matters, too. One of these days, I will get to these, though. For now, I hope the previews will suffice!]
Very interesting post, Richard. I’d seen this yesterday, but was so rushed that – seeing the length of it – decided I would put off the reading of it to today.
It’s about time I got around to seeing the 1953 film about Laxmibai. That’s been on my watchlist for a long time, and your review of it certainly encourages me to watch it. Manikarnika was, very briefly, on my watchlist, but after the first reviews of it started coming in, I decided this wasn’t a film I wanted to watch. It sounded too jingoistic and loud – which, not surprisingly, Kangana Ranaut is being in real life too, these days. :-D
I’ve never read the Michelle Moran novel (I’m a little wary of most Westerners who write historical novels set in India), but I had to study a Hindi novel about Laxmibai when I was in Grade 12. Interesting, and (from what I recall of it, considering we studied modern Indian history the same year) fairly accurate from a historical point of view.
Thanks again, Madhu. I hope you get to watch the 1953 film soon. You can just view it on Tom’s channel if you don’t mind watching it on YouTube (and you’re OK watching a truncated version in order to get far better visual quality :) ).
Regarding Kangana Ranaut… In a previous draft of this post, I wrote some words about the jingoistic quality of the film and I tried to connect it to what I had seen about her outside of the film. (I don’t know if you saw it, but Reeba sent me some interesting links about that on Facebook.) But I thought that was bringing the review off on a tangent that sort of interrupted the flow. :) I was taken aback by how many times I had to read the phrase “For my country!” in the subtitles. But someone else wrote the dialogue, not Kangana. I saw her listed as one of three directors, so while she bears some responsibility, maybe she gets more of the blame than is fair because she is the recognized star? I am no expert on acting, but I thought she did very well with that, at least.
Is Kangana trying to be the next Priyanka Chopra? LOL There’s a campaign going to kick Piryanka out of her UN roll because she publicly cheered on the armed forces of India. And I understand that she’s been picking public verbal fights with fans and other people too. (Also learned that with some help from Reeba.)
I don’t know if it’s fair to be wary of most Westerners who write historical novels in India. But maybe we could assume they are not concentrated particularly on India if they skip around to different places as Michelle Moran does. Though she has lived in India for a short time and she does have an Indian husband, so she is way ahead of me in those ways (if I ever write a whole book set in India). The closest I could claim is a three-year residence during the past decade near the heart of the Indian section of Jackson Heights in Queens, NY and a Pakistani girlfriend who lasted half a year 22 years ago. :) Though I also can claim so much good information and perspective on India from the people I’ve met online during more than a dozen years of doing this blog!
I think I will probably end up watching the un-truncated version rather than the truncated one; I’ve watched some movies in really awful prints, just because I wanted to see the film in its entirety, so I don’t really mind poor quality if it is compensated for, elsewhere.
I agree Kangana is a good actress. Actually, Anu and I were talking about her last month when Anu visited Noida and spent a few hours with me. About how Kangana is good at her work, but her attitude sucks – she’s suddenly emerged as this rabid right-wing Hindutva supporter who can’t seem to have anything to do except pick fights with people who don’t agree with her. I guess her politics colours my opinion of her. ;-)
I’m wary of Westerners writing historical novels set in India because of the few I’ve read till now, most get details horribly and embarrassingly wrong. For instance, Barbara Cleverly wrote the Jack Sandilands series, about a Scotland Yard detective who solves crimes in Raj-era India. Though the mysteries themselves are pretty solid and the detective work is good, there are some absolutely terrible faux pas when it comes to detail. I’d hasten to add that that is often also true of Indians writing historical fiction set in India. The problem seems to be that people don’t do enough research – and India being as complex as it is, many Westerners with only a fleeting (and general) idea of Indian society and culture can get things very wrong indeed. I’ve seen big names like Jeffrey Archer, MM Kaye, and even Kiran Nagarkar slip up when it comes to research.
I guess my obsession with historical research skews my perceptions of these writers. :-)
That said, some of the best non-fiction on historical India that I’ve read is by Western writers like Ebba Koch, Bamber Gascoigne, Anne Marie Schimmel, and Roy Moxham.
I’ve had to try hard not to let the politics of a few Indian film stars color my opinion of them – and I mean the more classic stars, too. It’s a good thing that I’m not a big fan of Hema Malini or Dharmendra anyway (though both have had very good moments), because they have been such active campaigners for the BJP – and Hema has also been a fairly big politician for the party too, right? It’s more troubling that Vyajyanthimala joined the BJP, but as I’ve said before, it appears from interviews that I saw that she does not really have a big attachment to the party’s ideology but, rather, switched to the BJP from Congress at some point because the BJP gave her more attention. (I suppose that it could be a challenge not to let her notorious ego color my opinion of her, but that is not nearly as much of a challenge as trying not to let an actor or dancer’s rabid right-wing politics color my opinion.) I understand that Jamuna joined the BJP, too. What is it with all these actors? Though I was told by someone that all these classic actors who joined the BJP are “very moderate” members, relatively speaking. Still, that’s not a very good excuse, is it?
Regarding Westerners writing historical fiction set in India, I understand your concerns. I haven’t read any of the ones you’ve mentioned. :) For a long time, I went off reading fiction. And when I read a lot of fiction a couple of decades ago, I was much more likely to read science fiction. Historical accuracy about specific places counts a little less when you’re writing about people in the future who live in outer space! :)
What about nonfiction writers who turn to historical fiction? That’s another interesting area…
I was very impressed by The Dancing Girls of Lahore by the UK-based Scottish sociologist Louise Brown. This book was praised as a study that reads like a novel, and in more recent years, she actually became a novelist. I rushed to get two of her novels, Eden Gardens and The Himalayan Summer. Eden Gardens centers on impoverished British women and prostitutes living in Calcutta in the 1940s – certainly an unusual subject! It’s far from a perfect novel, but I liked it. The Himalayan Summer takes place in Bengal and Nepal in the 1930s. It’s more smoothly written, but I thought it came a little bit too close to the formula for a romance novel – at least an old-fashioned kind, not the bad, smutty kinds. :) But the settings combined with time periods were certainly interesting to me, since I’ve watched a bunch of 1940s Hindi and Bengali films. :)
I must admit, I am not familiar with any of those Western writers of nonfiction on historical India. I will look into those names. I know quite a bit about William Dalrymple now, but we’ve already talked about little about him, Madhu. ;)
Thank you Richard. I found this post quite after it has been posted and I am happy to see you have read my blog. You must read The Rani. It’s quite engrossing.
You’re welcome Suneetha! And thank you for writing in – I am very happy to see that you have found this blog, too! :)
And no problem re. it being a long time since this post appeared . . . I actually have a reason to feel bad about the time that has passed, because I promised there would be a Part II sometime in which I would review Jaishree Misra’s Rani as well as the new “Warrior Queen” film and I have gotten to neither so far. I am having a hard time finding Rani here in New York City outside of seeing it listed in a research library, which means I will have to sit in the place to read it there. (I can’t find it at any stores in New York and for various reasons, I don’t search for and buy things online very often.) But I will get to it. Especially now that you have urged me to do so, directly . . . You have made me very curious about this book again!