Having seen Manikarnika earlier this year, I thought it would be fun to compare an earlier movie on the same subject. Rani Lakshmibai is an important historical figure and an important nationalist/patriotic symbol. However, media tells us most about the time period in which it was made, so what does Jhansi ki Rani say about its subject, its time period, and its audience?
Jhansi ki Rani is not based strictly on historical fact, but on a novel published in 1946 by Vrindavan Lal Verma. The following year, of course, would see both independence and partition, so naturally that discourse informs the novel and the film.
Whereas the 2019 film is firmly centered on Lakshmibai, the 1953 film focuses on patriotic speeches and the importance of unity and defending one’s country. Lakshmibai often takes a backseat in her own movie, and when on screen her lines reduced to platitudes about being willing to die for her country. (Though 2019’s Lakshmibai had similar speeches; the nature of the historical figure, after all.)
The movie includes an interesting throughline that I wish had been more thoroughly developed: Lakshmibai’s lifelong relationship with an Englishman, Henry Ducat (though the subtitles used multiple spellings for the name; I think he is fictional, or at least based on an amalgam of people). Henry is a childhood friend of Lakshmibai, presenting her with a pistol when she leaves for Jhansi. He visits her when she is a queen and he is an officer. During the mutiny, he visits her to tell her she is being held responsible for murder, but as he leaves, he whispers, “I am proud of you, Manu.” Ultimately, she kills him with the pistol he gave her; as he dies, he explains “I was only doing my duty, but I’m glad you won.”
The Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah (1965) is the only other film I can think of that explores the relationship between white English people born/living in India and native Indians. Though unfortunately, if not unsurprisingly, the focus in that film is squarely on the English characters. While I’m the last person to advocate for more screen time for men, this relationship could have given additional nuance and depth to Lakshmibai. The audience clearly sees how Henry views her, but how does she feel about having to fight against someone she’s known her entire life?
But Lakshmibai is a symbol, so the audience learns little about how she feels other than that she feels it is her duty to fight and die for Jhansi and India.
In general, the film is largely focused on men, starting with Rajguru leaving Jhansi and coming across Manu and thinking she’d be the perfect queen for Jhansi. Young Manu is outspoken and fearless, and willing to leave and be married, despite the film telling us she is not quite nine years old.
I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of numerical symbolism; I assume the novel’s author aged Manu down for a specific reason, perhaps so that she would be 18 (a satisfying number) for the Mutiny. But seeing little Manu marry a man in his 40s is quite upsetting. Manikarnika was actually 14 when she married, which is still incredibly young, but at least not an actual child. The change in age is even stranger considering adult Lakshmibai is played by a woman (Mehtab) in her mid-30s.
Regardless, there is something inspiring about seeing a fearless, determined girl, and watching her grow and study so that she can be a strong leader, both in politics and on the battlefield. The movie opened with a dedication to those, men and women, who died so that others can live in freedom, and young Manu/Lakshmi embodies that idea that anyone can serve and fight.
After spending ten years learning how to fight and rule, Lakshmibai is ready to defend Jhansi. Her teacher implores her not to fight, but she says, “You trust words, and I trust work.” So often women are cautioned or flat-out told to wait, to be patient, to trust, so it is inspiring to hear her say, “No, I’m not going to wait, I’m going to take care of this.”
This message is undercut a little bit late in the movie when Lakshmibai gives in to despair. “Why should I be alive? Prepare my funeral pyre.” Rajguru has to give her a peptalk. However, this could be my own bias, since this is a common trope of the hero’s journey. I think I bristle at the melodrama, and that’s more of a “me being a modern audience” thing than anything inherently wrong with the scene.
Lakshmibai does fight, and we even see her bleed. The film has been fairly bloodless, but the end of the Mutiny includes closeups of blood. She dies but the English write of her bravery. Over her funeral pyre, a song about the “fire of liberty.”
Judging historical films for feminism is tricky. Give such a film modern sensibilities, and it becomes ahistorical. Use such a film for a specific message also leads to being ahistorical. Additionally, a film such as this is made for a specific time and place, to celebrate victory, culture, and history. While the film (and original novel, I suppose) could have more closely centered on Lakshmibai, she is shown to be intelligent, competent, and brave, as are the other women in the film. She is not as present as I might like, but she is there, she is active. All too regularly, simply being present is too low of a bar.
Technical note: This film is billed as India’s first technicolor movie, but sadly only a black-and-white print remains. It’s lovely, for sure, but the battle scenes in particular were dark and difficult to see.