British actors like Jodhi May and Derek Jacobi make guest appearances in Swati Bhise’s The Warrior Queen of Jhansi. Strange choice indeed, but their scenes are attempts for counterpoint for the rest of film. May and Jacobi play Queen Victoria and Lord Palmerston respectively. The Queen is the most powerful person in the world by name. She can advise men like Palmerston on how to run her empire. But Palmerston’s decisions have more impact than hers.
On the other side of the world, Rani Lakshmibai (Devika Bhise) made herself responsible. After her husband the king’s death she became an absolute monarch and commander in chief. This is unconventional in a country where widows, royal or otherwise, enter ashrams instead of maintain royal courts. Against all odds she physically defends her small free state of Jhansi. Better to be free than be under the economic and political stranglehold of the British East India Company. The film shows her training healthy women while the company’s soldiers, under Sir Hugh Rose (Rupert Everett), suffer from cholera.
Warrior Queen attempts to introduce Lakshmibai to Western audiences. Contemporaneous Western accounts of her frame her as either a Joan of Arc, a Jezebel, or a love struck woman. Swati Bhise’s rendition sees her as a political mind, debating such issues with her pacifist father Moropant (Yatin Karyekar). She doesn’t see rebellion as violence but as necessary tool to maintain and spread independence.
The film also shows the mounting tension from both the Jhansi and British sides. Having Swati Bhise as a director makes this slight better than it has any business being. And the scenes with Rose and the British in India encapsulate the political spectrum of the time. He has to deal with the greedy Sir Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker) and Major Robert Ellis (Ben Lamb), an Indo-phile.
There’s also something strange about the conflict between Hamilton and Ellis and in Ellis and Rose’s presence in general. Rose and Ellis are there to remind Hamilton of the cost of imperialism. They’re practically winking to the audience that blood is what makes ‘Great’ Britain great. I agree, but I would rather hear it from the noble Lakshmibai’s mouth instead of Ellis’.
In any event, the scenes with Rose and Ellis feel like they’re pandering to the West. It’s as it they would rather complacently show scenes with Queen Victoria or Rose. Some of us actually want to introduce ourselves to Lakshmibai’s world. There are many scenes showing her political acumen, as I said before. Her instincts as an educator and mother to Damondhar Rao (Arush Nand) are also on display. But those scenes feel too short and unfulfilling.
Other elements hinder this film from being good. This is essentially a war film, but the nighttime battle scenes, serving as a climactic moment, look unappetizing and gray. Devika Bhise is as capable of dialogue as she is in these battles. But I wish I can say the same from the actresses playing the other soldiers. They playact in slicing up British peons but they barely poke at them. This, as a whole, lacks the punch that even mediocre war films have.
- Rated: R
- Genre: Drama
- Release Date: 11/15/2019
- Directed by: Swati Bhise
- Starring: Devika Bhise, Derek Jacobi, Rupert Everett
- Produced by: Swati Bhise
- Written by: Devika Bhise, Olivia Emden, Swati Bhise
- Studio: Cayenne Pepper Productions, Dune Films
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