Devika Bhise (last seen in The Man Who Knew Infinity) is both the screenplay co-writer (along with her mother Swati and Olivia Emden) and the one who takes on the ambitious role of the legendary Rani. Since research has clearly been an integral part of the script foundation, the dialogues too come across as phrases from historical texts or research papers. The characters carefully deliver platitudes in English, Hindi, and Marathi.
Under threat from the East India Company’s rampaging forces, as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 picked up steam, 20-something-year-old Rani of Jhansi took charge of her deceased husband’s kingdom, and overcame the disadvantage of a depleted army by training the women to fight alongside her soldiers. But the screenplay places equal emphasis on the strategising within the English camp as it does in Jhansi, thereby diluting the impact of the Rani’s keen mind, achievements and bravery.
Rupert Everett, as Sir Hugh Rose, is the only actor not taking his role too seriously. Nathaniel Parker plays Sir Robert Hamilton, and Jodhi May is seen as Queen Victoria. Ben Lamb’s Major Robert Ellis is the only other part with some layers.
Milind Gunaji, Ajinkya Deo, and Yatin Karyekar barely make an impression as the allies supporting Lakshmibai in her battle stand in 1858.
Humour and a lightness of touch are missing in a costume drama that places a great deal of emphasis on ‘costume’, and not enough on drama. The production design, action, and locations provide a believable setting, but the true strength of the woman skims the surface.
In one scene, the Rani rejects the archaic custom of a widow shaving her head, but the overacting by the astounded women surrounding her dilutes the import of that defiance. Gender and caste discrimination find mention but when characters describe her as “Joan of Arc” and “a powerful symbol of resistance”, it sounds like schoolbook phrases.
The battle scenes are injected with spurts of energy. In an effort to go wide, depth has been compromised. Devika is sincere in her portrayal in a simplified narrative that does little more than follow the form of a school essay on the Indian warrior queen.
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