The documentation of the stain of British colonialism in India is not something that’s often covered in the western film industry, whether that be for an immense shame or a fear of looking back in the context of history. Many don’t know the extent to which England went to exert violent power over the Indian people during the reign of Queen Victoria and beyond, and the fight that the Indian people took up against their oppressors for many years. The Warrior Queen of Jhansi doesn’t seek to tell the entire story of British colonialism in India, but rather seeks to paint a picture of one of the biggest martyrs for the cause, Rani of Jhansi, queen of the princely state of Jhansi in India during the 1850s. Known as the “Joan of Arc of the East,” she is popularly seen as a feminist figure of strength and courage in her leadership in the fight against the British following her husband’s death. This is the story for those unfamiliar with the name, as I’m sure many people in American society are, just as I was.
It’s a wonderful story to learn about and is something I have found interest in looking up after viewing the film as The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is an absolute slog that does no justice to the stunning story at hand.
Rani of Jhansi (Devika Bhise) is the wife of the Maharaja of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao (Milind Gunaji), a well-loved ruler with an equally-loved queen. Following her husband’s death, the young queen is told by representatives of the British East India Company that her son’s claim to his father’s throne has been rescinded and that the princely state of Jhansi is to be passed to British rule. Already facing great tension with the British Empire, Rani assembles her forces of both powerful male and female warriors to rise up and claim their homeland against the forces that seek to drive them out for their own gain.
I’d say The Warrior Queen of Jhansi falls somewhere about a step above “Lifetime Movie of the Week” and a few steps below “Netflix original with no marketing budget” quality when it comes to its execution. This film, while telling a unique story that falls on so many new ears, is crafted in such a cliché, cookie-cutter fashion that it almost feels disrespectful to the story itself, and that’s coming from someone who is just now learning of it. This is a film that is so steeped in melodramatic fluff that it doesn’t feel like anything in the film is actually genuine or accurate, but rather exists for the sake of ineffective storytelling.
This retelling of events is what makes The Warrior Queen of Jhansi so uninteresting to watch unfold, in that everything in the films seems to fall into place in such a light, airy fashion that nothing feels organic or even remotely realistic. The film doesn’t seek to flesh out any of its characters beyond the typical binary of good/bad, leading what should be interesting and complex characters facing moral and ethical dilemmas involving their respective communities to feel completely one-dimensional and disposable, with the exception of Rani herself. Even Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) is portrayed in a campy, inaccurate way that paints her as some sort of benevolent figure of the Indian people, when we know, at this point in her reign, that is simply untrue. Likewise, the film also completely shoehorns in the existence of her Indian attendant Abdul Karim into the story as a humanizing element of Victoria, when he was not even born until five years after the events of the film, let alone actually in Victoria’s court.
The film also takes no effort in injecting the story with any sort of subtlety whatsoever, favoring ham-fisted monologues of inspiration straight out of a Hallmark card, watered-down narration to tell the majority of the rushed timeline of the story, and don’t forget about the completely unnecessary romance that adds nothing to the overall story and honestly, made me want to walk out into traffic every time it came up. This is a film so riddled with clichés that it honestly feels like a satire of itself at many points. And despite director Swati Bhise’s history in directing dance, the entirety of the film, despite being colorfully bright, feels clunky and completely rooted in the ground, unmoving and rigid.
Truthfully, it’s not all bad, as most films rarely are, and The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is helped a lot by the lead performance of Devika Bhise, daughter of director Swati Bhise, and co-writer on the film. Despite this initial sense of nepotism taking hold, you soon begin to realize that even while delivering completely clunky dialogue with little-to-no substance, Bhise has a charisma and a presence about her that makes you understand why her character was so loved from the start. Had she provided herself with a screenplay that opened the gates for more nuance and character development, she could’ve perhaps had a star-making performance here, even if the rest of the film still didn’t hold up as well around her. I still think she has a future, and it’s one that I’m very interested in keeping up with, I just hope that it’s with better material than this. Even then, she makes do with the little she has, and that’s admirable in its own right.
The film also has some wonderful production and costume design that, while never really directed well, are objectively gorgeous to look at during close-up shots and scenes that lend more of an eye to the detail and complexity of classical Indian architecture and textiles. It’s a treat to see on screen, and something I wish had been leaned into a bit more than it was, if only because it needed to pull focus a bit more than it did.
And that’s when a movie falls short of where it needs to be. I shouldn’t be wishing that the film had distracted me with more pretty costumes and sets. That’s a whole new level of “grasping at straws” that I didn’t want to have to get to with The Warrior Queen of Jhansi. I think I’m at that point because I actually really wanted to like this movie, as it seeks to tell the story of a powerful woman overcoming the odds and facing an impossibly overpowered enemy for the good of her people. This is a movie I want to see, but it’s a movie that isn’t excused from having to be good just because it’s interesting and unique. Inspiration and emotional movement don’t come from a film’s concept, but in how the film seeks to actually execute the story on screen. Beyond the central performance and production values, the final product feels rushed, clunky, and disingenuous as a whole. That’s not acceptable for even the most sterile corporate romantic comedies, and it certainly doesn’t fly for a film like this.
In select theaters beginning November 15th, 2019.
Final score: 1.5 out of 5