'Manikarnika' is a Historical Filter on Today's Hyper-Nationalist Status Quo

Melodrama lifts the Kangana Ranaut-starrer, especially during the war sequences, but often sinks it as well.

Manikarnika, co-directed by Kangana Ranaut, opens to Jhansi in 1842. In an early scene, the eponymous protagonist (Ranaut) is hunting a tiger. The beast growls and leaps; she aims her arrow and shoots. The tiger falls at her feet, but it’s not dead. Manikarnika had just injured it. The villagers are saved, the animal lives and the heroine proved her point: this, in short, is the language of stardom – until now mostly the domain of male stars. (Tiger Zinda Hai had a similar scene.)

Manikarnika isn’t trying to change the language of status quo; it is merely confirming – in fact, celebrating – it through a new lens.

Ranaut faithfully follows the footsteps of Bollywood stars. Several scenes, almost existing outside the film, reinforce Manikarnika’s courage and resolve. It often feels as if Ranaut isn’t playing a character but performing for the camera – giving an elaborate audition. One moment she’s locking swords with veteran warriors; the next, she is jumping off them, landing on an elephant. She stares, warns and protests. She tames horses, rescues a calf and, despite being a queen, dances with villagers. She can do no wrong.

Like most superstar movies, here the persona speaks for the person. In one scene, a British officer mocks Manikarnika for not knowing English. You know what to expect. She launches into a mini-monologue: “I can read English. It’s merely a language. Just words.”

When she’s done, another officer nods, “She’s the queen.” Perfect.

But given that Manikarnika revolves around a key figure of the 1857 rebellion, Rani Lakshmi Bai, this period drama was obliged to be bigger than itself. It had to draw our attention to the nation. Using repetition as the only weapon in its arsenal, the film gets to its task. Manikarnika obsesses about “matrabhoomi (motherland)”. The  references to it – in varying tonalities, in different contexts – repeat a message that is all too clear.

An ideal kind of past is usually just an excuse to discuss the present. Manikarnika’s nationalism, not different from the present version, is filtered through a narrow lens: it is upper-caste, (mostly) Hindu, and coloured saffron.

Early in the film, we’re told about Manikarnika that, “she’s a Brahmin but has all the qualities of a Kshatriya.” Her war cry is in Sanskrit. The flag of her kingdom – a part of the Maratha empire – has Hanuman on it, even though the Marathas’ original flags were either plain or bore a lion.

In the middle of an exchange of fire, Manikarnika, risking her soldiers’ lives, rescues a temple. When her associate (Anil George) turns out to be a mole, Lakshmi Bai’s commander Ghulam Ghaus Khan (Danny Denzongpa) tells him, “You have not just betrayed the country but also our religion” – a gratuitous reference linking nationalism with faith. (The act of another mole, a Hindu, isn’t similarly evaluated.)

But if you’re familiar with the new Bollywood nationalism, then Manikarnika, by virtue of being historical, feels almost benign. The directors, Ranaut and Krish, when not compelled to showcase the protagonist’s heroics, show promise. They have a sharp eye for scale – many scenes, especially those set in palaces or battlefields, are shot from a low, tilted angle, magnifying the grandeur.

Some of the dialogues are deliciously melodramatic: rhythmic lines exploding with pride. The sets look opulent, the lighting is controlled, making the mundane theatrical. However, amid the loud declarations and clarion calls, the quiet confidence of a few scenes takes you by surprise, especially one set in the library of Maharaja Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta), Lakshmi Bai’s husband, who uses a mechanical lift, elevating her to her favourite book kept on a high shelf.

These understated moments though are, at best, minor distractions. Melodrama lifts this film, especially during the war sequences, but often sinks it as well. There are many contrived scenes and superfluous songs, rendering Manikarnika uneven and bloated. A film with a predictable storyline, and populist themes, needed much more. But even when this movie is falling apart, Ranaut stands convinced and unfettered, confidently commanding the scenes, delivering a powerful performance.

All of this makes sense. Ranaut, considered the vocal troublemaker in Bollywood, hasn’t been whole-heartedly accepted by the industry. She talks about not needing the Khans, calls out the industry’s nepotism and picks fights on TV shows. Unlike her peers, Ranaut, the outsider, isn’t an automatic choice for many roles.

Patriotism, on the other hand, is an equal opportunity employer. Bollywood maybe opportunistic and spineless, but its members, no matter how divided, at least agree on how to market and monetise their country. This does tell us a few things about them, but more crucially reveals what they think about their audience.