Little-known to Westerners, the story of India’s “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” is definitely a legend worth sharing.
But the fearless 19th-century freedom fighter deserves a more engaging biopic than Swati Bhise’s screenwriting and directing debut.
Bhise’s daughter, Devika Bhise (“The Man Who Knew Infinity”), co-wrote the film and stars as Rani Lakshmibai, a one-time teen bride who comes to power in the city-state of Jhansi after the death of her benevolent husband, Gangadhar Rao (Milind Gunaji).
In a breech of faith and treaty, the British government, who given over the rule of India to the East Indian Trading Company, refuses to recognize her rightfully adopted son and moves to annex Jhansi. A charismatic leader and clever strategist, the Rani (or queen) decides not yield, training women to fight alongside her and rallying the men to stand up to the British, too. She became a key figure in India’s First War of Independence against the British in 1857.
It’s a compelling story, and Devika Bhise shows great promise in the lead role. But the script isn’t up to telling it in a worthy way, with its overdependence on flashbacks and its lack of character development. Although played by fine actors – Rupert Everett, Nathaniel Parker, Derek Jacobi, Ben Lamb and Jodhi May – the British characters are particularly one-note cardboard caricatures.
Although it doesn’t quite have the sweep you want from a historical epic, the battle scenes are exciting, the colorful depictions of Indian culture are gorgeous, and the heroine is worth rooting for. Maybe “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” will inspire the making of a film better suited to such a legend, but even if it doesn’t, I’m glad that it gave me the chance to get to know her story.