Mother-daughter filmmaking team of Swati Bhise and Devika Bhise share the story of an Indian icon with ‘The Warrior Queen of Jhansi’

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Swati Bhise, left, and Devika Bhise appear on the set of “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi.” [Roadside Attractions]

Swati Bhise makes her screenwriting and directing debut with “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi,” a biopic about an iconic 19th-century Indian  freedom fighter.

Rani Lakshmibai, the queen of the state of Jhansi, was still in her 20s when she led an 1857 rebellion against the East India Company, an event now known as the first Indian War of Independence. While her name has become synonymous with courage and freedom, Bhise told NBC News that she was surprised to realize that most people she talked to didn’t know much about the Rani of Jhansi’s life beyond the basic facts.

“Most Indians know her name but if you quiz them, they know nothing else,” Bhise told NBC News’ Lakshmi Gandhi. “They’ll say ‘She’s fought a battle, she’s brave, her name is synonymous with courage. But I was shocked that nobody had really gone into the details.”

Although other films and web series have previously been made about Lakshmibai, Bhise said she found them to be inaccurate. So, she was inspired to write and produce “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi,” which was released Friday in theaters.

Her 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 had 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.

The film co-stars Rupert Everett as British army officer Sir Hugh Rose; Derek Jacobi as Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister in the 1850s; and Jodhi May as British monarch Queen Victoria.

Devika Bhise told NBC News she had always heard about her mother’s lifelong interest in the historical figure. She said the film also provides an important opportunity to show viewers a different side of India, since many Western depictions of South Asia could be described as “poverty porn.” But she noted that in the 1800s India had one of the strongest and wealthiest economies in the world.

“There is a lot of portrayals of the slums and the dirt and the rains and all of these things that definitely exist in India but it is not representative of India as a whole,” Devika Bhise said. “We have this really rich history — literally rich.”

Swati Bhise – who previously was a producer of the Dev Patel film “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” a biopic about mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan – told NBC News she wanted to show how colonialism and its lingering effects influence Indian life to this day.

“Even when I was writing it, I was crying half the time,” Swati Bhise said of recreating the Rani of Jhansi’s world. “I would say, ‘I have to finish this movie because it is emotionally just draining for me.’ I felt for her and every woman who had to go through that.”

The mother and daughter weren’t the only women in their family to work on the film, which is primarily in English but also required Devika Bhise to speak formally in 1867-era Hindi and Marathi languages in certain scenes.

“My grandmother was my dialect coach,” said the younger Bhise, who grew up speaking all three languages. “It is something I had to work super hard on. I would just stay in that accent all day.”

As she began diving into the details of the queen’s life, Swati Bhise, who was born in India and immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, said she thought about what young women today could take from the story of “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi.”

“It struck me that this is an ordinary woman who is determined to fight a social political structure at that time,” Swati Bhise said. “She was a mother and daughter and yet she was a warrior.”

The younger Bhise told The Mary Sue that for her next producing project she wants to do a film that’s much less historic.

“I’m working on something right now; it’s really like an Indian-American story that’s sort of a dark comedy. You write you know, and I grew up in the ’90s on the Upper East Side as an Indian girl. I was one of two in my class in a famously all-white girl high school, and only when you look back can you find the comedy, and the dark comedy, in that experience,” Devika Bhise told The Mary Sue’s Rachel Leishman.


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