Rani Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, is such an iconic figure of Indian history, that it’s a surprise more films about her have not been made.
In recent years, Ketan Mehta and Sushmita Sen had announced their intention to make films on the great warrior queen, but Kangana Ranaut beat them to it with her Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, which she also co-directed with Krish.
In 1953, Sohrab Modi, known for his extravagant historical and costume dramas (Sikander, Pukar, Prithvi Vallabh, Mirza Ghalib to just name a few), made Jhansi Ki Rani, starring his wife Mehtab in the title role. It was the first Technicolor film made in India with experts from Hollywood called in to work on it—Oscar-winning cinematographer Ernest Haller (of Gone with the Wind fame), Oscar-winning writer Geza Herczeg, Oscar nominated editor Russell Lloyd, colour consultant George Jenkins among them—and processed it in London. The film was also shot in English as The Tiger And The Flame and released abroad in 1956, in a shorter version.
As anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Indian history would know the film was set in the nineteenth century, when the British were annexing many Indian kingdoms; Rani Lakshmibai had famously declared, “Main apni Jhansi nahin doongi,”( I will not give up Jhansi) and picked up arms to fight the invaders, as part of the great Indian Mutiny of 1857.
The Rajguru of Jhansi (Sohrab Modi), devoted to the kingdom, is furious at Raja Gangadhar Rao’s (Mubarak) capitulation to the East India Company’s conditions in return for endorsement of his claim to the throne. He leaves in a rage, saying that he would return only when he found someone who could restore Jhansi’s pride. He comes across a plucky little girl on his travels—Manikarnika or Manu (Baby Shikha)—and is impressed the fearless manner in which she confronts an elephant, and her confident way of speaking.
Seeing leadership qualities in her, and describing her as “bhagya mein Lakshmi, gyan mein Saraswati and shakti mein Durga,” (in destiny Lakshmi, in knowledge Saraswati and in Strength she is Durga) he gets the nine-year-old married to the much older Gangadhar Rao, and she becomes the Queen of Jhansi, renamed Lakshmibai.
As she grows up in the palace Rajguru teaches her the rules of governance as well as skill in wielding combat weapons. Rani Lakshmibai gives birth to a son who dies, and later her husband passes away too. She adopts a boy, Damodar Rao, who the English refuse to accept as the rightful heir. This is just one of the issues that sets her on a collision course with the British. After leading an army to fight them (including a bunch of trained female soldiers), she died on the battlefield in 1858, when she was just twenty-nine years of age. The legend lives on… her image on horseback, sword raised, baby strapped to her back, has been reproduced endlessly in paintings, sculptures and textbook illustrations.
Modi directed a grand spectacle, with lavish sets (Rusi Banker), rich costumes (Kanu Desai), and war scenes with thousands of extras (he thanked the Indian army, the Maharajas of Jaipur and Bikaner and the female students of Rajasthan’s Banasthali University in the credits for participating in the battle scenes); he also kept to historical facts and authentic period details.
Modi’s style was theatrical, with heavy duty dialogue in literary language; the music in this film (Vasant Desai) was more functional than melodious, many songs serving to emphasize the patriotism of the characters. In spite of all the expense and expertise that went into the film, it flopped badly and Modi lost a lot of money.
Sadly, the original colour negative of the Modi’s magnum opus is lost, but it looks no less impressive in black and white. Seen today, one can only admire the ambition, courage and vision of the filmmaker, for even attempting a historical on this epic scale.