If you can make it through the first half of Manikarnika, chances are that you’ll come out raving about the second half. The film, like most stories involving heroes, relegates the first half to the creation of the character’s back story – we see a girly, fresh-faced Kangana Ranaut standing in a field and staring down an injured tiger (the injury having been caused by Ranaut herself) as her pallu flies behind her like a flag.
The first half is slow, has a multitude of corny moments and a lot of unnecessary song and dance. At one point, Ranaut goes to a busti after having busted out a young calf from the clutches of highly-caricatured Britishers and joins the locals in merrymaking, only to faint. She is heavy with child, an old village woman informs us.
The movie really gets going after the death of Rani Lakshmi Bai’s husband (Jisshu Sengupta as Gangadhar Rao). It’s almost like Ranaut herself was waiting for the man to kick the bucket so she could truly take charge and get things moving. She is a marvellous actress, no doubt, but the romantic scenes she shares with her husband look forced and are tepid at best. Rani Lakshmi Bai truly shines once the legend kicks in – Ranaut goes around dismembering the firangs and spouts heavy dialogues at the drop of a hat.
While Manikarnika has an assortment of good actors cast in supporting roles, they aren’t given enough opportunity to shine through. Danny Dengzongpa as Ghulam Ghaus Khan is the only one who makes an impression while Ankita Lokhande (as Jhalkaribai) does have her moments. Richard Keep portrays the villainous General Hugh Rose who grows to have a grudging respect for the Rani of Jhansi.
The shots are beautiful as is Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone describing the sequence of events. The movie isn’t as ‘nationalistic’ as many had feared it would be, coming as it does so close to the elections. Yes, there are a few too many Har Har Mahadev’s chanted and a lot of talk about the motherland but none of it seems politicised. The last scene is similar to the ending of Padmaavat even though the movie is nothing like the controversial 2018 period drama. The movie also has its share of woman empowerment moments – the ones where Ranaut refuses to wear the widow’s garb and the haldi-kumkum ceremony where she stands up for a child widow are particularly memorable.
Manikarnika is Kangana Ranaut’s show through and through and when given the opportunity, she does resemble the legend popularised in the Subhadra Kumari Chauhan poem – “khoob ladi mardaani woh toh Jhansi wali Rani thi.”