Kangana Ranaut leads the period drama from the front
How many historical or fictional accounts would you remember of the valour and bravery of India’s most celebrated freedom fighter, Rani Lakshmibai, barring your school textbooks? Little about her story has been celebrated or even remotely observed by pop culture. ‘Manikarnika’, which has had its fair share of hurdles prior to its theatrical release, attempts to deconstruct the tale. How far does it succeed?
The story begins with baby Manikarnika being affectionately raised in a Marathi Brahmin household. Her father Moropant Tambe (Manish Wadhwa) works in the court of the Peshwa of Bithoor (Suresh Oberoi). She is fondly called Chhabili and is raised as an equal alongwith her childhood friends Nana Saheb (Nihar Pandya) and Tatya Tope (Atul Kulkarni), trained well in archery, horse-riding, sword-lifting etc. In one instance, while she is defending an entire village from the threat of a tiger, young Manikarnika’s (Kangana Ranaut) bravery and compassion wins the heart of Dixit ji (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a minister in the court of Maharaja Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi (Jisshu Sengupta), and he seeks her hand in marriage for the king. The fate of Jhansi, then lies in the hands of their new queen, who is later rechristened as Rani Lakshmibai.
The story, penned by V. Vijeyandra Prasad, is straight out of our history textbooks, but for a few creative liberties undertaken. It sticks true to the narrative and is actually far more honest in its telling than most Sanjay Leela Bhansali films. The screenplay somehow is dicey. An absolutely unconvincing dance number featuring actors Ankita Lokhande and Vaibhav Tatwawaadi, that tends to challenge the caste conflict, is so awefully misplaced, it left many chuckling at the screening. Major brownie points to the cinematography by Kiran Deohans and Gnana Shekhar V.S, the production design by Sujeet Sawant and Sriram Iyengar (the duo won the National Award for their work in ‘Bajirao Mastani’), the sound design by Nihar Samal and the action sequences staged by Nick Powell and Habib Riyaz. Even the costumes by Neeta Lulla are period-appropriate and commendable. The misses you ask, is the editing by Rameshwar Bhagat. The battle sequences are stretched too far in the second half that I found myself snoozing for a few moments. The dialogues by lyricist Prasoon Joshi are barely worth remembering. Even the soundtrack by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, except for ‘Bharat’ sung by Shankar Mahadevan himself, fails to evoke genuine feeling.
Ultimately, the film rests entirely on the shoulders of its leading lady and Kangana is hands-down, the star attraction of this film. She practically makes you believe that she was the Queen of Jhansi, reincarnated as Kangana in the present day. From her body-language, to her facial expressions and dialogue delivery, she has sunk her teeth into playing the part. But her credentials as a director demands very little critique as she shares the credit with Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi, and it’s hard to tell the difference. The supporting cast is mostly serviceable and have barely little to do but Danny Denzongpa as trusted general Ghulam Ghaus Khan and Kulbhushan Kharbanda leave the maximum impact.
If you have missed watching Kangana at the movies, then ‘Manikarnika’ is your best bet. Trust me, it’s been a while since an audience has whistled, hooted and cheered for a woman calling the shots.
PS: Is it mandatory for every period-film to have a voiceover by Amitabh Bachchan?