A movie about the Indian queen who defied English colonisers is pretty but stodgy

Mark Jenkins

THE WASHINGTON POST – One of the leaders of the rebellion against the British East India Company, Rani Lakshmibai bedeviled her land’s colonisers in 1858. The story of an insurgent Indian woman certainly seems timely in 2019. Too bad the new account of her uprising, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, is as stodgy as a movie from 1958, if not earlier.

The film is the directorial debut of Swati Bhise, a Mumbai-born, New York-based dancer and choreographer.

Her principal collaborator is her daughter, Devika Bhise, who helped mom and Olivia Emden write the script and who plays the rani (or queen). The younger woman even directed the last few days of shooting after her mother was hospitalised with pneumonia.

The Bhises surrounded themselves with pros, including actors Rupert Everett, Derek Jacobi and Jodhi May, as well as an experienced production team. The result is a film with striking locations and sumptuous visuals, undercut by choppy pacing, clumsy dialogue and ungainly exposition that includes unnecessary and bewildering flashbacks.

The younger Bhise trained extensively for the action scenes in which she leads female fighters against British troops. The movie’s battle sequences are credible, if not especially visceral. But most of the movie is devoted to talk, which sometimes lurches inexplicably among English and two Indian languages: Hindi and Marathi.

Devika Bhise, right, plays the title character in ‘The Warrior Queen of Jhansi’, which she also co-wrote. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Lakshmibai chats aplenty with her advisers and entourage, one of them a dalit (or “untouchable”) whom she open-mindedly accepts as an equal. The queen also negotiates with a British officer, Ellis (Ben Lamb), who respects her (and, it’s suggested, has a crush on her). But he can’t prevent the East India Company from reneging on past agreements and seeking to seize her territory after her husband dies.

Ellis reports to a senior officer (Everett, outfitted with immense mutton chops) and the company’s representative, Sir Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker), whose racism, greed and misogyny could hardly be drawn more simply. Hamilton complains that “women are going to lose us this whole bloody empire”, one of several lines that seem addressed to an audience unborn in 1858. (Another one is “Never forget Kabul, sir,” delivered by Everett as if onstage in a Victorian melodrama.)

Meanwhile in Britain, the prime minister (Jacobi) briefs Queen Victoria (May), who counsels restraint, to no avail. She’s shown to be influenced by the Indian Muslim servant depicted in the 2017 movie, Victoria and Abdul, but in reality Abdul didn’t arrive in Britain until almost three decades later.

History records that, in the wake of the 1857-1858 rebellion, the British East India Company lost control of the subcontinent, which instead came to be governed directly by the British government. In its end notes, the movie connects the handover directly to India’s achieving independence from Britain in 1947.

Considering all the blood spilled before and since, this epilogue doesn’t feel quite so triumphant as The Warrior Queen of Jhansi wants it to be.