Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika, a film she has acted and ‘co-directed’ is an ambitiously-mounted drama that’s well-performed but led down by amateur direction and dated storytelling technique.
Ranaut plays the reigning queen with aplomb but the film fails to evoke the right emotions, relying heavily on painfully loud background score and ‘Har Har Mahadev’ chants in a bid to stir the viewer up.
Having been victim to a number of controversies (the film’s original director Krish walked out, so did actor Sonu Sood who had a key role), it appears that the film was hurriedly stitched together, without a definitive narrative in mind.
Ranaut plays the titular role of Rani Laxmibai, who led an audacious mutiny against the brutal British empire, with conviction and brings a sense of ferocious energy to her character. The actress occupies nearly every frame of the movie and one cannot fault her performance. Right from her internalised rage that always seems like it’s one moment away from explosion to the raw energy she brings in the actions sequences, Ranaut is in fine form here.
Her dialogue delivery has a sense of command and ownership which makes you root for her.
The film’s elaborate actions sequences are, on the surface, effective, but look a little closely, and the choreography is way too evident, which is an indication of unskillful direction. One can spot the needless summersault or that odd jump that appears too rehearsed.
Also, given the current climate, it’s impossible to not evaluate the scene in which Ranaut’s character is seen saving a calf, without the context of the rising cow-vigilantism in the country. Could Ranaut have taken a subtler creative decision to illustrate Manikarnika’s sensitivity? Perhaps.
Another problem that weighs the film down is its treatment of white characters. They look and talk like villains from 80s films, lacking nuance and depth in their dialogues and the manner in which they deliver them. Too often, they appear to be stock characters who are mouthing lines from a teleprompter.
The film is so focussed on Ranaut that almost all the other characters are neglected and become victims of poor writing. Whether it’s Ankita Lokhande’s character or Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub’s role, tracks that could’ve had strong parallel narratives are reduced to sidekicks who exist merely to tick a box.
Despite its multiple failings, Manikarnika’s real strength lies in its fiercely feminist leanings. Ranaut ensures that she weaves in specific scenes that smash patriarchy, question sexist and archaic conventions, and put forth a strong female perspective that cannot be undermined.
In fact, the film’s climactic battle, where women from villages take up arms to fight the British army, works as a terrific antidote to the shockingly regressive climax of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, where Bhansali romanticised the idea of a group of women committing Jauhar (voluntary self-immolation).
For that broader theme alone, and for Ranaut’s terrific performance, one is tempted to discount the several shortcomings of Manikarnika, a film that’s worth watching, one that celebrates the legacy of a courageous woman who remained relentless in her quest for the country’s freedom.