A Indian queen fights bloody, over-the-top battles against British soldiers in a colonial-era Bollywood blockbuster that opens in India’s cinemas on Friday.
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is a nationalistic epic about the life – and death at British hands – of Rani Lakshmibai, an Indian woman who learned martial arts, married a maharajah and became a leader in the 1857 rebellion against the British East India Company.
The film’s lead actor, Kangana Rangaut, has been brawling off-screen too, this week warning hardline Hindu groups who have apparently threatened to disrupt the film’s release that she would “destroy each and every one of them”.
Trailers for the film, which will be released in time for India’s Republic day on 26 January, show a blood-splattered Lakshmibai wielding her sword in gory fights with red-coated British soldiers.
Lakshmibai, who died aged 29 in the last battle of the rebellion at Gwalior, has had her virtues extolled in Indian ballads, poetry and books but not yet in the country’s popular cinema.
Legends about her life say she was born into a royal court where she was trained in fighting and horse-riding along with two other boys. She married the maharajah of Jhansi, whose kingdom was annexed by the East India Company in 1854.
Three years later, company soldiers across north India began to rebel against the colonial administration and Lakshmibai joined the uprising. “She actually led an army into battle against the East India Company army,” says Harleen Singh, an associate professor at Brandeis University who has written a book about the queen.
The first depictions of Lakshmibai came from Victorian novelists, who portrayed her as a cunning Oriental despot, Singh says. In one fictional telling, she kidnaps white men and keeps them in a harem, eventually falling in love with a British soldier. “She is made to submit to the supremacy of British masculinity,” she added.
It was well into the 20th century that she began to appear in Indian works in her modern depiction as a goddess of war and harbinger of independence.
Singh said: “Whatever the historical and literary myth making may be about her, the historical fact is this young Indian queen rode out into battle against the British army and died in conduct. This was a remarkable woman.”
Activists purporting to be from Karni Sena, a fanatical Hindu group, have seized on false rumours that the film alludes to Lakshmibai having an affair with a British soldier.
Last year, the same group rioted in several Indian cities and threatened to mutilate the actor Deepika Padukone over similarly bogus claims that the film Padmavaat, about another historical Indian queen, depicted love scenes with a Muslim ruler.
A national spokesman for the Karni Sena has denied that the fringe group has mobilised against the movie and said unauthorised people were using its name.
At a press event for the film last week, Rangaut said Manikarnika was a celebration of the queen’s life that hardline Hindus ought to embrace. “They should support us and the film,” she said. “ Lakshmibai is India’s daughter and everyone should push that film forward.”
She added that although the film had been approved by historians and censors, “Karni Sena are continuing to harass me. If they don’t stop then they should know I am also a [member of the] Rajput [caste] and I will destroy each one of them.”
It is a legal requirement in India that films that purport to depict historical events, or which include content that might offend a person’s faith, must be approved by a censor board that includes historians or religious leaders.
Subhash Jha, an Indian film critic and writer, said popular Indian films about the colonial-era frequently depicted the British as operatic villains. “All these films paint the Britishers in a very flat, caricatured way,” he said.
Westerners such as the Australian actor Bob Christo made decades-long careers of playing menacing white villains in Indian films.
After the 1857 rebellion was put down, the British government formally replaced the East India Company as India’s ruler. It sought to prevent future uprisings by winning over local princes and landlords to the regime rather than aggressively seeking to usurp them.