If you didn’t know, during the British colonization of India there was a queen who stood up, trained her own army, and fought alongside them in the 1800s. Her name was Lakshmibai, the Rani, Queen, of Jhansi who would become a feminist icon in India as a freedom fighter and isn’t well known outside her country, until now. The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, distributed by Roadside Attractions and written and directed by Swati Bhise, tells her story.
When the East India Company’s expansion and trade turned into brutal conquest, as the British aimed to take more and more land, Rani, a 24-year old queen in 1857, led her people into battle against the British Empire. While she fell in battle, her insurrection shifted the balance of power in the region and set in motion the demise of the notorious British East India Company and the beginning of the British Raj under Queen Victoria (Jodhi May).
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi opens in English with narration from Devika Bhise, the actress who brings the Queen of Jhansi to life on the big screen. When her husband dies, the Queen who is historically known as Lakshmibai but called Rani for the majority of the film, is informed by Ellis (Ben Lamb), a British envoy, that the East India Company renounces the legitimacy of Damodar Rao, the couple’s adopted son, as a male heir and will proceed with the annexation of Jhansi, which was gifted to her husband over 100 years ago. As neighboring kingdoms begin to plan against them, she decides to fight, to hold on to her kingdom.
As a leader, the Rina is compassionate, but she is also strong. Her heart is soft and her will is strong and Bhise does a great job of bringing determination to the role in an emotive and physical performance. Rani is focused on thinking beyond herself and for what is best for her people. She seeks victory and justice from the British Empire that is never shown as anything other than imperialist and racist, specifically when speaking of the East India Company. Racist and propelled by profit is the best way to describe them both in reality and in the film.
That being said, we see the British point of view repeatedly throughout the film, as we visit their camp and Queen Victoria. It’s too much in my opinion, in a story focused on the Rani, it would have been better to remove the narrative we see all of the time. To put it simply, we’ve heard from the British enough and while building an antagonist is important, we don’t need humanizing elements for them like we’re given in the form Ellis, a romantic character for the Rani, and “the good British” guy.
In the same vein, Queen Victoria is shown as a ruler pushing back on the Company, instructing them to stop their pillaging, raping, and killing of Indians. She is shown as considerate and empathetic to her servant when she continually asks about his family. Queen Victoria looks like a friend and not like a Queen who ruled a country that sought power over others they deemed inferior. Essentially, the Crown is painted as a force for good and the evils put only on the back of the East India Company. Additionally, as the credits roll, Bhise’s name appears first, the rest of the credited cast that appears next are the faces of her English co-stars only.
The film takes place in three languages, Hindi, English, and Swati’s native language, Marathi. The latter of these is the most important, in that to write the script, which she did in the language, she did extensive research, even translating personal letters from the Rani line-by-line. The actors, mainly Bhise, which switches between the three languages, do so seamlessly. While I’m fluent in Urdu, speakers of the languages may hold different views. That said, as an American viewer outside the culture, the performances, regardless of language worked extremely well.
With all of that, it’s the Rani’s battle scenes that make the film. The main characters’ fight choreography is where the meat of the action happens. While background fighting shows people falling from unconnected blows, the fighting in the foreground is extremely well crafted, with the movements fitting directly into the costume design. When the Rani fights, it’s fluid, it’s fast, and it’s beautiful to watch. Not only is Bhise an acting force, but her physicality must be noted. Wielding swords is hard, doing so on a horse, harder, and she does them both.
The costuming is also something to be called out. It’s beautiful, vibrant, and stands out against the uniformed soldiers. From the opening to the close of the film, the set design and costuming are stars of their own. That said, the beauty of the costuming is too pristine at times. After battles, riding into a town after a retreat, Rani is bloodied but her clothes are immaculate, as is her horse and his dressings. While this is a small detail, in a film aimed to be a period piece about her fight and prominence in the battlefield, it’s an oversight that should be called out.
That said, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi delivers a powerful message. As the Rani says, “We women have several forms, mother, daughter, sister, friend, we must now all unite in one incarnation: freedom fighter.” It’s a rallying cry for the women in front of her that she’s trained but its also a statement to the place that women have always had across histories pushing for freedom and rights. The end of the film, in an epilogue, calls on viewers to use their rights to continue to fight for freedom. The Rani’s story is a powerful one, and one that I never knew. Bhise is wonderful on-screen and has a solid place in my heart especially given her last fight in the film. If inspiration is something a viewer is looking for they’ll find it here.
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is playing in select theaters nationwide now.
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi delivers a powerful message. As the Rani says, “We women have several forms, mother, daughter, sister, friend, we must now all unite in one incarnation: freedom fighter.” It’s a rallying cry for the women in front of her that she’s trained…
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.