(Capsule review by my spouse at his blog.
I saw ads for this on Indian TV around Republic Day and thought, cool, sort of Wonder Woman
action vibes plus a martial-arts-dance sequence plus anticolonialism! It's a big enough blockbuster that it's showing in some NYC theaters, so I took my spouse plus a couple friends to it the other night.
The friends in question are white, and one of them likes big action movies (we see the MCU together) but is pretty ignorant of history, especially world history. So I prepped them, double-checking that they did know that the British occupied India for basically most of the 19th century, and that we weren't too keen on that. I didn't want to spoil them for the film but I wasn't sure of exactly what events would be covered in the film. So I told them: I'm pretty sure that this film assumes you know that, in 1857, there was a rebellion against British rule. From the fact that India got its independence in 1947, you may infer that this rebellion didn't work out for us. So, British rule depended on a middle management layer of locals, including Indian clerks and Indian soldiers called sepoys....
And I explained the bit about the cartridges
And we wondered what exposition would happen -- would there be a Star Wars
-style info crawl at the start explaining who/what/when/where? Nope! More like, halfway through the movie, you see some soldiers and an onscreen caption reading "Cartridges were sent...." and then, mutiny montage. So I unknowingly guessed THE EXACT RIGHT chunk of history to preload into my friends' heads so they weren't COMPLETELY at sea.
But of course I could see/hear some other messages that they couldn't. Like how Manikarnika was being positioned as a kind of figurative avatar of Kali or Durga. Or the chanting of "Har Har Mahadev"
(anodyne English subtitle: "Victory is ours"; actually an invocation to Lord Shiva so specifically Hindu
that Hindus yell it during anti-Muslim pogroms and chanted it during Partition violence, and it's super noteworthy when Muslims say it as part of a "communal harmony" initiative
). The anti-casteism message (the scene where the villager serves Laximbai milk) is tiny, and the "hey Muslims were a huge part of the mutiny!" message feels practically nonexistent. And yeah that closing where there's an Aum symbol written in fire on the ground (also sort of end-of-Ramayana Sita imagery, as I read it). And the pointed scene where the Queen of Jhansi rescues a calf from being slaughtered (read: only awful barbarians might want to kill and eat cattle!). And all the treason and betrayal by other Indians, and all the "motherland" and "we try peace but we'll fight to defend ourselves" and "honor" and "so awesome to have a chance to be a martyr!" talk. This is a disturbing movie. It has fun bits in it, it has moving bits in it, but I came away distressed.
See, I haven't seen Lagaan
* in a while, but in Lagaan
, all the Indians work together. All castes, Muslims and Hindus together, women and men together, a guy with a disability turns out to be an amazing pitcher, and so on. Aamir Khan's character shows some leadership and you get a lot of training montages and it's about beating violent coercion with excellence and discipline and cleverness. Manikarnika
is not like that. Manikarnika
is about the joy of killing British soldiers, about the indivisible pride of the motherland and the people on/from it, and about a vision of Hindu nationalism that has no room for Ambedkar or Gandhi. And this is a huge blockbuster hit in a country that means a lot to me.
I need to read Harleen Singh's The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History and Fable in India
(Cambridge University Press, 2014) or a similar work before I say: this movie is historically inaccurate. And it weirds me out that it's hard for me to find reviews where people talk in depth about what's going on in this movie, politically. Is it all happening in Hindi, which I don't know and can't read? Am I completely misreading it? Is it not even worth explicating because it's so obvious to every Indian sourcelander watching it? (Indian news sources do point out that this seems almost part of a BJP pre-election campaign push.)
I'm worried, you know? Maybe one reason I'm not seeing people talk about this online is because they're afraid of retribution.
* I could swear that one of the British officers in Manikarnika
is played by the same guy who played the main villain in Lagaan
. IMDb seems to disagree. Maybe it's just similar facial hair.