Manikarnika is the new Padmavati: Why custodians of women's pride find it easy to target Bollywood films
Sarva Brahman Mahasabha has threatened to stall the shooting of the Kangana Ranaut-starrer, claiming it distorts historical facts about Rani Laxmibai.
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The Padmaavat row isn’t so far back in our memories that we needed any more reminding of how easily art can be held to ransom in this country.
Cutting straight to the chase, the "self-styled censor bodies" are at it again. Continuing to feign-fight a battle for the fragile Rajput pride against Padmaavat, they have found another target to fire fresh salvos at - Manikarnika, based on the queen of Jhansi - Rani Laxmibai. This, as Kangana Ranaut gets set to bring the reluctant heroine of the 1857 mutiny to life on the silver screen.
Another period film, another opposition. But from the same state that front-lined the Padmaavat stir - Rajasthan. A Brahmin outfit - Sarva Brahman Mahasabha - in Rajasthan has threatened to disrupt the shooting of Kangana Ranaut-starrer Manikarnika, claiming it tampers with historical facts about Rani Laxmibai, a Brahmin.
The president of this outfit, Suresh Mishra, held a press conference in Jaipur and claimed that there are scenes in the film portraying a love affair between the Rani of Jhansi and a British man. He said, “The movie’s shooting has been going on in Rajasthan for some time and we have come to know that there are some scenes, including a song, that show her as having a love affair with an Englishman. We have learnt that some portions for the movie have been picked up from Rani, a book by (London-based author) Jaishree Misra. Following objections, the book was earlier banned by the Uttar Pradesh government. So our concern is, why are filmmakers proceeding with a movie with content from a banned book?”
For the uninitiated, the book - Rani, a historical fiction, had mentioned a romantic relationship between Rani Laxmibai and British officer Robert Ellis. It was banned in Uttar Pradesh in February 2008 by the then Mayawati-led government.
Suresh Mishra is also reported to have sent a letter to the film’s producer, Kamal Jain, making an enquiry about the film’s writers and the historians that the makers have consulted. He, however, has not received a response. While Mishra made the contention in his letter that Rani of Jhansi died at an early age fighting the British and could never have had an affair with a British man, he also appealed to the state government for an affidavit from the makers of the film so that no distortion of history takes place, and left it at that, but with a warning: “Else, it may meet the same fate as Padmaavat.”
In November last year, the Sarva Brahman Mahasabha had supported the campaign by Rajput outfits against Padmaavat. Now, the Rajput outfits have decided to return the favour. Shri Rajput Karni Sena’s national president Mahipal Makrana said: “If he (Mishra) has objected to the movie, we stand by him. Rani Laxmibai was their pride and is our pride too.”
Pride, of course, is the only word to watch out for here. In many ways, Laxmibai became a reluctant heroine of the 1857 mutiny, who happened to be at the wrong place at the right time - a "product" of Lord Dalhousie's Doctrine of Lapse, that refused to recognise her adopted son, Damodar Rao’s claim to the throne.
So, when the sepoys massacred the British residents in Jhansi, Laxmibai had been living secluded in her palace without administrative powers, and clearly had no involvement in commissioning the massacre.
It was only in 1858 - when general Hugh Rose arrived in Jhansi to assert the supremacy of the British - that Rani Laxmibai decided to take up arms to defend her state. By now, it was also clear that she has been "implicated" and made into as much a scapegoat of the mutiny as any other.
She fought valiantly against the British forces to defend the fortress of Gwalior - an important stronghold in the region. But with Laxmibai’s death in the battle, one of the last hopes of the rebels also died. After the end of the campaign in central India, Rose reportedly said, “The Indian mutiny has produced but one man, and that man was a woman.”
His words were somehow responsible in conveying the mixed and opposite feeling that the British authors had when writing about Laxmibai. For them, she was a mutineer, a rebel and possibly the one who ordered the slaughter of 60 innocent Europeans in Jhansi. But she was also a valorous woman who posed a massive threat to the British army. Needless to say, the textbooks, and later plays and onscreen imagery in India had taken their pick of their favourite bit of history.
And so remains the haunting image of Rani Laxmibai etched in our minds. Any deviation from that, any bit of tinkering, any artistic license exercised - will be brazenly quelled. The state governments, as mute spectators, also do their bit in leaving the floor open for such shoddily orchestrated protests.
Kangana Ranaut’s version of the story of the valiant queen, however, hasn't landed in controversy for the first time. Earlier, filmmaker Ketan Mehta had also sent her a legal notice for allegedly hijacking his project, Rani of Jhansi - The Warrior Queen. The director claimed that after committing to his film, Kangana went ahead to make the same project with a different set of filmmakers as Manikarnika.
The latest row, however, considering it’s on similar lines as Padmaavat, is plain sad. And might I add, I watched Sanjay Leela Bhansali's period feature only yesterday and that too on my mother’s insistence. She managed to tag my father too with her with a “when will we get to go out with our daughter next” emotional plug. But even that didn’t help matters, as I realised how the Karni Sena dented my delight for the visual spectacle. But I did hold this piece until I had actually seen Manikarnika’s "predecessor", in what could easily be a kingdom of controversies. How else could I have written an unbiased account?
So, Bhansali, through his film, succumbed to the "fringe" and rendered them all powerful, in his genuflection before the Rajput pride and farcical honour. What could have been his tale and interpretation of Alauddin Khilji’s eccentric romance with a woman he hadn’t even seen, turned out to be a drab Rajput "raag", replete with background music from "their" land. The only saving grace being, the Devdas-like climax that Bhansali has by now mastered.
But will the makers of Manikarnika boldly exercise their artistic liberty and present a side of the Jhansi ki Rani when she’s not wielding her sword - as the little girl who could beat the boys at their game, as the wife, the mother, or even as someone’s fancy. Because if this protest intensifies, just like Padmaavat, then Manikarnika’s road to eventual redundancy, could only get mercifully longer.
But I do hope that this mockery of a mutiny doesn’t malign the actual rebellion that happened back in 1857 - the one that Rani Laxmibai headlined in.