Representing the Rani

SABYASACHI DASGUPTA

THIS article looks at the visual representations of Rani Lakshmibai and inevitably by association  the ‘Revolt of 1857’ over roughly a time span of 50 years. The article attempts to trace the breaks and continuities in the visual portrayals of the Rani, from an Indian viewpoint. While enough ink has been spent on analysing literary responses to the Revolt of 1857 both from the European and Indian perspectives, there has been, on the contrary, very little work on visual representations of the Revolt barring a couple of articles on the 2005 released movie Mangal Pandey: The Rising directed by Ketan Mehta1 and a lone article by Narayani Gupta on pictorializing 1857.2 

The initial visual depiction of 1857 was solely a British initiative, for the defeated natives could ill-afford to visibly glorify the Revolt of 1857 as the fear of arbitrary retribution was all too real for any native suspected of having even a whiff of sympathy for the defeated rebels. An added reason for the acute paucity of visual depictions of ‘the Revolt of 1857’ by natives could possibly be that the cult of 1857 was slow to grow into the psyche of the emergent native intelligentsia, the class which would provide the leadership to the national movement in the decades to come though he dynamics of remembering 1857 could be though a different ball game for the masses.

Intriguingly the first indigenous visual depiction of the revolt came in the form of a Kalighat Pat painting depicting a resplendent Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, one of the legendary figures of the rebellion. I say intriguingly because Bengal did not witness any overt support for the rebellion and this seemed like post-facto support developing in the wake of the rebellion. This though is the only known indigenous visual representation of the revolt during colonial times. Post-Independence visual representations gradually began to emerge from an Indian perspective. The revolt had by now captured the national imagination cutting across ethnic, religious and class divides.

A consciousness was emerging that the revolt was one of the epical moments in the national struggle for independence. For many it was the first war of independence. The ruling elite and the intelligentsia too shed its earlier circumspection about the revolt and saw merit in celebrating the revolt.in various ways. The revolt had assumed cult proportions in the psyche of the nation and this found expression among multiple ways in the form of movies with the revolt and its principal figures as the central theme. Predictably the first cinematic representation of the revolt had Rani Lakshmibai as its central character.

 

The film in question was Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi Ki Rani in 1953 with a regal-looking Mehtab in the lead role as Rani Lakshmibai while Sohrab Modi played the other lead role of the Rajguru of Jhansi. The movie had lavish sets though they pale in comparison with the sets of the contemporary movie Manikarnika. Both the movies have broadly similar plots. There is the concerted attempt to build up a template which seeks to project the Rani of Jhansi or Manikarnika, her childhood name, as extraordinarily brave from childhood.

Sohrab Modi’s movie shows the child Manikarnika growing up in Bithur confronting a European carriage driver who sought to drive roughshod through a crowd of native children and men. A little while later in the narrative we see a scene where Manikarnika sees a young Nana Saheb and one of his associates atop an elephant. Mamu implored Nana Saheb to let her sit on the elephant but Nana’s associate desists him from doing so as Manikarnika is the daughter of a mere courtier in the Peshwa’s court. An enraged Manikarnika then attempts to mount the elephant by climbing onto the tusk of the elephant. Unsuccessful, she seeks to stand in the way of the elephant.

The entire incident was meanwhile being observed by the Rajguru of Jhansi who was traversing Bithur in the course of his search across the length and breadth of the subcontinent for a suitable bride for the Raja of Jhansi, a matter which was of cardinal importance for the continuation of Jhansi as an independent kingdom. The Rajguru steps forth in the nick of time and removes Manikarnika from the path of the enraged elephant.3

We do not know for sure whether these two incidents really transpired with Manu in her childhood. There is no evidence either to ascertain that Nana Saheb was Manikarnika’s childhood playmate. It could be nonetheless argued that the authenticity of facts was irrelevant beyond a point. Legends are created through a combination of facts and myths. And the legend of Lakshmibai is no exception to this trend. We see the same traits in the making of the legend of Lakshmibai many decades later when Manikarnika was made in 2019. Here too, Manikarnika is represented as brave beyond measure.

There is this sensational episode where the young Manikarnika shoots a tiger who had become a scourge for the villagers around Bithur. She shoots the tiger in front of an awestruck audience, which includes the Rajguru of Jhansi. Yet she shoots to wound, not to kill; the wounded tiger makes a dash towards her, Manikarnika stands her ground calmly, the tiger leaps but ends up prostrate before her feet. An edifice is being mounted on which an image of Lakshmibai, the brave yet merciful heroine, is being carved out.

Thus, there is no paradigmatic shift despite the passage of several decades in the depiction of the image of a brave and fearless Rani who carried out astounding acts of bravery from an early age. Again, there is no hardcore evidence that the fabled incident of Manikarnika shooting the dreaded tiger had its roots in reality. It again begs the question, are facts really important here? Manikarnika’s daring confrontation with an elephant in Sohrab Modi’s film gets transformed into an iconic struggle with a dreaded tiger in the 2018 release Manikarnika, for the elephant and the tiger are really metaphorical mediums for projecting a halo around the image of the Rani, to narrate the saga of a Rani who exhibited early signs of precociousness and fearlessness, and one who was destined for greatness.

These largely apocryphal stories of the young Manikarnika’s superhuman courage are integral to the transformation of her persona from a cerebral and fearless young lady to Rani Lakshmibai, the celebrated Queen of Jhansi in both the scripts. Folklore, as already mentioned, has it that the Rajguru of Jhansi was a witness to these astounding feats by Manikarnika and was bowled over by her cool courage and resourcefulness. Convinced that his search for an apt bride for the Raja of Jhansi was over, the Rajguru approaches Manikarnika’s parents and the Peshwa.

The scene is again muted in Sohrab Modi’s movie. Manikarnika’s parents express some apprehension as the age gap between Manikarnika and the king is huge. The Peshwa and the Rajguru convince them that the marriage is essential for the future of Jhansi and indeed the future of the motherland, Bharatvarsha. The notion of Bharatvarsha is projected in an amorphous manner. This is done deliberately and, in a manner, where fighting for the motherland Jhansi can be transposed to fighting for the nation, and the people of the subcontinent.4

The treatment of the same incident offers a study in contrast in Manikarnika. We are treated to a high voltage scene where the Rajguru witnesses Manikarnika engaged in sword play with Nana Saheb and Tatya Tope as he enters the Peshwa’s court to ask for Manikarnika as a bride from her father who is a courtier at the Peshwa’s court. The Rajguru while pleading for Manu is at the same time enthralled by Manikarnika’s skill with the sword. The Peshwa, whose affection and admiration for Manikarnika is obvious, announces that the winner of this sword contest will have his favourite elephant as the prize. There could well and truly be only one winner, Lakshmibai, who somersaults in a scarcely believable mode over the heads of Nana Saheb, Tatya Tope, and Rao Sahib to emerge atop the prize elephant.

The scene now shifts to Lakshmibai’s marriage ceremony where she is shown taming a particularly recalcitrant horse, Badal. Badal would become the faithful mount of Lakshmibai, who would be privy to each of her legendary exploits in the future. The groundwork had been well and truly lain for the birth of the legend of Lakshmibai.5

The tone is set in both films for the rapid mystification of the Rani, albeit in varying ways. Sohrab Modi’s film is understated in its portrayal of the Rani as brave, decisive, resourceful, and supremely intelligent. The forceful character of the Rani is not lost on the British officers who are formally presented to the Rani after her crowning. Sohrab Modi’s film nevertheless does a fine job of depicting the British officers in a realistic mode. The political agent for Jhansi, Major Ellis, observes the required courtesies due to the Maharaja and the Rani. There is also the young Lieutenant Henry Downton, Lakshmibai’s childhood friend, who had been her playmate at Bithur where
his father had been posted as a commissioner. The Rani is obviously delighted to meet him after many years and the shot which captures their surprise meeting emphasizes the mutual affection and admiration between them.

In contrast, the contemporary movie Manikarnika paints the average English officer as evil and comically villainous. There is a ridiculous scene where Major Ellis enters the royal court and demands that the king bow before him as a mark of Jhansi’s subservience to the Company. The Rani lets it be known in no uncertain terms that this symbolic show of servility will not occur anymore. An enraged Major Ellis, his face suitably and grotesquely contorted, swears revenge and promises that he will one day make the Rani bow to him. The Rani is undaunted by his threat and stares proudly and defiantly at him.

All this only serves to underscore the fearlessness of the Rani. The scene is an important stepping stone in the film’s endeavour to accord a larger than life image of the Rani, a queen who is almost divine in her qualities. This stands out in contrast to Sohrab Modi’s Lakshmibai where too the Rani is cast in a heroic mould but is nevertheless never deified.

There is a dramatic scene nonetheless in Sohrab Modi’s film where the Rani who has been trained in statecraft and weaponry by the Rajguru is called upon in a formal ceremony in the court to bestow on Rajguru his guru dakshina. The Rani draws out her sword and beseeches Rajguru to bless her such that she would always protect the interests and independence of Jhansi till the last breath of her life. Moved to tears, the Rajguru runs his thumb on the blade of Lakshmibai’s sword and applies a tikka with the blood drawn out on the Rani’s forehead and blesses her. Thus the scene drives home the point that the Rani’s role is not merely ceremonial; she is cut out to play a central role in the affairs of Jhansi.

The movie now acquire pace and a series of incidents transpire which catapults the Rani to the absolute centre stage. The stage is set for the Rani’s character to acquire an enduring iconic status. And the incident which triggers a chain of events propelling the movie towards a dramatic finale is the birth of a boy to the royal couple, an incident which led to huge celebrations as the kingdom now had an heir, and as per the provisions of the treaty between Jhansi and the Company, the kingdom could not be annexed by the British.6

The movie takes another decisive turn as Damodar Rao dies within three months. The Raja adopts his nephew Anant Rao as his heir rechristening him Damodar Rao with the Rani as his regent. We are treated to a melodramatic scene depicting a huge argument of the Raja with Sadashiv Rao, his nephew, who fancies himself as the next in line for the throne, in the event of the Company not accepting the adoption. Sadashiv Rao states in no uncertain terms that he will not take things lying down and the Raja, unable to bear the overflow of emotions, suffers a cardiac arrest and passes away.

The stage is now set for the Rani to assume pole position as one who would take complete charge of the affairs on behalf of the infant king. Her first act is to announce the coronation of the minor king Damodar Rao without bothering to wait for the ratification of the adoption and recognition of Damodar Rao as the heir to the throne. We are again treated to pure unadulterated drama as Major Ellis, the British Political Agent for Jhansi, marches in with the written order of the Governor General while the coronation is going on and demands a halt to the ceremony. Undeterred, the Rani asks the Rajguru to go ahead with the coronation. On the completion of affairs, the Major is requested to read out the order of the Governor General which rendered the succession of Damodar Rao to the throne as illegitimate and as a logical corollary the annexation of Jhansi.7 

The on-screen tension is now palpable and the Rani in a show of controlled but deep fury is shown drawing out her sword from the sheath and supposedly uttering the famous words, ‘Mein Jhansi nahin doongi’ (I will not give up Jhansi). The Rani is all set to take on the British but Rajguru advises her to bide her time as Jhansi’s forces were in no shape to fight them. The film has Rajguru delivering a powerful speech where he emphasizes that destiny has marked the Rani to herald the dawn of the country’s struggle against British tyranny.

The script now takes a fantastic turn where historical veracity is given short thrift to base itself on popular legends. The movie shows a meeting where representatives of various communities as well as deposed princes gather to plan a national insurrection against the British. We do not know if a meeting of this kind ever took place. The popular folklore though holds that there existed a proposal for a planned insurrection throughout the length and breadth of the subcontinent on 31 May 1857. The movie again, basing itself on popular belief, depicts Mangal Pandey, a sepoy in the 19th native infantry stationed at Barrack-pore, goaded by a courtesan with whom he was in love, light the spark of revolt in a moment of impetuousness by refusing to bite the greased cartridges on 29 March 1857.

The subsequent trial and hanging of Mangal Pandey provoked, according to the movie, mass uprisings in station after station. Jhansi would soon fall to the mutineers after British troops and civilians cooped up inside the fort surrendered on being promised safe passage. The rebels, if the film is to be believed, did not keep their part of the bargain and indulged in a wholesale massacre of British troops and civilians. No quarter was given to men, women, or children.

The Rani is suitably infuriated on hearing the news since one of the British officers, Captain Gordon, had, according to the film script, slipped out in disguise during the siege to meet the Rani and entreat her to grant safe passage to the British people trapped inside the fort. The Rani had agreed to the proposal and is furious that she could not keep her word. Meanwhile, the rebels have assembled beneath her palace and beseech her to come out and support them. It is more of a threat as the rebels give her the choice of joining them and opening her coffers or they would loot the city before proceeding to Delhi. The Rani in a fit of anger throws down the priceless necklace adorning her neck to the troops who pocket it exultingly.

Thus, the film’s narrative clearly sets out to absolve the Rani in the massacre of British men and women inside Jhansi fort. In a similar vein, the contemporary movie Manikarnika seeks to protect the Rani from any opprobrium regarding the massacre of British officers and civilians. The films seek to deflect the onus on to Sadashiv Rao, the king’s nephew, who was hobnobbing with the British to ensure that the adopted son Damodar Rao was not accorded the status of a legitimate heir to the throne of Jhansi. In that scenario, Sadashiv Rao would stake his claim as the next in line to the throne.

The film weaves a plot where Sadashiv Rao and his men are shown waylaying the British convoy who have been granted safe passage by the Rani. The British officers and their families are butchered, and Sadashiv Rao manages to hoist the blame for this massacre on the Rani. This further hardens the Company’s stand against the Rani, a situation which works out to Sadashiv Rao’s advantage.8

The jury is out on whether the Rani had any role in the matter with historians ranged on both sides. As far as her culpability in the sordid affair is concerned9 I argue that it was irrelevant whether the Rani was complicit or innocent in the massacre of the British at Jhansi. We are dealing with the matter of the visual representation of the Rani here. What is relevant is the way both the scripts seek to deal with this contentious issue.

We see that neither of the two film scripts were interested in etching a nuanced and flawed portrayal of the Rani. Possibly, they could not afford to do so. Indulging in coldblooded massacres of defenceless people did not sit easy with the image of an icon. That somehow detracted from their purity and nobility. The aura of the Rani rested on her being depicted as one who was fearless and indomitable in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds; her courage and resolve had to be of uncontaminated variety. The Rani did not seek to harm the weak and hapless, and rather both the films seek to project the image of a Rani whose courage assumed an undaunted aura when faced with formidable odds. The greater the challenge, the more formidable form her courage took.

The challenge of airbrushing the image of the Rani did not end here. There was another important gap to be filled or rationalized. The fact of the matter is that there was a crucial lag of almost a year between the capture of the Jhansi fort by the rebel forces and the Rani joining the rebellion. The Rani was in reality a reluctant rebel who joined ranks with the rebellion only after negotiations with the Company seeking the recognition of her adopted son, Damodar Rao, as the legitimate heir to the throne of Jhansi suffered an irretrievable breakdown.

The recent movie Manikarnika does hint that the Rani engaged in extensive deliberations with the Company for the recognition of her adopted son as the legitimate heir. There is the scene in Manikarnika where the Rani’s legendary general Ghaus Khan berates her for engaging diplomatically with the British. The Rani justifies her act by saying that this was a ploy to buy time for shoring up Jhansi’s armed strength. Sohrab Modi’s film simply glosses over the issue. The emphasis in both movies is to paint the Rani as an uncompromising rebel whose sterling exploits made her an icon.10

To conclude it would be apt to say that both the movies engage in uncritical adulation of the Rani. This is slightly intriguing in the case of Sohrab Modi’s film because the 1950s still retained an element of criticality towards the revolt as far as the intelligentsia is concerned. Possibly the criticality was reflected in the understated though heroic depiction of the Rani’s persona which stands out in stark contrast to the current movie Manikarnika, which apart from being an unqualified eulogy of the Rani, indulges in grossly over the top, and at times scarcely believable depiction of the Rani and her exploits. This was possibly a sign of the times in which the movie is made.

Another sign of the times is the nature of the depiction of an alternate polity in the event of a rebel victory in Manikarnika. The Rani, a despot who is nevertheless wildly popular with the masses and who defies convention to mix with the people conjures the vision of a Hindu Raj along the lines of Shivaji’sSwaraj’. This Hindu polity nevertheless has space for the minorities and some emphasis is placed on the fact that one of the Rani’s leading generals was a Muslim, apart from the fact that she possessed a faithful corps of Pathan troops. What was being hinted was that the Hindu Raj would nonetheless be benevolent towards the minorities.

Sohrab Modi’s movie in contrast projects the Revolt as a secular mass rebellion enjoying broad-based support cutting across religious, ethnic, linguistic, caste, and class divides in the subcontinent. The people are led by popular elite leaders such as Rani Lakshmibai, the central figure in the film. There is no attempt to project any alternate vision of governance or ideology beyond lending a veneer of secularism to the struggle. Sohrab Modi is thus projecting a vision of secularism which is in line with the secular ideology of the then nascent Indian state. Representation is as much about the past as the present and contemporary ideological concerns serve to decisively shape the image of the Rani in both movies.

This is precisely the reason why the contemporary movie Manikarnika develops a personality cult around the Rani, a leader who is authoritarian but godlike and wildly popular among the masses. The Rani loves the people dearly but is prepared to wield the stick for their benefit. This is in contrast to Sohrab Modi’s film where the Rani is evidently very popular, capable and immeasurably brave but nevertheless never deified. There is no attempt to build a personality cult. In the end this is what clearly sets the two movies apart notwithstanding several overlapping themes.

Footnotes:

1. Mangal Pandey: The Rising (Hindi), directed by Ketan Mehta. Kaleidoscope Entertainment and Maya Motion Pictures, India, 2005.

2. Narayani Gupta, ‘Pictorialising The Mutiny’, in Maria Antonella Pelizzari (ed.), Traces of India: Photography, Architecture and the Politics of Representation in India, 1850-1900. Canadian Centre for Architecture, and Yale Centre for British Art, Montreal And New Haven, 2003. Narayani Gupta’s article deals with way the British pictured the mutiny, incidents, monuments, and places which were intrinsically associated with British memories of 1857 either in the form of avowedly heroic exploits or tragedies.

3. Jhansi Ki Rani (Hindi), Sohrab Modi. Minerva Movies, Technicolor, 1953; Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (Hindi) – Kangana Ranaut and Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi. Zee Productions, 2019.

4.  Jhansi Ki Rani,  Sohrab Modi, 1953

5. Manikarnika: The Queen of JhansiKangana Ranaut and Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi, 2019.

6. Jhansi Ki Rani,  Sohrab Modi, 1953.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Sen, 1857, pp. 266–290. Sen’s book contains a detailed discussion on this infamous episode and the rani’s possible complicity in the matter. We are though none the wiser at the end of the exchange regarding the Rani’s complicity or lack of it in this dark episode.

10. Ibid.