Political Film Review #602


The English East India Company (EEIC) began in 1600 to facilitate trade between the Indian subcontinent and Britain. But when the Mughal Empire (with a capital at Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal) fragmented from 1720, the company used the British army to make increasing territorial control in the subcontinent. One of those areas was the Principality of Jhansi, a city-state south of modern Delhi and historic Agra on the southwestern tip of Uttar Pradesh, the province directly south of Nepal. Jhansi was allied with several other principalities that fought against EEIC in several wars from 1775 to 1818, when EEIC was victorious and controlled most of the subcontinent.

When The Warrior Queen of Jhansi begins, the people are infuriated by some EEIC practices that are contrary to the Hindu religion, thereby providing a grievance that later mobilizes a fighting force. At issue is who has the right to rule Jhansi. The male heir born to Maharaja Gangadhar Rao Newalka, ruler of Jhansi (Milind Guhaji), dies after four months, so a young nephew is designated as the heir just before his death in 1853. Because the male heir is too young to assume the throne, the Maharaja’s wife Rani Lakshmibai (Devika Bhise) is given regal authority. But EEIC refuses to accept either as legitimate rulers of Jhansi. EEIC’s CEO, Sir Hugh Rose (played by Rupert Everett) is ultimately persuaded by the British governor of the area, Sir Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker), that the goal of control over “uncivilized” Indians requires submission. EEIC’s emissary to Jhansi, Major Robert Ellis (Ben Lamb), reluctantly tries to make the case to Rani that she should surrender on behalf of the Jhansi, but he fails. Other complications not portrayed in the film place EEIC at odds with Rani, who seeks to keep the Jhansi state independent from foreign control.

Rani, who learned fighting techniques while growing up, then opts to fight EEIC. The war, depicted through several battle scenes, is often known as the first Indian war of independence from British colonial rule. (In actuality, the rebellion from 1858 to 1859 started northeast of Old Delhi and involved several other locations, which is why a once-rival Muslim group led by Tatya Tope (Ajinkya Deo) later supports Jhansi warriors in the film.)

In one scene, Queen Victoria (Jodhi May) complains to the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston (Derek Jacobi), that EEIC’s brutality gives the world a bad reputation of Great Britain and her personally. When her suggestion to handle the rebels without spilling too much blood is ignored, she is irate. One explanation for her mood is that her favorite companion, Saleem (Omar Malik), has family in Jhansi. (Their relationship is depicted in the 2017 film Victoria and Abdul.) Parliament evidently is also displeased, and in a late scene Palmerston has parliament dissolve EEIC in 1858, putting the British government in full charge of the subcontinent. (Victoria issued a proclamation that year guaranteeing that Indians would enjoy the same rights as other British subjects in colonies across the world, enabling Indians later to justify a more concerted campaign for independence.)

The purpose of the film is feminist—a biopic to celebrate a woman who has not been properly recognized in the history books. Accordingly, the film simplifies a history that is much more complicated. Many parts of The Warrior Queen of Jhansi are unfortunately underplayed, with actors whispering when what is said is far more worthy of declarative speech.  MH