LAKSHMIBAI RIDES A HORSE into the compound of a bungalow housing officers of the East India Company, wearing a heavily embroidered green sari. “You cannot come inside without permission,” one officer tells her. “Didn’t you see the board?” “Bloody Indians,” another officer exclaims, while a third asks, “Can’t you read English?” The queen consort of the princely state of Jhansi dismounts and walks up to the visibly smug officers. “I can read English,” she says. “It’s a mere language. Just words. Words without culture have no meaning.”
This is a scene from the 2019 film Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, starring, and co-directed by, Kangana Ranaut. Lakshmibai was a prominent figure in the 1857 uprising against the British and is often presented as a nationalist symbol of strength and resistance. The film’s politics are crystal clear: the British epitomise evil, while benevolent Indian royals are the sole defenders of poor village folk against the cruelty of foreign invaders.
Lakshmibai is furious with the officers because they are about to eat steak, cooked from a calf they have snatched from a farmer. “The earth you stand on, learn to respect its people and their feelings,” she tells them. “Our mother tongue is akin to our mother. And there can be just one.” She throws a sword at a shed caging cows and goats to free them. “From now on, all cattle and goats are the personal property of the king,” she decrees. “They have been lent to the people for rearing. The Company cannot touch them.” The officers accept this without protest. “Your Majesty,” one of them says.