Today we make huge hoopla if any Hollywood technician is associated with any Bollywood film. But more than half a century back Sohrab Modi made an epic costume drama employing some very prolific names from the West. His 1952 film Jhansi Ki Rani boasted of Hollywood technicians like Oscar winning cinematographer Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind), Oscar winning writer Geza Herczeg (The Life of Emily Zola), Oscar nominated editor Russell Lloyd (The Man Who Would Be The King, Moby Dick) and some more on its credit list.
Sohrab Modi was known for his spectacular historical films like Pukar, Sikandar (Alexander The Great) and Prithvi Vallabh. He continued his legacy of making epic historical biographies with Jhansi Ki Rani which was mounted on a lavish budget and had every element that would add to the magnificence of a costume drama from opulent sets, rich costumes, dramatic dialogues, theatrical performances, extravagant action with lifelike battlefield sequences involving hundreds of horses, elephants and soldiers. To give reference with a contemporary analogy, Jhansi Ki Rani was the Jodhaa Akbar of the 50s.
The film is based on the life history of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, who was one of the first Indians to rebel against the British Government. Rani Lakshmibai finds a prominent mention in history textbooks of India but Sohrab Modi's film takes an in-depth look on the entire biography of the queen from her childhood to her death. In Bollywood history, other than this film, Rani Lakshmibai had a faint one-scene reference in the Ketan Mehta directed Aamir Khan starrer Mangal Pandey towards the end in an epilogue where Varsha Usgaonkar posed as the Rani. (Incidentally Sohrab Modi's Jhansi Ki Rani had a one-scene reference to Mangal Pandey). The common link between Lakshmibai and Mangal Pandey is that both were associated with the First War of Indian Independence the uprising against British that started in 1957.
Ketan Mehta had planned a biographical on Rani Lakshmibai as a follow-up film to Mangal Pandey and an extension on the 1957 Uprising. Unfortunately with the box-office failure of Mangal Pandey, his film never took off. Similarly actresses Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai had once contemplated playing Jhansi Ki Rani but none of the projects materialized. Thankfully that leaves Sohrab Modi's production as the only feature film on the life of Rani Lakshmibai and its authenticity remains un-tampered. A TV series on Rani Lakshmibai is currently on air but the literary manipulations to the biography to adapt to the long-drawn-out requirements of the small screen, completely spoils the essence of the legend.
Sohrab Modi took the effort to keep his film's screenplay (penned by half a dozen writers) historically accurate and comprehensive and yet entertaining. The film opens with the queen's childhood when she was known as Manu and had the courage to face an elephant. When the chief adviser of Jhansi, Rajguru (Sohrab Modi) sees her valour, he asks Manu's father Moropant to get her married to the much-elder King of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao (Mubarak). So the 9-year-old Manu is married off to the 50-year-old Gangadhar. Trained under Rajguru, Manu grows up to be Lakshmibai (Mehtab), the Rani of Jhansi who is proficient at all physical and political challenges. (Ironically, in real life Mehtab was married to Sohrab Modi who was elder to her by 20 years).
Lakshmibai has a son from Gangadhar Rao who soon succumbs to illness after which the couple adopts a boy Damodar Rao to be the heir of Jhansi. But the British East India Company rejects the adopted Damodar Rao as the claimant to the throne of Jhansi and wants to seize the kingdom. That results into conflict between the Queen and British resulting into rebellion that led to the First War of Indian Independence in 1957.
Sohrab Modi came from the stage background which reflected pretty much in his film. The drama induced through the heavy-worded dialogues was intense and the performances were very theatrical. There was no compromise to get the period look of the film perfect (real foreign actors played the British characters) and the magnificence showed in every frame. As the film nearly perfected in getting the 'costume' era feel and dense 'drama' effect, Jhansi Ki Rani aptly justified its genre of 'costume drama'.
The film had a US release in 1956 and was titled 'The Tiger and the Flame' based on one elaborate dance piece that Gangadhar Rao organizes to welcome the grownup Lakshmibai to the court and take charge of the kingdom. This was India's first Technicolour film, though unfortunately the DVD I got had a Black and White print of the film and I kept wondering throughout on how the film would look in each frame had it been in colour. However despite all its visual brilliance and historical relevance, the film didn't perform as expected at the box-office and was reportedly a big loss to Sohrab Modi who was the producer as well.
Nevertheless Jhansi Ki Rani is a wonderful watch if you like well-made historical costume dramas.
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