PC : Cinestaan

I have not seen the recent release Manikarnika starring Kangana Ranaut, but have been reading all the reviews. Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi remains one of the most inspirational personalities from Indian history. Mahashweta Devi, the eminent Bengali author wrote a novel on her. As a child, I learnt Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem on her. It was a really stirring work with its refrain of Bundele harbolon ke munh hamne suni kahani thi.

It is therefore not surprising that such a topic was considered suitable for a film and today I am writing about an earlier production – Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi Ki Rani. That was made in 1953 and it is said to be India’s first Technicolor production. The filmmaker left no stone unturned in the production. He got Hollywood technicians including the man who edited Gone With The Wind to help with the movie. The film starred Mehtab, Sohrab Modi’s wife, as Lakshmibai. He played the role of the Rajguru who identifies the young Manu as a suitable wife for the much older Gangadhar Pant of Jhansi (played by Mubarak who always performed magnificently as a king).

I got to see the film only in black and white, it being screened on Doordarshan one Sunday in them days when life was pretty much black and white. The performances by Mehtab, Sohrab Modi, Mubarak and several other members of the cast were theatrical but that was how we were used to portraying history anyway. What struck me even then was the authenticity in the settings – Sohrab Modi had evidently done his research. There were several stirring moments in the film too, with one song of Rafi still ringing in my years – Rajguru ne Jhansi chodi. You can see the song here.

There were some others too. I also recall one scene so well – old Gangadhar Pant (Mubarak) getting so excited at the birth of a son that he beats the gong announcing it himself. Sadly that child dies and then we know the rest of the story.

The film takes some liberties – there are at least two men who have a soft corner for Lakshmi Bai – one is a childhood playmate and the other is an Englishman – Henry. I don’t think we have any records of such people in the real Rani’s life. But then that is cinema and to Sohrab Modi’s credit, he weaves in these two plots most subtly. The last scene is most poignant in the film, but it does not incorporate the one true account of what happened. For that we need to read Lord Canning on Lakshmi Bai. He has it that just before dying in a mango clump she ordered that the pearls from her necklace, which she had plundered from the Scindia’s treasury in Gwalior, be distributed among her faithful soldiers. What a woman! Modi gives it a different but equally believable twist.

The film bombed at the box office and caused Sohrab Modi untold distress financially. It was later dubbed in English. His subsequent film, another delight – Mirza Ghalib (1954), was more successful.

Someday I hope to visit Jhansi. I will stand at its ramparts and recite Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s poem.

This article is an occasional feature I write on old film songs, chiefly Hindi and Tamil. You can read the earlier episodes here.