The Warrior Queen of Jhansi director Swati Bhise: In times of gender disparity, Lakshmi Bai's is perfect story to share

Bedatri D Choudhury

Nov 29, 2019 09:12:34 IST

Rani Lakshmi Bai and her story are not new for our screens. Following Kangana Ranaut’s rather jingoistic and reductive Manikarnika, Swati Bhise’s The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is a much more nuanced retelling of the legendary queen’s courage. Breaking the domestic boundaries around the legend, Bhise’s film makes Lakshmi Bai a global feminist icon and tells her story through an authentic, non-exotic narrative — a feat most South Asian filmmakers fail to achieve when making films about Indian characters, in the US.

Bhise’s The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, the first Hollywood action film with an Indian female lead, releases in India on 29 November.

Firstpost caught up Swati Bhise, a Bharatanatyam dancer, philanthropist and arts educator, who makes her debut as a filmmaker with this film.

You have been a dancer and an arts educator before you started making films. Tell us a little about that experience.

From as long as I can remember, I have been training in classical Hindustani vocal music, Carnatic music, and classical dance. In India, when we study classical dance based on Natyashastra, we study acting, dancing, singing. As a performing artist, one is also an educator because one is essentially teaching the form through different stories. I learnt Sanskrit because I had to write my own script. I had to understand the music to instruct the musicians. I realised only years later that I've been writing, producing, supervising music, putting together my programmes and designing costumes, all along! None of these are separate categories for a Bharatanatyam dancer. I became an arts educator without even knowing that I was one.

I moved to the US and started teaching at Columbia University in 1983 and went on to teach at private and public schools. I was doing all that work but realised that I was reaching a very small audience.

 The Warrior Queen of Jhansi director Swati Bhise: In times of gender disparity, Lakshmi Bais is perfect story to share

Devika Bhise as Rani Lakshmi Bai in The Warrior Queen Of Jhansi. All photos courtesy Nick Wall

So you wanted to make a film?

Most of my dance pieces had been about strong women characters from mythology so it was almost natural that I wanted to write a dance drama on the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai. I wanted to perform it at the Sadir Theatre Festival in Goa, which I run. But I realised that even with the immense amount of energy and time I would put into the dance drama, I would not be able to reach a global audience. I wanted a bigger outreach, so I decided to make this film while I was working on the production for The Man Who Knew Infinity (2014). I would produce and direct this film if I didn't find anyone else and since I didn’t find anyone else to do it, I decided to make it myself.

Was making films your way of expanding the conversation on Indian culture in the West?

Absolutely. I grew up in India and studied in the US; being between two cultures for the last 36 years, I realised that I was constantly having to prove what a great country India was. I kept talking about how our culture was not just about curry and the usual stereotypes; that we were not all doctors and lawyers. People’s idea of Indian culture was dictated by Bollywood, which is a great industry but not the be-all and end-all of our diverse culture. I had actually grown up on everything but Bollywood, so I found myself sharing music and books that I thought my American friends should listen to and read. I realised that the change I was trying to make was happening on a very minuscule scale.

You served as the executive producer and Indian cultural consultant for The Man Who Knew Infinity, which was on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, and The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is the story of Rani Lakshmi Bai. Did you purposely make these films to make that change happen on a larger scale? To highlight the stories of Indians who should be known in the West?

Yes, after Ramanujan, I wanted to make a film on Rani Lakshmi Bai, primarily to have the world witness her story. I hope everyone realises that we need to make an effort and take our stories outside of their domestic boundaries. The West is not really dying to hear any of our stories, there's a lot of resistance. They will say that Rani Lakshmi Bai is a myth, they’ll say she didn’t exist...or they will say that a film on her story is not really up to Hollywood standards, because you don't have a budget of 100 million. Even some Indians will resist and question the need to take her story to Hollywood. I just tried to make a film about an amazing Indian woman and make everyone understand that she deserves to be a role model for every woman; irrespective of whether they are Indian or not. I hope more stories like this get out of India so Hollywood begins to pay attention to positive and affirmative stories about Indian characters instead of continuing to build an endless list of negative and stereotypical ones.

Director Swati Bhise on the sets of The Warrior Queen Of Jhansi with lead actor Devika Bhise

Director Swati Bhise on the sets of The Warrior Queen Of Jhansi with lead actor Devika Bhise

But why make a film on a 19th century queen in 2019?

I started this journey in 2013. I toyed with 2-3 other scripts on women, and this was the one that resonated the most. Being a History major, I majored in both British and Indian history. So there was obviously an academic interest. As a Maharashtrian, I had heard her stories and those of Ahalyabai Holkar and Baiza Bai. I have always been attracted to these very strong Maratha women characters. I chose to make a film on Rani Lakshmi Bai because in these times of acute gender disparity in every field, hers is the perfect story to share; she is young, yet so brave and courageous. There's so much of men versus women everywhere, men feeling attacked every time a woman raises a voice. So I thought this film would tell women and men everywhere that there was a woman who didn't look for men’s approval, who did what she wanted and forged her own path, created her own destiny, and left behind a rich legacy. So it's with great admiration that I decided to make the film on this female icon that we are very proud of.

I am sure you are aware of Indian nationalists trying to appropriate the figure of the Rani of Jhansi into perpetrating an ideal image of the Hindu woman and you've concentrated on the larger feminist icon. Was that on purpose?

No, actually, it wasn't on purpose. I am not involved with the politics in any of the countries and I speak my mind, do what I believe in. Everything we see around us has become mouthpieces for what certain individuals want us to believe, or what the social media influencers want us to believe. I like to make my own judgments. I don't understand the appropriation of Rani of Jhansi as the ideal image of the Hindu woman, because to me she is the ideal image of a mother, a daughter, a sister, a warrior, and a friend. Yes, she was extremely religious and went to the temple. But she was also friends with Moti Bai, who was a Muslim courtesan, with Jhalkari Bai, the brave warrior who was considered untouchable. And if that’s the Hinduism people accept and practice, then that’s fantastic. That is the Hinduism that I have grown up with; a religion that is tolerant. The scriptures teach us to question everything. Debate is the only way of discerning right from wrong. We have forgotten that. Today, it’s all about shouting on the television and compartmentalising everything. I have tried to represent the Rani as a woman, complete in her vulnerability and to inspire women to imbibe her spirit.

The Rani of Jhansi has been eulogised a lot in India and is relatively unknown in the West. Given how the film is seeing a global release, how did you balance your screenplay?

The screenplay was first written in English because it's a global release. Around 10 per cent of it is in Hindi and Marathi since I wanted to lend it a sense of authenticity. I have also tried to make the East India Company come across as a corporate firm, because the Company then behaved exactly how many corporations are behaving now. Hopefully that will help people contextualise their role in Indian history. I also did not want to do the usual thing of portraying all British officers as terrible people. There were some who were empathetic, just as many Indians were traitors. The dialogues have all been based on firsthand evidence that we found in travelogues written by people who visited Jhansi during the Rani’s rule. Someone who talks like that and walks into the court with two daggers hanging from her waist, is an extremely feisty woman. I wanted to preserve that in my screenplay.

When you talk of balancing, there will always be certain things that did take place but seem improbable, especially to Western audiences. You have to understand that the West is not homogenous; there are the very highly literate, there are people who watch only Marvel movies, and there are people who have been brainwashed to believe that women in the West are smarter than the women in the East. Our screenplay draws itself from facts, from research. Of course, we were making a film and not a series, so we did not have the luxury of delving deeply into the lives of each of the characters.

Devika Bhise as Rani Lakshmibai in The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

Devika Bhise as Rani Lakshmi Bai in The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

How did go about making a period film about India without exoticising the women and the country?

I think that's easy. The characters in the film are brilliant and attractive just by virtue of who they are; what is the point of catering to a fantasy? I wanted to keep everything very realistic. When Vikram Gaikwad (Balgandharva, The Dirty Picture, Jaatishwar) did the makeup, we decided that none of the actors would wear mascara or eye shadows or have their cheekbones highlighted. That would be a travesty. It’s a film about warrior women! The forts and the landscapes of India have been portrayed as they were. People tell me that the film reminded them of Lawrence of Arabia and Braveheart, which is a great compliment!

What was your research process like? How did you find the archives and was it easy accessing information?

The research process was situated both in India and in Britain. We referred to journals, to literary works, scoured through archives. Having studied British and Indian history, I automatically turned towards the scholarship of Tapti Roy and RC Majumdar. Being a Maharashtrian, I could read Vishnubhat Godse’s Maza Pravas and Dattatray Balwant Parasnis’ Maharani Laxmibaisaheb Yanche Charitra in the original. They were my primary sources. The process was time-consuming, but having been a student of history, it was easy to eke out the relevant aspects from the vast archives.

Given how your film comes so close on the heels of Manikarnika in India, which is a very different film. Are you nervous about its reception in India?

I'm not nervous. When you make a film, you make it with your whole heart. You can be hopeful about its reception but I don’t think I am nervous. My film is my film and Manikarnika is someone else's film. We should celebrate every film because every filmmaker is telling a story from their perception, and the audience is free to choose what they want to see. I feel immense pride in being from the country of Rani Lakshmi Bai and saying that I grew up with my own Wonder Woman, that I did not need to look for an imaginary one. I am not nervous but I hope Indians, when they watch the film, feel that pride and get curious to learn more about her and see how she is actually a global icon. She doesn't just belong to India, but serves as someone who gives a message to the rest of the world.

Director Swati Bhise on the sets of The Warrior Queen of Jhansi with actors Jodhi May and Dereck Jacobi

Director Swati Bhise on the sets of The Warrior Queen of Jhansi with actors Jodhi May and Dereck Jacobi

Your daughter, Devika Bhise, not only plays the title role, but is also an intrinsic part of the film's production. She wrote the screenplay with you and is an executive producer. What was the process of collaboration like?

The rigorous shooting schedule took a toll on my health and 48 hours before the scheduled end of the film’s shoot in Morocco, I developed an acute respiratory disorder and was diagnosed with swine flu. I was flown into New York where I was put on life support and was out of action for two whole months. Two years on, I am still recovering my strength. It was at that juncture, during post-production, that Devika stepped in and took on the role of the executive producer.

The collaboration was amazing because she is not just my daughter, but also a student; I have taught her dance and abhinaya for years. So I knew her strengths and she knew exactly what I wanted out of her performance. I was able to trust her, which is the key for any successful collaboration. She became a team member, a colleague rather than my daughter. It was terrific.

What was her biggest contribution to the process of writing the script?

I was born and brought up in India and in spite of having lived in the US for so long, my cultural perception is intrinsically Indian. Devika and Olivia Emden (another author of the screenplay) brought in an international perspective to the script. As I was finishing the script, they lent it a younger, fresher outlook which helped shape the dialogues in a way that would be easier to grasp by a global audience. I wanted younger people to relate to the voice of the film and they made that happen. As we worked through this process, I relied heavily on her judgment.

What is next for you?

Oh, boy! Asking that question raises many eyebrows around me and people immediately say, “Please, can you rest?” My doctors have urged me to rest, as well. But I do have a few other scripts in mind that I would like to develop. They are all about Indian characters that I have respected and admired, and who I believe that the world would be better off knowing about. I am also hosting a theatre festival in Goa in India in March and I look forward to continuing my work in female advocacy both in India and America, and speaking about how one can help close the gender gap in different parts of the world. I am a part of the Asia Foundation and have been working for the last nine years on raising awareness for girls and women in education in Asia. I will continue my work with that and if I have any time left, I may start writing a play.

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Updated Date: Dec 01, 2019 10:56:25 IST