Directed by Swati Bhise and starring Devika Bhise, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi tells the true story of the legendary Rani of Jhansi, a feminist icon in India and a fearless freedom fighter. In 1857 India, this 24-year old General led her people into battle against the British Empire earning the reputation as the Joan of Arc of the East. This real-life Wonder Woman’s insurrection shifted the balance of power in the region and set in motion the demise of the notorious British East India Company and the beginning of the British Raj under Queen Victoria.
The film, which opens in North America on November 15th, boasts an incredible cast including Rupert Everett, Nathaniel Parker, Ben Lamb with Jodhi May and Derek Jacobi.
To set the scene let’s take a look at the trailer!
I was able to catch Director Swati Bhise and star of the film Devika Bhise while they were in New York to talk about this wonderful film. In a fabulous but way to short conversation, they gave insight into bringing the Rani’s story to life and what they hope audiences will take away with them once the last credit has gone by.
Director and writer Swati Bhise, an Indian Classical dancer, is a multifaceted performer who has worked as an actress, choreographer, scriptwriter, TV host, and curator of art and music festival globally. She has taught at Columbia University and continues to be a guest artist at Barnard, Tisch and NYU across the Eastern Seaboard. She also founded a film production company called Cayenne Pepper Productions and was the Executive Producer and Indian cultural consultant on The Man Who Knew Infinity, an Ed Pressman Film starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.
Talking passionately about what went into the decision of making this film and especially why the wanted to tell this particular story, Swati Bhise gave some background, “The idea had been brewing in my head for many years. Not exactly to say hey, make the Warrior Queen of Jhansi, but it was to make a film about women’s empowerment. See as a classical artist performing I have done all my programs on women’s empowerment through the last 25 years. And it was without even realizing it. It is just something I gravitated too. I was always trying to explain what the female character in Asia and India really was. Not just the kind of things people believed in – there was always 50% this and 50% this… it was not always just black and white. So since I was in education and performing that became something I was performing on.”
Going back to film she said, “I just knew that somewhere I wanted to tell a story about these women that I had grown up hearing about and their stories. It wasn’t just the Rani, I have six other women like that, stories of these real women, not just Superman, Superwoman, Wonder Woman, you know. They are real women and I could share their stories with the world so hopefully women would say if they could do it in 1857, we could take a little of that spirit and try to do it. That was really the only reason I wanted to tell the story. Not so much just these stories of women but to use their stories to help and share it with the global audience.”
Going into a bit depth about the Rani character Swati revealed, “I have taken a lot of my stories from her enemies, which was the British generals, those who actually destroyed her. It was political – it was not personal. It was economic and political because she dared to stand up against them. And when you dare as a female in 1857, they said they had to make her an example. They wrote you have to destroy her because otherwise, everyone will stand up against us and we have ruled the country for 300 years.
“That too as a corporation. As the East India Company… not as the government. You know, not many realize that this was a corporation that was ruling with an army that just came to trade and then took over every principality because it was not a country. They had to destroy her because she dared to stand up against opium trade or indigo farming or them annexing her kingdom. It is something 160 years after her death, this story is still vibrant and it survived and yet it was never shared from the point of view of economics. That is really important to know, it was the first corporate bail out in history before Goldman and AIG in 2008.”
Devika Bhise has been seen both in television and movies most recently in The Man Who Knew Infinity and now is the lead in this epic film, which she also co-wrote. Talking about taking on the mantle of The Warrior Queen of Jhansi she said, “I feel completely lucky that I was able to play this character; it is not everyday that you get to ride into battle holding the reins in your mouth holding two swords! It definitely a unique role and I am so lucky that I was able to do it.”
Since the age of 5, Devika has been training in dance, martial arts and more, and she says that definitely helped in this role. “They physical aspects where a very big part of it. I was training for years in martial arts and horse back riding. The physical stuff just kind of came. See your body knows to do what it is trained to do.”
The young actress also talked about one of the more difficult aspects of really becoming the Rani, “A very difficult part of it was the Indian languages, not to learn them, because obliviously I did know them but to increase my fluency in a way that I could act as someone who has spoken them through her entire life. Interestingly, I spent a lot of time with my Grandmother who became my dialect coach in all of the Indian dialects that I had to speak in. So for me that was definitely the longer journey for preparing. The acting part, it was harder for me I think to get into that space.”
One of the things I most admired about Devika’s performance was the she fully became the character in all her forms. So how did she get into that space? “I think just being the lead in this movie, you know we had a huge set, a lot of extras crew – all of that. I was in almost every single scene so having the pressure of having to do my absolute best in every single take, every single day for months felt quite a lot what the Rani would have had to go through. She couldn’t mess up at all at any point otherwise thousands of people would die and obviously (you can hear her smile) these stakes were not as high for me, but they did feel like they were about that high.”
Swati shared that the film almost began a year before. “We tried to do the film actually the year before and we had Charles Dance but then everything fell apart because of the season in India. The Monsoon started so it had to stop. So we had to spend an extra year in preproduction, even though we had everything else set.”
The director felt this was actually a good thing for the actress, “I think for Devika, which was good, she started wondering am I capable of doing this as an actor? Even though she knows me and knows that she would not have been on a project unless I was 100% sure. It was good, actually, because she had tremendous fear -saying could I do this as a lead and do all those things? That actually showed beautifully in the film for me, because if she didn’t have that fear…”
Devika added in, “Fear is a great driving force to anything!” (Laughs)
Swati continued, “So I got the vulnerable side of the actor Devika, where she really understood, she was thrown into it. I must say she was always working in her room. Going to set, coming from the set, working and then going back because she knew she had to deliver. You know, she was 23 when she started the training so when you think of a 23-year-old being told hey, you are not just the lead, you have got Derek Jacobi and Rupert Everett to act in front of….”
Devika went on to say, “Also the interesting thing is the fear is important. You can have that, but you can’t let anyone else see that you are terrified of what is going on. I think that is exactly what the Rani had to deal with.”
Swati added, “I was pretty confident it was good, she wasn’t, but in the end – when it did happen I told her, of course, happily, ‘ I told you so!’”
What they hope the audiences will take home with them after seeing the film is two-fold. Devika said, “One thing, I think we are really excited about is bringing an Indian story to global audiences and to Hollywood as well. When they think of Indian stories they think mainly of Bollywood. It is very rare to see this rich history of India shown in Hollywood instead of just the slums and the more negative portrayal of India that there has been. This film has the rich history of India that we are excited to share!”
Swati added proudly, “It is the first film, at least I think so, in Hollywood, with a brown Indian female as the lead.”
“And in an action film! And for a historical drama and all those different categories!” Devika agreed.
The second reason is, for both of them, the most important and the essence of the film. Devika explained, “One thing that is really important to us is that the Rani was someone who rode into battle and that is what made her a warrior. But, every woman is a warrior in their own way. It doesn’t mean you are riding into battle it means that you are fighting things everyday that make you a warrior.”
Swati expanded on this thought saying, “It is every woman, who is a mother, daughter, sister, friend but above all she is a warrior. When we say that we mean, you know, we should not complain so much about – Oh I am the one, I can’t do this, I cannot do that. The Rani didn’t look to her husband to help her; she didn’t look to any male or female energy. She created and forged her own path. So often in history it talked about her diplomacy – she was a tremendous statesman and diplomat. She was playing ball with the British saying I am one of your kingdoms, but the minute they pushed and pushed and started taking more she said, we have been loyal to you for 100 years, my husband has, now you are going against us and you’re doing things that are wrong and if you don’t stop I will take you on.
“This is what people have to understand there are shades of choices you make in life and there is just not black and white. If every woman could take out of that and look within and find the spirit of the Rani that is really what we are hoping for global audiences.”
I would like to thank them both for the fabulous conversation!
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi hit theaters in North America on November 15th.
Stay tuned review to come soon but I can definitely recommend that you be sure to check this film out!