Swati Bhise is a history buff – Indian and British history to be precise. Add to that her mastery in abhinaya (acting), choreography, music and detailing, and the result her directorial debut, “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi,” which released Nov. 15. Bhise calls it an historical and visual delight.
She told media she was motivated to do the film because she wanted to bring the story of Rani Laxmibai on the global platform. “This is such an incredible subject to think that a young woman took it upon herself to embark on a journey that very few would have the courage to do,” Bhise said. “Her single-minded path of following in a direction that she chose was incredible.”
Bhise, who co-wrote the script, along with her daughter, Devika Bhise, who plays the lead role in the film, said in today’s world it’s important for young girls and women that “there have been women like Rani Laxmibai who in the 1850s accomplished so much without having any royal upbringing.” Hence she said it’s important that we don’t just celebrate her life but use her life as an example.
To convey that essence of Rani Laxmibai, Bhise said she did a “very thorough and detailed” research to make sure the treatment to the film was authentic. She said she wanted to highlight lesser known facts like Rani Laxmibai was a Maharashtrian who became the queen of Jhansi, which is in Uttar Pradesh now. “When we do not present facts to the world, the wrong things become history,” she said, adding that she hasn’t compromised on the storytelling or the detailing. “I have not taken any artistic liberties,” she said, and added that she has “backed the story with historical reference.”
Also incorporated in the film is music with a Maharashtrian flavor and though the film is in English, Bhise says she has given natural touches like the use of Marathi and Sanskrit by the characters “when needed.” She said she needed her story to be told “not from a patriotic or mythical or mystical manner but about a vulnerable young woman then and what she must have undergone and what it made her and how she left a legacy.”
A trained Bharatnatyam dancer, Bhise has directed dance-dramas in the past and choreographed Broadway shows, hosted and scripted the talk show “Spotlight on Culture” and directed performers. She has also acted in the TV series “Mahanagar” with Shekhar Kapur in the late 1980s, and was also featured in the American musical opera “Daddy Meets Durga.”
She has worked as an executive producer on ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, a 2015 British biographical drama film about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan starring Dev Patel and Devika Bhise.
The first-time filmmaker also talked about the challenges she faced while making the film, which was completed in eight weeks. She admitted that it’s difficult to break into the industry as a woman; she said she got bullied initially, but then she quickly learned the ropes and after that “it was her way or the highway.” Talking to filmmakers like Ashok Amritraj also helped she said. “I couldn’t have done the film without the pitfalls they told me about,” she said. She acknowledged the hard work of her cast and crew both in the U.S. and in India.
Despite having the same subject as “Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi,” starring Kangana Ranaut, a commercial Bollywood film which was released earlier this year, Bhise is hopeful of the film’s success because of the interest and discussion it has created. “I would hope that the Indian audience looks at what kind of films we need to make to bring out our stories for a global audience,” she said.
Her film was completed before the Bollywood film but they had to take a break from screening it publically in 2018 because of Bhise’s ill health. She had to spend a few weeks at NYU Hospital on life support and a few months recovering. She says she hasn’t seen Ranaut’s film, but her friends who have seen it have told her that the two films are different. Her film focuses on the East India Company on a very large scale canvass; has five big western actors who have played crucial characters in the film and is also devoid of songs and dances, unlike the Bollywood film.