Move over “Xena, Warrior Princess,” because the “Warrior Queen of Jhansi” is the latest “Wonder Woman” to inspire a new generation of girls and women.
A feature film about the Indian folk hero is coming to theaters in South Florida this weekend and writer/director Swati Bhise hopes it will empower women, not only in her native India, but also around the globe.
“Growing up in India, I was familiar with this character,” she explained. “As a little girl, you’re often asked who do think you are. If you’re defiant, and I was one of them, I would say ‘Rani’.”
“The Warrior Queen of Jhansi,” tells the true story of the legendary Rani (“Queen”) of Jhansi, an early feminist icon and fearless freedom fighter. In 1857, the 24-year-old general led her people into battle against the British Empire, earning the reputation as the “Joan of Arc of the East,” according to Bhise.
Her 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.
“Most people look at this film and think it must be a Bollywood film…full of music and dance,” Bhise admitted, noting the challenges for a new filmmaker—and especially a “brown” woman—to break into the industry. “I will tell people who are filmmakers, don’t be scared and just do it if you really believe in it. It’s very difficult and people will come along when they realize you’re crazy enough to do it.”
The subject was natural for Bhise, who has a love for and background in history. She embarked on the initial research more than five years ago. And, because she lacked studio backing, she was involved in virtually every aspect of the production to follow.
“I’m glad I was forced to do it myself. I knew I could trust my own eyes. I love history and I like heritage and my background is in the heritage arts, so I spent time in museums. I didn’t want to just go into ‘yesterday’s time.’ I wanted the fabrics, music, backgrounds to be from the period, and actors and musicians to allow me the freedom as director to do what was right for the project,” she said.
So far in limited release, the film has received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. Bhise took home an award for best socially empowering film from the Vancouver film festival in Canada and accepted a standing ovation from standing-room-only audiences at the Asian Society in New York City.
“The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” will open in more than 300 theaters across the country this weekend and debut in India later this month. That will be the real test, the young director said, as audiences there are treated to her interpretation of such a well-known story.
Bhise isn’t daunted, however, always reminded of the role model Rani has served for generations before and, most importantly, generations to come.
“The Warrior Queen of Jahnsi,” written and directed by Swati Bhise, opens in theaters nationwide on Nov. 15. Check local listings for theaters and show times.