As The Warrior Queen Of Jhansi is up for release next month, director Swati Bhise and lead actor Devika Bhise talk to Bhavi Gathani about their film, working with each other, the rich history and heritage of India, how the Hollywood and British film industries look at India as a country and more
Swatiji this is your first film as a director. Why did you choose this subject for your first film and how did it all come together?
Swati Bhise (SB): It is my first directorial film but I think I have been a director all my life. As a woman performing on stage, you are directing your musicians, you are directing other choreographers or the lighting or the sound and that is part of the training as an Indian classical dancer. You do your fundraising, you do your writing and you do everything. I have done that for so many years. Be it dance, drama or films, I never thought of them as different compartments. Directing for me was very clear. I wasn’t ever confused. For me, this step was very clear cut and simple.
The story of the Rani of Jhansi is universal. That’s why I didn’t have to decide what angle I was supposed to take of the story. I knew which actor I wanted as lead, I knew which story I wanted to tell. When Devika and I were co-writing the script, it was a story of not just the Rani. It was also about the social-economic factors that made her, the political situation and life in 1857.
I would often tell Devika that Wonder Woman has come out here (Hollywood) but we’ve got our own wonder woman. The Rani of Jhansi always fascinated me because she always was what all women should aspire to be. That is why I wanted to make a film about her, to share her with the world, a global story about a woman, who happens to be Indian. But she is every woman’s fear and every woman has all these issues in life that she had. They can use her as a guide on how to overcome problems because she was not born with a silver spoon. You can’t make any excuses that she had it easy, she had a husband, she had a son or a brother, this and that… She is an idea and not just a woman. That’s the reason I made this film.
Devika, you are a Hollywood actor. Was it challenging portraying the role of a warrior queen like Lakshmibai?
Devika Bhise (DB): There were a number of challenges. (Laughs) When we started on this, it was a massive hill to climb and I didn’t know how I was going portray this magnificent glorious queen and ground her in reality at the same time. Languages were the hardest challenge just because I had to switch between three languages. I really had to be prepared depending on the scene as to which language I was speaking and how I was going to be doing that. Luckily I had a lot of time to do that because pre-production was also taking time. For something like this, you really need to be thinking about it every day for months or even years to get that into your bones. On set, you are working 18 hours a day, you are in every single scene, you are not sleeping enough, and you don’t really have time to learn your lines at that point. So, the prep was very important for this. That took a lot of time. However, for me the horseback riding was the most fun part because I love animals. I love horses and I love riding. I also ended up having to do jumps and it was really fun. This film also taught me the importance of time and patience.
Swatiji, did you take any creative liberties making a film based on a real life character?
SB: I have to be honest with you here. I suffer from OCD. I am not able to take liberties. In fact, everyone kept saying to me, ‘You know, you don’t have to stick completely to the truth.’ And I said I would like to because all my life has been history. I have studied Indian history and British history in both school and college and even later. That is the only thing that I have been studying. What was hard was, knowing far too much about something and then wondering how to put it out in 104 minutes. The frustration for me is actually never being happy and satisfied enough for the number of elements I add to the story. Everyone said to me, ‘You are not making a documentary, stop going on and on with the history part’. But I wanted to share so much what an average person doesn’t know.
While doing the research, I asked a few people in North India where she was born and they would say Jhansi. They don’t even know that she is a Maharashtrian. So, most people do know who she is. But beyond the fact that she was from Jhansi and she was a warrior, they have no idea about other important details; they don’t know that she spoke Marathi or they don’t know that she ever wore a nine yard sari. There are a lot of things that we are losing. I just wanted every aspect of her brought in.
The Warrior Queen Of Jhansi has been screened at some of the film festivals. What sort of response did you get there?
DB: Very positive. In Vancouver Film Festival, we won the award for Best Social Empowered Film On Women.
SB: And it was our first public screening. I actually was quite shocked because everyone was sobbing in the audience. Then it was also showed at the Shanghai Film Festival and I believe everyone enjoyed it. In New York, we witnessed a wonderful reaction at the Asia Society. I was very scared that this is a hardcore New York audience who don’t even crack a smile for anything. But we both were very pleased with their response because that particular, very educated audience loved the film and gave us a standing ovation. I just hope everyone likes this film.
There was a time when filmmakers used to make films that were language and region-specific. But now we are seeing that language and other cultural barriers are blurring. What do you think is the reason for this change?
DB: I think we are in a new phase as far as making movies is concerned. We are in a globalised world where we have platforms like Instagram and Facebook where you can connect with the world. It is incredible and it is also the reason why people have started making movies like this. People are also very open to different dialects and different languages spoken just naturally throughout. Also, in Hollywood, there are a very few movies that are about India in general. I think this is a totally different kind of movie which is telling the rich history of India and talking about this iconic warrior who actually existed and no one in America knows about her.
SB: Or in London.
DB: Yes, or London. I think it will just widen the reach of knowing about India and Indian history and not just recognsing Indian films and India with just a film like Slumdog Millionaire that won the Oscar.
SB: See, I loved these movies… Slumdog Millionaire and Monsoon Wedding are all great movies. But living as an Indian in two countries, I always resented America looking at my country as a poor country. I have always been like a spitfire talking about it because everything that sells is about our poverty. Have you ever seen the great heritage of India? We are in general not good in doing any PR about ourselves, our country. We just don’t know how to package anything. So we have always packaged out is our poverty and slums and rape. I am not saying nothing exists but what about the greatness of India? What about our beautiful history and culture and heritage? Tell me the last time a Hollywood film or a British film on an Indian character has been made with an Indian woman as lead? We have so many powerful women who have brought a change in our country but we do not have them out in the global world. That is one of the regrets.
This is a story that Indians are familiar with and it has been told many times in different forms. You are also releasing this film in US where the audiences are completely different and do not know who Lakshmibai was. What do you expect from the audience when they watch this film?
SB: 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. They understand the style that it is made in which is, we have to keep it totally realistic. If I put a song in it then I don’t think anyone in America would really take it that seriously because it’s about the Rani.
DB: We also tried to make everything as natural as possible. I had applied the most basic makeup like lipstick and kajal. There was no eyeshadow or contour or anything.
Coming back to what I was saying, I am hoping that the Indian audience enjoys it from a historical perspective and not just their Rani. They should see what their rani was up against. She was up against the East India Company and not the British Raaj. The British Raaj came in because she destroyed the East India Company. So she did achieve something. Our trailer has around eight million outreach on social media and I am enjoying the comments especially even from the Indian audience who are saying, ‘Aree what did she do? She took a lot of people and fought and died and that’s the end.’ I am hoping they can see what she did too. This film discusses about what she achieved and how 90 years later too you need so many people along the way to help you get your ultimate freedom.