Less than two months after Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi recreated Lakshmibai’s heroic standoff against the East India Company, the warrior queen is set to take up arms against British forces once again, this time in an English-language film. Swati Bhise’s Swords And Sceptres will have its world premiere at the Vancouver International Women In Film Festival on Sunday.
The British production features Swati Bhise’s daughter, Indian-American actress Devika Bhise, as the nineteenth-century queen of Jhansi. Swords And Sceptres has been produced by Swati Bhise’s Cayenne Pepper Productions. The cast includes British actors Rupert Everett, Derek Jacobi and Jodhi May along with Milind Gunaji, Yatin Karyekar and Arif Zakaria from India.
The film was conceived several years ago and was spurred by Swati Bhise’s long-held fascination with the warrior queen, the dancer and filmmaker told Scroll.in. A precocious child, she was frequently compared with Lakshmibai, and her interest in the queen grew when she studied history in school and majored in it in college.
Bhise was intrigued by the queen’s dogged resistance to British attempts to seize her throne, but also wanted to examine her journey beyond the available information from textbooks and popular culture. “It always fascinated me that there is so much of this history that is told from the wrong point of view or from the British point of view, or in a bookish way,” Bhise said. She wanted to dig deeper into the queen’s personality, go beyond the “khoob ladi mardani” bit from the famous poem by Subhadrakumari Chauhan, and find out “who was the true Rani, without making her out to be some sort of mythical character”.
Swords And Sceptres comes close on the heels of Manikarnika, which was released on January 25, but Bhise does not consider that a disadvantage. “When I was working on this film, I kept hearing about various projects on Rani Lakshmibai,” she said. “And I would tell everyone, I hope there are 10 more people who do it, because she’s a woman I truly admire. Whether it’s Hollywood, Bollywood, it doesn’t matter. It’s about reaching as many people as you can. I’ve done a film which is in English. It has a different audience.”
Swati Bhise, an Indian classical dancer, choreographer and teacher, grew up in India and is now based in New York. In 2016, she founded Cayenne Pepper Productions, which co-produced The Man Who Knew Infinity. The British biographical film about Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan stars Dev Patel in the lead and Devika Bhise as his wife, Janaki.
“I used to say when we made the film on Ramanujan, I brought Ramanujan from Chennai to Los Angeles to the world,” Swati Bhise said. “The same way, I want Rani Lakshmibai not to be in Jhansi anymore, or just in India.”
Through Swords and Sceptres, the filmmaker wants women to “find the Rani Lakshmibai in each of us”.
“When women say, oh, men are doing this to us, I say, look at her, young in years, young in wisdom, she just did what she believed in,” Bhise observed. “These were facts that I wanted to bring to the world on a global platform so that non-Indians can understand and appreciate both the heritage and the role of what Indian women are. In America, they needed to make up Wonder Woman. We have our own Wonder Woman and we’ve kept her hidden. Here is a woman who, at 29, stood up against the might of the British Empire at the peak of their power. She was a widow with a child, she wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Every woman can take stock and look and the mirror and say, if she could do it, I could at least attempt to.”
The filmmaker wrote the script along with Devika Bhise and Olivia Emden. The references included Vishnubhat Godse’s Marathi-language travelogue Majha Pravas, which includes a first-hand account of the siege of Jhansi.
Swords and Sceptres was shot in 2017 in India and Morocco, with a small portion set in the United Kingfom. Recreating the aesthetic of the period was a challenge since Bhise wanted authenticity. That meant minimal make-up for the queen and silks in the Paithani, Kota and Chanderi weaves for the costumes, which Bhise designed along Vidhi Singhania.
A combination of sets and real locations were used. Filming took place in the forts and palaces of Jodhpur and Jaipur as well as Ouarzazate in Morocco, home to the Atlas Studios, where many Hollywood period productions have been filmed. Post-production was completed in 2018, and plans are afoot for an international theatrical release.
The project, Swati Bhise’s first as director, turned out to be a bigger challenge than she expected. “Everything in this project was uphill because nobody wants to invest money in the West in a movie about an Indian queen,” she said. “They would say it’s some story for India. But I wanted to tell her story badly enough. To get it out there, at any cost.”