Showbiz / The Warrior Queen Of Jhansi: Director Swati Bhise & Her Fight To Bring This Queen To The Screen

The Warrior Queen Of Jhansi: Director Swati Bhise & Her Fight To Bring This Queen To The Screen

Showbiz Nov 14, 2019

During my chat with Swati Bhise the director, producer and co-writer of The Warrior Queen of Jhansi (set to hit theatres on Friday November 15, 2019) shared her thoughts on telling a story of a real Wonder Woman, her casting wish list and how she managed to channel her inner Jhansi Ki Rani when her life depended on it.

I grew up listening to stories about Rani Lakshmibhai also famously known as Jhansi Ki Rani from my dad and grandfather, as our our ancestral home still resides in Jhansi. So, when this film and the opportunity to interview first-time director, producer and writer Swati Bhise about her directorial debut with her film The Warrior Queen of Jhansi I didn’t want to give it to anyone else.

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi: Director, producer and co-wrtier Swati Bhise shooting on location. Photo Credit: Nick Wall/Roadside Attractions.

The film hitting theatres on Friday November 15, 2019 is a sweeping biopic starring the film’s co-writer Devika Bhise (Swati’s daughter who also starred in The Man Who Knew Infinity). It tells the remarkable true story of a fearless freedom fighter from Jhansi Utter Pradesh. It was her —Jhansi Ki Rani — a 24-year-old General who In 1857 India, led her people into battle against the British Empire earning the reputation as the Joan of Arc of the East.

Telling the women’s perspective has been an constant throughout Bhise’s impressive and globally renowned dance and academic career which has spanned across continents and time zones from Maharashtra to New York State. Combine that with her formal academic background in Indian, Chinese and British history it is through that specific lens that she wanted to tell a story of a one person. Jhansi Ki Rani.

But why her? “I had to tell her story. She died at 29 and that 162 years later her name is still alive without Twitter, social media and marketing.” Bhise remarked, “and look at what she’s achieved. She was a mother she was not born wealthy. She got married. Turned into a widow. And look at the challenges. She did what she had to do.”

With the current cinematic landscape overflowing with imaginary superheroes it dawned on Bhise what she needed to do. “I wanted to share her story to the western world that keeps creating wonder women that don’t exist. I wanted share a real wonder woman.”

The Buzz

Once the script was ready it quickly made its round among the British casting crowd. The feedback was immediate and the buzz was real. It landed in the hands of noted British casting director John Hubbard (Lord of the Rings trilogy) who told Bhise that her script was catching the attention of some of the more notable members of the British acting community, which included some from Game of Thrones (I mean, if that doesn’t tell you that your script is hot, I don’t know what will). Not to mention from those “across the pond”.

She already knew who she wanted to cast: Rupert Everett (My Best Friend’s Wedding, An Ideal Husband, Black Mirror), Nathaniel Parker (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) and veteran thespian Derek Jacobi (The King’s Speech). It seemed that confidence was limited to Bhise’s sphere as even her daughter was concerned about the film not landing top-tier talent.

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi. Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions

 

But fast forward and her mom scored a hat trick.

Everett, Parker and Jacobi were on board.

Bhise then spent a year in pre-production mode “a year longer than I had planned” as she wanted to ensure that no stone was left unturned with respect to research and storyboarding. Tales of past productions going off the rails with bloated budgets and missed deadlines haunted her. So with this being her first ever production she didn’t want to take any chances.

While she was diligently storyboarding her film, her daughter — also a noted classically trained dancer headed to upstate New York to start training with horses. This was a natural fit as Devika has been riding horses and doing martial arts since she was ten and with her stamina (some of her classical dance performances would run for two hours), Bhise knew that her co-writer daughter was the perfect fit in all fronts. Devika continued her training with stuntmen Marcus Shakesheff and Glenn Marks who both worked on the 2017 version of Wonder Woman. And it shows. Devika’s natural riding skills was evident and regal. No stunt person required.

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi: Devika Bhise as Rani Lakshmibai aka Jhansi Ki Rani. Photo Credit: Nick Wall/Roadside Attractions

 

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi: Devika Bhise as Rani Lakshmibai aka Jhansi Ki Rani. Photo Credit: Nick Wall/Roadside Attractions

Her masterful sword fighting skills was due to training in India in the ancient martial art of Kalaripayattu with one of India’s leading masters, Gopakumar Gurukkal, who also had trained Jackie Chan. She then moved on to train with sword-master Mihai Iliescu, who is known for his work in Dunkirk and War Dogs. It was with the long flexible sword. That fight scene itself is worth the price of admission.  

Then it came the day to crack the coconut on the first day of her shooting in October. Remarkable even for her to think that this day would come. But it was happening and there was no turning back now. The 8-week shooting schedule has begun. “The ship has sailed,” Bhise recalled her first thoughts on that day. “Tsunami or no tsunami we’ll reach the other side on December 11”.

Shot on location in India (Jodhpur and Jaipur), England and Morocco, Devika played the lead in the most understated and impactful way. And of course, seeing Rupert Everett back on the big screen was certainly a treat.

 

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi: Devika Bhise as Jhansi Ki Rani. Photo Credit: Nick Wall/Roadside Attractions

The Undeniable Strength of Rani

At the end of my chat with Bhise, she revealed a remarkable story which couldn’t go untold.

Near the end of the film’s shoot Bhise became gravely ill with H1N1 and pneumonia. During the final day of shooting she spent her day shooting from inside an oxygen tank while Devika took the director’s chair and relayed all the info to the team. The date was December 10th. Once the film wrapped a day later, she was immediately airlifted from Morocco to NYU hospital where she was placed on life support until December 23, 2017.

Bhise then continued her editing in the ICU and the did rehab before heading home (with oxygen tank in tow) at the end of January 2018. Her doctors were wary about her recovery but she channeled the strength of Rani and told her doctors she had a film that she needed to finish. Still not able to travel for another 12 months, she continued with her editing and post-production work.

She’s currently now two years in recovery with her lungs functioning at 70 percent. The spirit of Jhansi Ki Rani not only set the screen on fire but it lit a fire in Bhise. It was evident that it was Rani’s fighting spirit that Bhise channeled.

“The warrior isn’t just with a sword, but a warrior from within.” Bhise explained one of her key dialogues that she wrote for Rani. “She’s just not a woman, she’s an idea. You can be larger and not be compartmentalized.”

“We have to make the change in ourselves and not keep looking for someone else to do it.”

Main Image Photo Credit: Nick Wall/Roadside Attractions 

Hina P. Ansari

Hina P. Ansari

Author

Hina P. Ansari is a graduate from The University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario). Since then she has carved a successful career in Canada's national fashion-publishing world as the Entertainment/Photo Editor at FLARE Magazine, Canada's national fashion magazine. She was the first South Asian in...

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