The Warrior Queen of Jhansi…

The Warrior Queen of Jhansi…

Photo credit: Shannon Finney

A crowd of about 250 of Washington’s social set and cinephiles gathered at the gracefully sweeping US Institute of Peace for the DC premiere of The Warrior Queen of Jhansi. The film tells the true story of the legendary Rani of Jhansi, a feminist icon in India and a fearless freedom fighter. In 1857 India this 24-year old General led her people into battle against the British Empire earning the reputation as the Joan of Arc of the East. 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.

Following the screening, the mother-daughter duo of Swati and Devika Bhise – director and lead actress of the film respectively (in addition to sharing the screen-writing credit), sat down with author and journalist Jay Newton-Small for a question and answer session. In hearing them discuss their motivation in making the film, it became clear what a remarkable character the Rani was, as educated as she was fearless. “In 1857, she stood up against men in a male-dominated world and was respected,” said Swati. “She must’ve known it was suicidal to take on the whole British army and the Empire, but she did what she had to do for her people, her beliefs and her principles. She lit the torch that gave India its freedom and democracy 90 years later.”

Jay Newton-Small

Unlike most films, Swati did not have to worry about finding her star. Never mind that Devika had joined her on her journey of writing the script, she was perfect for playing the Rani in every way, from her restrained style of acting that bridges the gap between the East and the West, and her years of athletic experience. Still, mother and daughter teased each other during preproduction. “I’d say, ‘If you negotiate with me too much, I’m going to tell your agent and find someone else,’” smiled Swati. Devika immediately jabbed back, “You don’t have many girls in India who can ride horses, sword fight and act, so I think I do in fact have a good negotiating position!”

Swati told the attentive crowd of how the production was almost derailed in a very serious way in the final week when she became gravely ill and had to be flown back to America where she recuperated in the hospital for two months. “I got swine flu out of India. It mutated. I got pneumonia, and Morocco was brutal because of the bitter cold. Everyone got sick, but I happened to just get sicker.” But, seemingly drawing inspiration from the heroine whose story she was determined to tell, Swati struggled, fought back and eventually succeeded, despite the odds stacked against her, in bringing this epic to the silver screen.

Swati Bhise

After the Q&A, Swati took a moment to highlight a modern-day Woman Warrior in the audience and presented Bonnie Carroll, president and cofounder of TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), with the Spirit of the Rani Award. Bonnie established her organization following the 1992 death of her husband in an Army C-12 plane crash. They provide compassionate care, casework assistance, and critical emotional support for all those impacted by the death of a military loved one. “It’s amazing the parallels that track between the story of the Rani and the work we are doing at TAPS right now. It’s powerful and I am honored to be recognized.”

Swati Bhise and Bonnie Carroll

After the theater presentation, the crowd – which included Susan Hurley Bennett, Christina Sevilla, Richard Scully, Carolyn Peachey, the D.C. Film Institutes’ John Hanshaw, Michael Cantor and Jenny Springer, Meghan Johnson, Kimball Stroud, the World Bank’s Melissa Torres, actor Ajinkya Deo, Liz Sizer, Nicole Backus, and Nisha Biswal of the U.S.-India Business Council – enjoyed a reception catered by Susan Gage in the Peace Institutes’ Leland Atrium.

Ultimately, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi is a story of female empowerment, and a passionate tribute to an incredible and unique woman. “I’m not trying to make a mythical tale,” said Swati. “I wanted to tell the true story of a determined young woman who could have been of any color or creed. I’ve tried to tell her story as a woman ahead of her time—who was also a mother, wife, queen, and friend—but who finally went down in the annals of history as a freedom fighter who believed in the unyielding feminine force.”