Manikarnika Larger Than Life, My Film Is More Realistic: Director Swati Bhise

Director Swati Bhise

Adding a poetic note to everything in life, that’s dancer, actor, director, producer, Swati Bhise for you. The trained Bharatnatyam dancer, who has been a part of the showbiz in India and America for decades now, is all set to make her directorial debut with The Warrior Queen of Jhansi. For her, it was the fact that she needed to bring the story of Rani Laxmibai on the global platform — a story that was real and not fictional, that motivated her to make the film. In this exclusive interview to SheThePeople.TV, Bhise opens up on the various challenges of making the film that is Indian in the subject but panders to a global audience and the many ways it differs from Manikarnika, the Kangana Ranaut film that was released in 2018 and talks about the same topic.

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

What made you make a movie on the life of Rani of Jhansi Laxmibai?

This is such an incredible subject to think that a young woman took it upon herself to embark on a journey that very few would have the courage to do. She was a mother, a daughter, sister and lived the other relations that women in those days and today have to undergo. Her single-minded path of following in a direction that she chose was incredible. It is very important that today’s generation and women globally understand that history is repeated time and again and that there have been women like Rani Laxmibai who in the 1850s accomplished so much without having any royal upbringing. She did not let anyone dictate her life. So it is very important that don’t just celebrate her life but use her life as an example to think that maybe I have the spirit of Rani in me.

Director Swati Bhise

Director, Writer & Producer Swati Bhise with Lead Actress Devika Bhise on the sets of The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

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What were some of the challenges you faced while making the movie?

One of the foremost challenges was to convince an investor to fund this film. They used to say that we understand it but since it is about an Indian warrior queen, we don’t see any relevance as to why should an American person in Texas watch this film? How will we get our return on the film? They would say even if we give you three to four million dollars, will you be able to make it in the said amount? And I would deny saying that I cannot make a period drama film with horses and elephants and whatnot in such less amount.

Another challenge was to make a period film on a queen that would resonate her life and yet be able to tell an investor that I didn’t just take their money to make my dream come true but to be fair and have a director and a producer’s interest aligned. To be able to bring down the budget and to put it only in places where it was relevant onscreen.

Then when you have low budgets and top actors in a film like I do in this film, one has to make sure to finish the film as quickly as possible because people don’t have dates. I finished the film in eight weeks. Many times, I lost out on good actors who had read the script and agreed to do my film because they got better offers. I remember one actor got Game of Thrones and another one I lost to a Marvel film. So every time, I signed up someone they would come to me asking if I could move it by three weeks because they had signed with Marvel. All these challenges made me lose out on a year in the middle because of the weather conditions since I shot to film in India, Morroco and England.

I also wanted to ensure that all the actors had a similar style of acting, which was a blend of India and the West. Despite all the challenges, we managed to come through and finish the film on the date we said that we would.

Director Swati Bhise

Director, Writer, Producer Swati Bhise with Dereck Jacobi and Jodhi May on the sets of The Warrior Queen of Jhansi – Pic Credit Nick Wall

 How did the conversation around making this film begin?

One always keeps looking for subjects that are educational, make a difference and which resonate with the changing times around us. I would often question everyone around me that why is there no film around India’s wonder woman? As when I started off there was no film made on her except The Tiger and The Flame in 1952 on Rani of Jhansi. Then there were a few serials and web series that came around but there was no film – not even in Bollywood. I was deeply confused about why are we creating fictional characters like Wonder Woman or Cat Woman when we had a real story of a single woman who made a difference and could inspire several generations. It is stories like hers that we need to have and that’s how the conversation began.

I needed her story to be told not from a patriotic or mythical or mystical manner but about a vulnerable young woman then and what she must have undergone and what it made her and how she left a legacy.

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How did the journey of your career in the film industry begin?

I am a trained Bharatnatyam dancer and when you are trained in any kind of dance form then all the other forms of art overlap. One may be called a dancer but everyone who has learnt it knows that one acts, choreographs, writes scripts etc. One learns the intense science of filmmaking which is just another aspect of visual art and I have seeped in it. So having directed dance-dramas in the past and choreographed broadway shows, hosted and scripted talk show “Spotlight on Culture” and directed performers. I also acted in a serial with Shekhar Kapur years ago and then in an American musical opera “Daddy Meets Durga.”

All these years of experience banking on my training as a dancer, I believe that all the arts come together when you are trained and studied an Indian classical style in depth where you understand that you cannot perform on stage without knowing all these other art forms. And if you know it then yes you can direct a film.

How difficult is it for women to make their career in the industry not as a heroine but in other professions?

It is very difficult as an industry for everyone as it is built so much on illusion and glamour and everyone dreams of it. Although, I did not as it is gruelling hard work and a lot of luck. I grew up with Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and even the greats like him struggled. One needs tremendous perseverance, grit and dogged focus to get over the finish line.

So, whatever career one has chosen in the film industry except acting, I’d say it is extremely difficult in any country.

Director Swati Bhise

Swati Bhise in action on the sets of The Warrior Queen of Jhansi – Pic Credit Nick Wall

You are a multi-tasker as you own a production house, you are a director, you also run a theatre festival among other things. What motivates you to delve into different things all at once?

I don’t think I delve into several things at the same time as I don’t consider them separate from one another. Spreading knowledge is very important to me and the art and heritage of India in its true form is almost sacrosanct to my being as I have personally benefited from these great diverse art forms. Sharing and giving them a gift to others excites me. It is a great way to have global tolerance and learning better than any politics. Through a production house, I can look at the stories that should be told. With a theatre festival, I can bring in art forms like Koodiyattam which has never been seen before in America and take Kunqu Opera to India. It is exciting to open up the worlds of people to things that increased my own knowledge from different parts that I happened to be.

I gleaned that our film is a story about East India Company on a very large scale canvass which I don’t think is the focus of the Bollywood film. I also have five big western actors who have played crucial characters which I don’t think are parts in Manikarnika so that itself is a different approach. I believe Manikarnika also have several lovely songs and dances which we don’t have too.

Have you watched Manikarnika? How is your film going to be different than that?

No, I haven’t had the time to watch it ever since it came out since we got busy promoting our own film as we finished shooting in December 2017 when Manikarnika had not yet finished. But we took a break from screening it publically in 2018 as I was on life support at NYU hospital. So my crew waited for me to get well and distribute it internationally. By that time I had not heard even of the project.

But I do have friends who have seen it and from what they shared with me of their review of Manikarnika, I gleaned that our film is a story about East India Company on a very large scale canvass which I don’t think is the focus of the Bollywood film. I also have five big western actors who have played crucial characters which I don’t think are parts in Manikarnika so that itself is a different approach. I believe Manikarnika also have several lovely songs and dances which we don’t have too.

We got the famous Seamus Deasy as our DOP who highlighted the epic quality and the more natural, realistic style of telling the film rather than the larger than life figure that she was. It delves more into showing the blood and the dirt and no glamour factor.