When a film is a labour of love, a passionate filmmaker gets into the soul and saree of her character. That’s what director Swati Bhise, who recently wrapped principal photography of ‘Swords and Sceptres’ – the most definitive biopic on the Rani of Jhansi, had to do to prepare for this historical magnum opus. The project demanded meticulous and multi-lingual research on the life of Rani Lakshmibai to ensure complete authenticity of her character and the cultural milieu of the subject.
The character of the Rani had more than 50 made-to-order special design nauvari (the traditional nine-yard Maharashtrian) saris. Swati designed and custom-made the costumes for the Rani and the character of Nana Saheb (played by Deepal Doshi) with her friend Vidhi Singhania. They researched the patterns prevalent in the era and wove each costume in a process that took over a year. Vidhi also created custom shoes to match the outfits. This was supplemented by Riyaz Ali Merchant who also created costumes and riding boots for the principal and secondary cast, including the characters of Jhalkaribai (Auroshika Dey), Mandar (Siyaa Patil), Sundar (Mangal Sanap), Kashi Kunbin (Pallavi Patil) and Motibai (Naina Sareen). Opinions were sought from Vikram Gaekwad, India’s leading make-up artist who also designed the Khopa, and Marathi and Sanskrit experts like Madhave Apte, the former Indian test cricketer, Girish Murudkar for the exact style and design of turbans, and Usha Gupte who read and translated many of the Sanskrit and Marathi texts, the primary one being Maza Pravas by Vishnu Godse (a first hand eyewitness to events) in 1890.
Before the process began, there was a search for the correct fabrics (Chanderi, Paithani, Kota) and deciding the precise drape and fall of those fabrics, so as to create the appropriate silhouette that would also prove comfortable for the actress during the action scenes. The result has been a stunning array of resplendent ready-to-wear nine-yard saris literally fit for royalty.
The next stop was Jewellery. Swati has used her own family heirlooms to supplement the traditional royal jewellery required to dress the Rani. The Shindeshahi todas, Maharastrian nath (nose ring) and traditional diamond kudis (earrings) were procured from Swati’s own collection while the rest were made to order. Pune jewelers P. N. Gadgil advised and curated the period jewelry of Maharastra, and Vinay Gupta of Shri Hari Diagems created the uncut diamond pieces. Military historians and chroniclers of the East India company advised Swati on uniforms worn by East India Company officers and the Board Room artwork (for which a copy was commissioned) in London.
Rani Lakshmibai, the historic queen of Jhansi, invokes a well-deserved reverence amongst us – she was the one who fiercely led her army against the British East India Company in the ill-reputed mutiny of 1857, with her child strapped to her back. Her history is redolent of grace and courage in the face of impending death – a truly empowered woman fighting against all odds, an icon of inspiration for all modern women. For Swati, it is not enough to just tell the story. She wants to tell this story right. “If one has to invoke the persona of a legend that has inspired generations of women, it is important to portray her spirit and her courage in the right manner. She did not wait for a man to come to the rescue, she took control of a situation and became a statesman, general and warrior. This is not just about the glamour of the period, it’s also about grit of an extraordinary woman. With Swords and Sceptres, you will get to see the real Rani of Jhansi”.
Swords and Sceptres is co-written, produced and directed by Swati Bhise with Charles Salmon as co-producer. It stars Devika Bhise (who also co-wrote) and whose credits include The Man Who Knew Infinity, Impossible Monsters, The Accidental Husband. British actors Derek Jacobi (Gladiator, Murder On Orient Express, I Claudius), Rupert Everett (The Importance of Being Earnest, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Dunston Checks In), Nathaniel Parker (Stardust and The Body Guard) and Ben Lamb (Divergent and Now You See Me 2). Jodhi May (Defiance, Let Me Go) plays Queen Victoria. Completing the lineup are prestigious Indian actors including Nagesh Bhonsle (Sarkar, 24: India), Yatin Karyekar (Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., Iqbal), Milind Gunaji (Devdas, Virasat), Arif Zakaria (My Name Is Khan, Lootera) and Ajinkya Deo (Avgat, Aan: Men At Work). The shooting successfully wrapped in December and the film is currently in post production in London.