I trained for almost two years in Kalaripayattu: Devika Bhise on preparing for her lead role in ‘The Warrior Queen of Jhansi’

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Devika Bhise in ‘The Warrior Queen of Jhansi’. Photo: Nick Wall. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

NEW YORK – The talented New York-born Indian American actress Devika Bhise, 26, plays the lead role in the film ‘The Warrior Queen of Jhansi’ – a biopic on the Indian queen Rani Lakshmibai, directed by her mother, Swati Bhise, which opens in theaters in the United States on November 15, 2019.

Bhise was most recently seen starring alongside Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Dev Patel and Stephen Fry in ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, based on the life story of genius mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Bhise, who lives in New York City, recently wrapped the Independent film The Rest of Us, a film that tackles the complex issues of coming out, anxiety, cutting, and suicide, based on the 2015 documentary Better to Live.

Early on in her career, when she was a sophomore in high school, Bhise was featured in the romantic comedy Accidental Husband that was directed by Griffin Dunne. While in high school, she also directed a documentary film Hijras: The Third Gender, which won the award for Best Social Documentary at the New York Independent Film Festival in 2009.

Beyond her work in film, the actress was seen starring in two episodes of the CBS crime drama Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller. In addition, Bhise has appeared in numerous theatrical productions, including Partial Comfort’s off-Broadway play And Miles to Go, where she starred as the lead actress Tiffani Ribello.

Prior to this, Bhise starred in a production of The Partition by Ira Hauptman as a student at Johns Hopkins University. The play, which is based on Robert Kanigel’s book The Man Who Knew Infinity, contributed to her achieving the role as Ramanujan’s wife in the 2015 movie adaption.

Bhise attended The Brearley School, an all-girl private school in Manhattan, and then Johns Hopkins University, where she was awarded the Hodson Trust Scholarship and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship under the mentorship of the award- winning actor, John Astin. As a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Bhise also brought the nearly extinct UNESCO heritage art form, Kudiyattam, to the United States for the first time.

Ben Lamb and Devika Bhise in ‘The Warrior Queen of Jhansi’. Photo: Nick Wall. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

In ‘The Warrior Queen of Jhansi’, Bhise gives a compelling and commendable performance as the iconic queen Lakshmibai, who started a fearless uprising against the British Empire, in 1857. Bhise’s screen presence is remarkable and her dialect in Hindi and Marathi flawless.

Despite the film itself lacking intensity and vigor, with no extravagant visual props in battle scenes that one expects in such a period drama, and a script riddled with trite lines that handicaps it, the lovely Bhise shines through almost with a halo around her head, in scene after scene.

In an interview with Sujeet Rajan, Bhise talks about how she prepared for the demanding role, and what’s forthcoming in her young career. Excerpts from the interview:

From playing a subdued housewife in ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ to the role of an aggressive queen in ‘The Warrior Queen of Jhansi’. What was the transition and challenges like?

I’ve played many roles between The Man Who Knew Infinity and The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, whether it be a dominatrix with sleep paralysis, a Muslim college student bullied in the wake of 9/11, or a recluse daughter of a master coder. Each role presents different challenges and I like to approach every new project with a blank slate.

What made you decide to do a period drama based in India, with dialogues spoken in Hindi and Marathi as well?

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and with my upbringing in a Maharashtrian family and the ability to speak both languages it seemed like a role suited well to my preexisting skillset. Living in New York, I also wanted to pay homage to my heritage and educate western audiences about the rich history and culture India has to offer.

Rani Lakshmibai is one of the most iconic female figures in India. How did you prepare to play her character role?

I had to prepare in a number of ways for the role. The physical challenges led me to train for almost two years in Kalaripayattu, an ancient martial art from Kerala, under Gopakumarji (who also worked on Bajirao Mastani), Taekwondo and Tai chi from our Action Director, Glenn Marks (who also worked on Robin Hood), and on-screen combat both from Marcus Shakesheff in London (who also worked on Wonder Woman) and Sunil Rodrigues in Bombay (whose credits range from Slumdog Millionaire to Lion). I also spent years horseback riding in upstate New York, grooming and training the horses. For the Hindi and Marathi, I spent many hours with my grandmother doing accent and dialect training!

Devika Bhise in ‘The Warrior Queen of Jhansi’. Photo: Nick Wall. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

You are a quintessential New Yorker, an Indian American actress to boot. Yet you have a proclivity for India and Indian-origin related films. What are your dream roles?

Breaking into the industry in America has led me toward iconic Indian characters because the opportunities for Indian actors working their way up in Hollywood are much more limited. In the social climate of the last few years, finding the roles where I can celebrate my Indian heritage rather than hide it has allowed me to find juicy parts that I can sink my teeth into.

Do you plan to act in a Bollywood film, or is it too flimsy and fantastical for your taste?

I think Bollywood is ever evolving and if something came along that seemed interesting I would definitely be open to it!

Talk a bit about what life is like between roles in films and TV. How do you stay focused?

Working on my own long term scripts and passion projects keeps me motivated and creative between jobs.

Does the temptation to carve another, new path in life creep in sometimes?

Of course! But stamina and stick-to-it-iveness is, in my opinion, one of the most important traits in being an actor.

With a plethora of streaming services which is growing every year, opportunities in the entertainment industry has grown manifold. There is plenty of exposure for new talent and new themes, with international films and serials now becoming prominent on these streaming services. How do you intend to take advantage of this situation?

Due to global markets and streaming services, the world has become a much smaller place.

You are part of New York’s New Abolitionists, a group committed to end human trafficking. How do you campaign for this activism?

Creating awareness about trafficking within America is a large part of what we do—people assume this problem is relegated to parts of Asia and Eastern Europe but domestic trafficking is a very serious problem in America that we need to address both with awareness and by passing laws to help protect victims of abuse.

What are some other projects you are currently working on, or in the horizon?

I am currently writing a script that is a dark comedy about the Indian American experience, about a young Indian woman living in a predominantly affluent community on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

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