She was much more than a wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Avadh who was defeated by the British and then banished to Bengal in May 1856. After the poet-nawab was deposed, Begum Hazrat Mahal took charge with impressive valour. Like Rani Laxmibai, she was one of the few women who challenged the British during the revolt of 1857.
After the recapture of Lucknow by rebel forces led by the Begum and her allies, she crowned her 11-year-old son as the ruler of Avadh. The Begum ruled for ten months as regent and it was under her leadership that the British were confined to the Lucknow Residency, events that became famous as the Siege of Lucknow. But the rebel forces were eventually defeated and the Begum took political asylum in Nepal, rejecting a life of comfort and privilege offered by the British. She died on 7 April 1879 in Kathmandu.
A documentary by filmmaker Mohi-ud-Din Mirza, Begum Hazrat Mahal: The Last Queen of Avadh, which will be screened in Delhi for the first time this Sunday, celebrates the legendary journey of one of the unsung heroines of the first war of independence. We speak to the director of the short film:
How did you get interested in a topic like Begum Hazrat Mahal?
This character came to the front during my research in India House Library in London for a film on Madame Bhikhaji Cama. There were many cross references about Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and hence Begum Hazrat Mahal. She was regarded as a formidable leader.
Who was Begum Hazrat Mahal and what makes her an important historical figure ?
Begum Hazrat Mahal was an intuitive politician. She was praised for her military and administrative ability. She personally led the famous Siege of Lucknow Residency. This Queen fought the British tyrants of the East India Company and later, Queen Victoria herself. She would have been successful had the British usurpers not purchased help from the Nepal king.
She led a ‘peasants in uniform’ military rebellion in Avadh. In no time it turned into a general uprising of the people. She established social equality between people of all castes and religions. Her militant activities against the English were not only to secure freedom for Avadh but freedom for India. Sir Henry Lawrence (the chief commissioner of Avadh) conceded defeat in a decisive Battle at Chinhat fought on June 30, 1857.
Any interesting story that you discovered while making your film?
I found that all across Avadh the unity and integrity in society is intact. I saw the insignia of Avadh kings being held in great reverence by people everywhere, especially by those of the river Ghagra area.
Recently, several films have been made on historical figures. Do you think there is an increased interest in Indian history today? Do you intend to expand the documentary into a longer format?
Unusual, uncompromising characters have always inspired screen authors. The challenges lie in selecting those who enthral the audience. My research is on and I have an undying desire to make a full-length film on Begum Hazrat Mahal.
Begum Hazrat Mahal: The Last Queen of Avadh
When: 7pm, August 14
Where: India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road