I don’t know who took the momentous decision that no big budget Hindi film is allowed to release without some sort of tiresome melodrama attached to it, but the makers of the Ashutosh Gowarikar-directed period extravaganza Jodha Akbar, starring Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan, are definitely not bucking tradition. For a movie that seems to have been forever in the making with little to no information leaking out, it’s amazing how the past month has been all about petty incidents elevated to grand tragedy.
“Ash and Hrithik Hate Each Other” (pretty people are such divas), “Nobody Wants the Music” (really? Nobody wants an AR Rahman composed, Javed Akhtar written soundtrack for an Ashutosh Gowarikar film? Quick, how do I start my own music company and gobble up the rights… oh, wait. The producers have done that already.), “Hrithik and Gowarikar Hate Each Other” (well, why not?), “Ash and Gowarikar Hate Each Other” (the more the merrier), “Everybody Hates Each Other” (let’s make it simple), “I Hate Myself” – okay, I’m getting carried away.
But now that the trailers are out and the movie finally has a release date (February 15, 2008 – truly a major accomplishment as anyone who’s been tracking this movie can tell you) it turns out that the most controversial aspect of the movie might be the story itself. According to the always cheery people at IBOS, we can look forward to the sight of Hindu right-wingers frothing at the mouth at the very idea of a Hindu-Muslim romance and the emperor saying things like, “This is our country” (see video above). But just look at the questions this story throws up:
How long must you reside in a country before you can claim to be “of” that country? Are a conqueror’s rights to the land he has won limited by the fact that he is an outsider? Are you an Indian only if you can trace your lineage back through the mists of time and find that your ancestors all hailed from an area east of the Indus and west of the mangroves, south of the Himalayas and north of Kanyakumari? Are you an Indian if you live in that specific geographic area? What kind of a relationship can an invader have with the people he has conquered?
Political strife being what it is in India, I can’t imagine Jodha Akbar trying to explore these ideas in any great depth (go ahead and surprise me, Gowarikar!). But the tale of Akbar and his Hindu Princess wife (who, incidentally, was never called Jodha but I’ll continue to call her by her movie name for the purposes of this post) is bound to bring up these questions at some level whether you address them directly or not.
For one thing, the Jodha-Akbar marriage was a political alliance that arguable changed the course of Indian history. It cemented the Mughal dynasty’s subsequent claim to a pan-Hindustan empire. The Mongol-Turk Mughals would marry again and again into Hindu Hindustani stock but it was Akbar’s alliance by marriage to the Rajputs and the eventual coronation of his son Jahangir, borne by that same Rajput princess, to the throne of Hindustan that forms the crux of the “Mughals were an Indian dynasty” argument unlike, say, the Slave Sultanate. The Sultans of Delhi, for all that they ruled Delhi for a considerable length of time (enough, at all events, for the story of Razia Sultan to become a part of the local imagination), are still seen as the heirs of Muhammad Ghori than an Indian dynasty.
In the modern context, these questions on identity are still being asked by and of Indians in dramatically different circumstances from the one faced by the Mughals. The Non Resident Indian, for example, is a being that is simultaneously envied and reviled (perhaps reviled because he is envied) and like all others who’ve gone before him into a diaspora, finds himself confronting questions about his identity at every turn.
At what point is ethnic identity overshadowed by the political – in other words, what does an NRI mean when he says he is an Indian if he holds the passport of another country? Is he a hyphenate? What about his children – are they hyphenates or must they choose: children of the land where he has made his home rather than the land that saw his birth? What about those kids who’re born in another country but have grown up in India – what do we call them?
And what about the other side of the equation – Indians in India. How much does race matter in India? If you’re of Chinese, Tibetan, Bangladeshi, Nepali, etc descent but were born in India, are you an Indian? The always awesome Tom Alter, for example, is of American (missionary even) descent but was born and raised in India – how Indian is he? Can we determine these questions collectively for other people or will there be as many answers as there are people?
Identity. We could plumb its depths for eternity and argue just as long. Just take a look at this post by Sujatha.
If you wanted to test the sensitivity of this subject (or the hypothesis that Indians in general have no sense of humor, whichever you prefer) all you needed to do was take a look at the reaction to Ram Guha’s “Idle Worship, or The Non Resident’s Role Play” published in Outlook. [Note: you might be required to sign in, but registration is free.] Apart from his devoted following of right-wing nutters who live to call him commie, people expressed everything from offended dignity to puzzlement – I got the impression that I was the only one who so much as cracked a smile. Outlook even published a riposte from Priyamvada Gopal: “In Praise of the Native Intellectual“, an article with which I found no real fault other than the fact that I believe it came in response to the wrong man. [Well, and the prose which is a subject for another post.]
The Rajputs, the group that IBOS identifies as potential trouble for Jodha Akbar in Rajasthan, have another, deeply fascinating tie in to the issue of identity – the Roma, about whom I’ve written before, are believed to be of Rajasthani origin.
It remains to be seen what Ashutosh Gowarikar has done with his script. Below is an example of things in store.