I love historicals. Love them. Whether in print or on film, there is nothing I love more than a good period drama. And when the story revolves around royalty, it really makes me happy because there is something particularly fucked up about people who handle huge amounts of power. I understand it can’t have been pleasant to be a courtier in the times of Henry VIII or a peasant during the reign of Louis XVI much less Vlad the Impaler, but my imaginary life is so much richer because they once existed.
Which is why I was really excited about Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Jodhaa Akbar.
Historicals aren’t really an Indian genre, which is weird because as a nation we’re completely hung up on what took place thousands of years ago. Chance met strangers will exhaustively debate the characters and compulsions of long dead men and women with all the vim and vigor of people gossiping about their family members. But when the time comes to write a book or make a movie, biopics and dramas featuring historical figures are comparatively rare on the ground. And when they do get made, they’re either based on the Raj / Independence era or else slip into fantasy (there’re some crazy great ‘historicals’ out there like Yahudi and Amrapali that I’d recommend to anybody). Books like Umrao Jaan Ada and Aag Ka Dariya or movies like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose only come along once in a while.
And I understand the reluctance. As both Jaishree Mishra’s Rani and Gowarikar’s Jodhaa Akbar have amply demonstrated in the past week, there’s nothing like a historical figure to bring out the hysterics in India and taking any sort of creative liberty with them is considered heresy. Fine doings for a country that gave birth to a religion (Hinduism) that didn’t hesitate to spin some pretty remarkable tales about one of its central divinities (Vishnu). Can you imagine the uproar that would arise today if somebody wrote a novel about Shiva and Vishnu giving birth to a child that they then give up for adoption? And yet, that’s the story of Ayappa, the boy God whose shrine in Kerala attracts hundreds upon thousands of devotees each year.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like, to painstakingly craft a piece of art to which you have dedicated years of your life and then have a rampaging mob decide whether or not you have the right to show it somewhere. Not whether it has any artistic merit, mind you, but whether you had the right to create it in the first place.
And then they complain that Indian movies don’t win international awards. Of course, they don’t win international awards – everyone is too busy playing it safe so their movie can get released! When a movie like Om Shanti Om, the ultimate in silly hi-jinks, could be accused of hurting Indian sentiments, am I surprised that Jodhaa Akbar is in the eye of a storm? No.
Anyway, after all the hoopla, I was doubly curious to see what the fuss was all about.
Following the precedent established by Satyajit Ray that Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone is the voice of history, we start the movie with the nickel and dime tour of Indian history. In The Story So Far, we learn that in the sixteenth century, the Mughals are the latest in a long line of invaders. With Nasiruddin Humayun’s untimely death, a largely meaningless crown passes to his young son, a somewhat squeamish and girly-looking Jalaluddin Mohammad (no, seriously, when I first saw the kid in his helmet in the promos, for a brief second I thought it was Kareena Kapoor. Make of that what you will). His father’s general, Bairam Khan (Yuri), takes it upon himself to serve his young liege lord’s cause and by the time Jalal reaches glorious manhood in the well-muscled person of Hrithik Roshan, he has managed to cobble together an empire for him to rule.
A newly masterful Jalal begins to take over the reins of control by sending the ambitious Bairam Khan off on a pilgrimage to Mecca (a polite way of saying “exile” as such a trip in the sixteenth century would take years and was fraught with danger) and expanding his empire. But the Rajputs, Hindu warriors of the northwest, refuse to bend knee. Jalal manages to subdue some of them but there are still too many holding out. This isn’t a state of affairs that a man who wishes to call himself Emperor of all Hindustan can allow.
Enter Raja Bharmal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) of the Rajput state of Amer. Circumstances have made it necessary for him to seek Imperial protection and he indicates that he is ready to swear allegiance to the Mughal crown – if the Emperor would take his daughter Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai) to wife.
Once the stars have aligned to put Jodhaa and Jalal in close proximity to each other – a process that roughly takes an hour – Jodhaa Akbar gladly puts its political pretensions aside and turns into a charming love story.
Which, you know, I can’t argue with. I wanted them to have a love story because let’s face it – two pretty people in lovely clothes. Wouldn’t you want them to make out a little? Of course, the making out doesn’t happen for ever and ever but I thought it was pretty sweet when it did.
And the sword fights were cool. The war scenes kind of disappointed me because I’ve been a big fan of war stories since I was kid and while nobody is likely to hire me as a general any time soon, I do know that there is a certain art to the process, which was sadly missing here. The Mughals and the Rajputs seem to have had exactly one plan of attack – rush towards each other and hack away. Which is nonsense because I know Humayun, at least, was capable of strategy and his faithful commander Bairam Khan must have picked up a trick or two under his tutelage unless he was brick stupid. Unfortunately, the one time Bairam Khan comes up with a plan early on in the movie, it made me laugh. I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet so all I’ll say is watch out for the Hemu scene.
And yes, there are historical inaccuracies – you’ve already heard about the “Jodhaa was Akbar’s daughter in law” issue, but there are a couple of other things missing / glossed over in the movie that could grate if you go in expecting a Discovery Channel-type dramatized documentary. For one thing, ‘Jodhaa’ wasn’t Akbar’s first or only wife: he had a bunch of other wives and the harem presumably came well-equipped with concubines.
But what I missed most of all, especially after being allowed a glimpse of it once or twice, was the psychopathic side of being Emperor of all Hindustan. However nice Akbar might have been (and he must have been to get such a good rep even after he pissed almost everybody off at his court), he was the product of an extremely violent age. There is a reason why the Mughals were such sybarites – you try spending your whole life fighting wars and keeping an eye open for would-be assassins, perhaps sent by a member of your own family, and I’m sure you’d grab the chance of living life to the utmost too.
This goes double for Akbar, who lost his father at a very young age and then grew up on various battlefields watching men die for his honor. You can’t tell me that wouldn’t leave a psychological impact on a child. He was a man without a home, surrounded by people who may or may not have cared for him but also saw him as their best chance at grabbing power. There is just so much to explore here that never gets off the ground in the movie.
Instead you make do with the little scenes here and there from Jodhaa’s perspective wherein she is trying to make sense of this new world she has entered. There are little niceties of culture, of political life and religion that add up nicely. Here too, I can’t help but wish for what might have been – the cutthroat world of the zenana was often more interesting than the court itself but as we maintain the polite fiction that Jodhaa was the one and only, the possibilities for a little harem intrigue automatically die down.
The only person who captures that dangerous mix of clear purpose and fanaticism without descending into a caricature is… Ila Arun. In what is surely the performance of a lifetime, she is Maham Anga, a woman who burns equally with an ambition forbidden to women of her time and the fiercely possessive love she feels for Jalal, the child of her bosom if not her body.
I give full credit to the lead pair who managed to stay afloat in their scenes with her. Hrithik Roshan gives his overworked facial muscles the day off to tap deep into that well of talent that one glimpsed in movies like Lakshya, and gives his career best performance here. Aishwarya Rai proves once again that she is an actress who will always reward the director who refuses to be overawed by her physical perfection and does more with this one role than she has with anything in years.
Of the rest, Punam Sinha (a.k.a. Mrs. Shatrughan Sinha) is pretty and gracious, the ever talented Suhasini Mulay gets one killer bit of dialogue (“Death is surely better than suffering insult,” she tells her daughter, pressing a vial of poison into her palm) to make up for all those scenes where she smiles vacantly at nothing in particular, Sonu Sood is clearly outclassed in the pretty department but can definitely act, and everybody else was a caricature. Also Raza Murad! Yay for Raza Murad! He’s really a plot device but who cares? He’s Raza Murad!
Oh, and the music? Works tons better with the visuals, so it’s double the awesomeness. I wouldn’t take any kid under six to this movie coz there’s no way in hell a little child would sit still through 3.20 hours of a period drama but other than that, this is what I call fun for the family.