Saturday, February 16, 2008

Jodhaa Akbar 

Historical epics may have fallen out of favour in the last few decades—who could outdo Mughal-e-Azam?-- but they used to be a staple of our early cinema, so the genre has its own indigenous roots; which is why there is no reason to compare Jodhaa Akbar with Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics, but does it measure to the standards set by our own cinema?

Yes, as far as grandeur and language is concerned, not so much when it come to sheer drama and poetry that makes film buffs still admire the work of Sohrab Modi—the underrated king of the Costume Drama-- early Shantaram and, of course, K Asif, whose excellence ironically sounded the death knell for the historical.

Ashutosh Gowariker’s film is a throw back to that era of costume spectacles, and he had the modern conveniences of colour and computer technology. It takes courage to make a film like that at a time when attention spans are limited, and the purity of the Urdu and Hindi have all but been abandoned for ‘Hinglish’ and ‘Bambaiya’ dialogue and lyrics.

It is not hard to see why Gowariker is tempted by the idea of making an epic—what else could he do to surpass the magnitude of Lagaan, except costume drama or sci-fi? That’s why it is perhaps disappointing that Gowariker’s vision does not match his scale.

It is his prerogative to meld an entirely fictional love story with a semi-historical account of Akbar as a young man, but it is an uneasy mix. While the love story between the emperor (Hrithik Roshan) and the Rajput princess Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai) has moments of incandescence, the interludes of Akbar dealing with court intrigues and family conspiracies are tedious. The CGI-assisted battle scenes are not just unimpressive but unnecessary.

You wish Gowariker had reined in his Demille-ian ambitions and made a film about people belonging to two different cultures coming to understand and love each other, overcoming the odds. Like in the recent film on Marie Antoinette, the Hindu Jodhaa would have faced hostility in a Mughal household. Though it is highly unlikely that a Rajput girl brought up in a system as feudal and oppressive as that of the Mughals would have the courage to first put forth conditions before marrying Akbar and then refuse to let him touch her. The fact that Akbar was married several time and to other Rajput women, and that Jodhaa finds no great mention in history except as the mother of Prince Salim (of Anarkali fame), shows that Gowariker’s version of what happened between Akbar and her is at the level of fairy tale.

Which by itself is not at all bothersome, no matter what the bigots say— what is lacking in the film are real drama and a gripping narrative. All the scenes that remain in memory are ‘items’—Akbar’s fight with a wild elephant, a bare-bodied Akbar flexing his muscles and smirking at the wide-eyed Jodhaa, the sword-fight between the two— there is not one memorable dramatic confrontation.

For all his greatness, Akbar is seen as a bit clueless. He has no idea, for instance, that under his rule Hindu pilgrims have to pay tax. When he abolishes it, the people break into a splendidly choreographed dance, when just a while earlier they were complaining of the high price of food and repression by “outsiders”. When Akbar’s wet nurse (Ila Arun) tries to create a misunderstanding between him and Jodhaa, it is his mother (Poonam Sinha) who quite easily ferrets out the facts. All this and a lot more comes in the way of turning Jodhaa Akbar into a masterpiece, not to mention that the so-called romance and marriage had no lasting impact on posterity, it just brokered a fragile peace between the Rajputs and the Mughals at the time. So only a flawless film could have crossed all these hurdles and interested today’s audience, that is not the least attracted to the past.

That said, Jodhaa Akbar is visually rich (a bit too much, actually), beautifully shot (Kiran Deohans), and you cannot imagine any other actors except Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai playing these parts. Hrithik wears his Dhoom 2 hair cut, but otherwise has the regal bearing of a king. She looks every inch a princess. The rest of the cast, unfortunately, look like they have strolled out of one of those costume dramas on TV, and act as if they were on stage.

See the film by all means, just don’t go in expecting greatness.


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