Glitz and taste

Print edition : April 25, 2008

Ashutosh Gowarikar showing the media books he used to research the movie, in Mumbai.-PAL PILLAI/AFP

Jodhaa Akbar strives to showcase magnanimity and tolerance in the midst of political expediency and racial and religious divides.

DIRECTOR Ashutosh Gowarikar announces clearly that his Jodhaa Akbar interprets the love story of the great Mughal emperor and his Rajput queen with more imagination than history. His interpretation presents Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar (1542-1605) as the proponent of tolerance religious, cultural and linguistic. It underscores the secular values that guided his administration. It shows the conqueror as generous towards defeated enemies, especially those of a different faith. It does more. It depicts the mighty emperor as a man who overcame male chauvinism in his approach to love and marriage. Each of these ideas is enough to make hackles rise in fundamentalist circuits. Neither new nor surprising. History tells us that Akbar faced charges of apostasy in his own lifetime.

Jodhaa Akbar is as much a multi-crore, superstars-lit masala film as were Gowarikars earlier Lagaan and Swades. But the glitz has not been at the cost of taste and good sense. Nor have the doses of melodrama drowned genuine emotion. Gowarikar seeks to establish idealism in the dazzling opulence of Mughal palaces and Rajasthan courts and show that the camel can go through the eye of the needle. He makes the young Akbar grow in stature from a malleable child to a self-critical monarch, quick to learn and correct himself.

Scriptwriter Haider Ali follows the parampara of the kavyas and gathas in the vira (valour)-shringara (love) formula, adding karuna (compassion, pathos) to make a stronger potion.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan in Jodhaa Akbar. The movie presents Akbar as the proponent of tolerance religious, cultural and linguistic. It underscores the secular values that guided his administration.-

Akbar the protagonist is the mighty hero of battlefields, combining courage with mercy. Even his dismissal of the faithful Bairam Khan, who preserved Humayuns kingdom for his son, is attributed to the regents mercilessness in beheading the conquered Rajput kings rather than to Akbars need to stand on his own feet. Similarly, the screen Akbar settles his dispute with insurgent brother-in-law Sharifuddin in a single combat to minimise bloodshed. Tedious as it was in the film, this sequence is not fictive bravado. Did not the real Akbar offer to do the same with the rebel Daud on a Bengal campaign?

Gender sensitivity marks the portrayal of Jodhabai, the Rajput princess of Amer forced to marry the Mughal king to seal a political alliance. She, too, is no stranger to valour, but is a swordswoman. In training sessions with brother Sujamal, she is eager to prove herself an apt pupil. When her husband challenges her light-heartedly, swordplay becomes a fervid avowal of her identity. It evolves into a sublimation of lovemaking between equals. To Akbar she becomes dear and desirable because of the strength of her conviction and sense of selfhood.

Her first words to Shahenshah Akbar are that she will marry him only if she can remain a Hindu and she is free to worship her Krishna in the Mughal palace. Akbar not only agrees but refuses to touch her until her heart is won over. The film takes three and a half hours to show just how the man achieved this goal. Gowarikar succeeds in making the romance grow naturally and spontaneously, with Akbars care for Jodhaas well-being, concern for her status and participation in her puja. When foster mother Maham Anga insults Jodhaa by insisting that she take the poison test of tasting the food she has cooked for the king, Akbar converts her humiliation to pride: he will eat only from the plate she has used. When his jealous suspicions are disproved, he hastens to apologise to the wife he has wronged.

Drawing from the sound cast of stage actors from his past films, Gowarikar has ensured fine support for the main protagonists and an overall quality in performances. Sonu Sood stands out as Sujamal, the noble prince and tragic scapegoat destined to wander from court to court in search of a throne. With her well-chosen words and penetrating glances, Ila Arun is quietly chilling as Maham Anga and striking when she accepts the justice of Akbars command to hurl her son Adham Khan from the terrace top. Others, from Todar Mal to the chief mullah, avoid caricature in routine roles. Even the harem eunuch is restrained in comedy.

Gowarikar succeeds in making the romance between Jodhaa and Akbar grow naturally and spontaneously.-

In lush costume and lavish jewellery but minimal make up, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan becomes a princess who knows her own mind and is unafraid to express it. She is as much at ease when she admits her distaste for her Mughal groom as when she looks straight into her husbands eyes to say, Ji hanh [I love you]. When assured that Mughal munificence would build her a resplendent temple, she says she needs an unostentatious place for prayer. This is a special film for Aishwarya Rai. It imbues her with dignity. And it sits well on her. We try to overlook the mushy moments weeping with sakhis on the bridal bed or rushing to sing to her god in gratitude for saving her husband. And what a wise decision to have not made her dance in the film!

Hrithik Roshan actualises the awesome majesty of Mughal grandeur along with a touch of very human tremulousness. His Urdu diction has been criticised, but the precision and control in his performance speak of enormous effort and preparation. Roshans authenticity stems from his reel persona being linked to the real Akbar: as when he confesses his illiteracy to his wife or in life-endangering sport with the elephant in musth. The great Mughal had a penchant for daredevilry with elephants.

Akbars secular outlook is part of Indian history. Not only did he build temples for his Rajput wives but he also celebrated Diwali and Dasara, reckoning that being born in Hindustan, and king of the realm, he had to seek the welfare of all his subjects of all creeds. He wandered through bazaars in disguise to know the grass roots. He abolished jeziya and the pilgrim tax on non-Muslims. (This is celebrated in the film with a Republic-Day-parade-ish song and dance.)

Activists of the Jan Kalyan Kshatriya Yuva Manch protesting against the movie in Patna.-PTI

Roshans achievement is to have demonstrated the warrior kings inexhaustible energy in dusty cotton as well as in splendid silks and priceless gems. Obliqueness marks his romance. In an arresting scene, Roshan listens to sage advice but his eyes stray to Jodhaa standing in the sun. Eyes are important in the film, the lovers and the hunters. But it wholly avoids the male gaze. Gowarikar introduces the female gaze, though almost in jest, as Jodhaas eyes drink in the rippling muscles of her Shahenshah, supremely fit for love and war!

What we miss is the reality chiaroscuro. The magnanimous, secular, illiterate intellectual was also a ruthless warmonger, territorial aggrandiser and perpetrator of genocides. His hunts turned forests into slaughterhouses. His religious tolerance had political implications. Din-i Ilahi (Divine Faith), the creed he invented by combining the tenets of many religions, was regi-centric, not God- or people-centric. And let us not forget that the great Mughal had a harem of 300, and to him no amirs wife was sacrosanct. The film avoids these fascinating paradoxes and murky underpinnings in favour of the romantic archetype.

Dissatisfactions? There are many. The lighting design creates no medieval tapestry. It is at times childish as in the great love scene, or the white light for Akbars mystic trance. Unsophisticated editing allows the camera to linger after the key expression is past. The war scenes are the least convincing, with naive visuals and pedestrian camerawork. The costumes, jewels and blazing colours satiate after the first hour. Much of the music is no more than sweet.

Like the puranas and kavyas, Jodhaa Akbar offers the old message that might should do right and that freedom should partner love. The film is no disconnect from Bollywood goals or blockbuster models but does project the new values of a syncretist, secular, liberal approach to the world with sincerity and conviction. It strives to showcase magnanimity and tolerance in the midst of political expediency, territorial greed, racial divides, religious factions and material concerns. Not insignificant lessons for our times, especially when we recall that great-grandson Aurangzeb destroyed the empire forged by Akbar with his short-sighted, self-destructive mistrust, ungenerous vengefulness and killjoy intolerance.

It is Khwaja Mere Khwaja, the moving song sung by A.R. Rehman, that gives the film its resonance. Addressed to the Sufi mystic, the powerfully orchestrated score, brilliantly rendered lyric and aptly visualised sequence evoke a light that is rare in cinema: a flash of transcendence.

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