ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 06, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 45

Lose yourself in all that’s beautiful

Jodhaa Akbar directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. Starring Hritik Roshan as Mughal Emperor Jallaludin Akbar, and Aishwarya Rai Bachan as his Rajput Hindu wife, Jodhaa Bai. Reviewed by Daleena Samarajiwa.

History represented in the cinematic idiom is rarely exact. If it is, it may do more harm than good, especially in the face of the fragile emotions of the sub-continental masses and the even more fragile egos of characters a film may depict. Look at what happened when the truth was told about Prabhakaran; it was a recipe for near tragedy for one unfortunate director. Hence, historical romance is a safe and sure draw – and guarantees returns that are important especially for expensive epic productions.

Jodhaa Akbar, reported to have grossed 120 crores of Indian rupees in its first month, is an epic of stunning beauty which thinly veils the beast that is reality. Politically, emotionally, and aesthetically perfect, the film looks at a few important pages in the volume of the life of the great Mughal Emperor Jalalludin Akbar. The film focuses primarily on the attraction between the young emperor and his Rajput bride, a princess he weds as a marital alliance to bridge the divide between Hindu and Mughal rulers.

Ashutosh Gowariker's film celebrates the sheer beauty of epic cinematography and of love: handsome prince meets beautiful princess, they find each other irresistible, they overcome some obstacles, and walk off into the horizon to live happily every after. Historical accuracy makes way for love. Gowariker, who also directed that gem of a film Lagaan, attributed 70 percent of the film to his imagination. The accuracy of the film was severely challenged, especially in Rajasthan.

The makers have paid lavish attention to sets, costumes and the perfect presentation of the two stars. Aishwarya is lovely as always, but Hritish steals the limelight with his chiselled face, limpid green eyes and a riveting physique. Both are regally right for their roles. The whole film is eye candy, every scene is a gem.

So focused is the film on beauty and romance, that it does not develop the two central characters to any great depth. Aishwarya's character Jodhaa for example, presents an intriguing mix of an emancipated woman and dutiful wife – she demonstrates brilliant swordsmanship in a couple of Catherine Zeta Jones-in- Zorro-style duel episodes – dressed in white, long hair flying. But when the time comes to saving her husband from death, she stands helpless looking stricken.

In both Zorro and also in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there were women fighters. But whereas in the latter two the swordswomanship was intrinsic to the tale, in Jodhaa Akbar Aishwarya's duelling skills are only an accoutrement.

The film only skims the surface of the searing social issues that prevail now on the subcontinent as they did then. For example, the relationship between the young empress and the mother-in-law, although in this film, the latter role is taken up by the boy's foster mother. (Ilya Arun gives a superb performance as Maham Angha, the emperor's kiri amma.). We see a glimmer of passive resistance in the young empress, when the jealous matriarch tries to lord it over her. The only significant moments that reveal her fiery personality is her insistence that she be allowed to practise her religion, and build a shrine to her god Krishna in her chamber, and when she criticizes the emperor for his ability to win wars but not hearts, as well as her refusal to return with him to Delhi after he banishes her from his court. But these traits are presented in the context of the thrust and parry of a passionate love affair, rather than the influence of the woman behind the throne. Most of the time, we see Jodha looking beautiful, keeping the love-struck Akbar on a leash. After seemingly endless hours of courtship, they come together in a fairy tale setting.

When there is trouble in the court, we see a troubled look in the emperor's eyes, but not enough action to fully convey the strength of character a ruler of Akbar's calibre would have had. Again, the director opts not to develop this aspect of Akbar's personality, focussing instead on the love angle. In doing so, he squanders the opportunity to explore the conflict between the lovers, which would have made the film more interesting. Romance, not social issues or palace intrigue, takes priority in this film.

Other areas the director lightly skims are the tension between Islam and Hinduism which continues to have an impact on the sub-continent or the problem of corrupt officials, serious even today. Emperor Akbar ruled the Mughal Empire, which spanned northern and central India, from 1556 to 1605.

Akbar was a polymath: an architect, artisan, armorer, blacksmith, carpenter, construction worker, engineer, emperor and animal trainer, and even a lace maker. He made important contributions to the arts.

Tolerant towards other religions, he preserved Hindu temples, and began a series of inter-faith discussions between Muslim scholars, Sikhs, Hindus, Carvaka atheists, Jews and Jesuits. He founded his own religious cult, the Din-i-Ilahi - a grand experiment in synthesizing all the great religions into one. It dissolved soon after his death.

Akbar also loved women. He had 300 or more official wives, and several thousand women concubines. We don't know exactly where Jodhaa fitted into his marital grid. But despite the paucity of historic accuracy or socio-political depth, the film delivers subtle statements on inter-communal harmony, religious tolerance, ethical leadership, and the strength of women.

The love of Jodhaa and Akbar is the vehicle that communicates the way it could or should be. In a sense the film uses beauty to deliver a message to the beast. In a world burdened with strife and woe, romance is refreshing. I enjoyed Jodhaa Akbar and would see it again, if only to lose myself in an enchanting cinematic spectacle -- and to gaze at Hritish Roshan.

(Jodhaa Akbar is now showing at the Liberty)

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