Review: Jodha Akbar

Jodha AkbarThe challenge of translating a historical era into a cinematic endeavour is daunting, especially when it concerns historically contested subjects such as the fabled love between 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar and Jodha Bai, the legendary princess from Rajputana who later ruled India as Empress and symbolised the Hindu-Muslim accord of the times. However, it is not historical accuracy, or lack thereof, which defines the rather exasperating cinematic narrative of an otherwise glorious period of the subcontinent’s history. It is the facile treatment of history, its interpretative variants and its actors that makes the Bollywood film Jodhaa-Akbar a disappointment.

Akbar’s reign symbolised the zenith of the Mughal Empire and also some of its unique attributes. Whether it was the secular, tolerant governance based on the Sulah-i-Kul (peace with all) policy, opening up the frontiers of theological discussion, effective administrative systems or promotion of Indo-Mughal art forms, Akbar was a pioneer in most respects.

Jodhaa-Akbar attempts to capture the essence of that particular moment: the Indianisaton of the Mughal court and most importantly, the royal household. Whether it is to do with the grafting of a temple within the Agra fort or the introduction of vegetarian meals, these were significant markers for centuries to come, enabling a tiny Muslim minority to rule the non-Muslim majority. But the film fails to handle this momentous phase of history appropriately and instead churns out a masala mix that, despite the massive budget, results in mediocre film-making.

This is not to say that the film is without merit. It is visually stunning in places and A R Rehman’s music is outstanding. The two stars – Ashwariya Rai and Hrithik Roshan – provide glamour and unreal beauty. The settings are competently improvised and yes, the feel of the whole cinematic experience does convey the clichéd Mughal aura of splendour, excess and a hybrid aesthetic. Rai and Roshan exude that enigmatic chemistry which makes them an attractive pair on screen.

But it is the treatment of the subject, characters and nuances that disappoints, especially when one remembers director/producer Ashutosh Gowariker’s earthy and under-your-skin rendition in Swades . In the pursuit of commercial success, Ashutosh relies on soft plagiarism. The battle scenes remind one of the Hollywood blockbuster Troy; the inanimate army contingents resemble those in Gladiator; and the sword fighting sequences re-enact the visual tricks of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . But these are all still pardonable.

The most unforgivable moment in the film is the near destruction of an otherwise lilting melody, Khawaja Meray Khawaja , meant to be an incantation for the great Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti buried in Ajmer. The filming of this song is almost farcical. The Qawwals aiming at Semaend up mimicking the whirling dervishes of Konya. To add insult to injury, they also wear Rumi caps and sport fake beards. At the end, our secular Emperor joins in the whirling of the dervishes. Understandably, this was a purely commercial gimmick. However, the mystic haal (trance) of the South Asian variety is distinctive for its myriad forms and general lack of structure. Even if this sequence had to be used, there could have been better ways of employing the global ‘hit’ whirling stunt.

Another minor anecdote overlooked by Gowariker and his co-writer Haidar Ali is that Akbar sought blessings from Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti by walking barefoot to his shrine rather than tying his nuptial knot at the shrine. Talking of facts, it is also unclear who Jodha Bai was. Yes there are Jodha’s quarters in each of the Mughal palaces, but the Rajput princess whom Akbar married, according to some versions, was Harka Bai, daughter of the ruler of Amber, Raja Bharmal. To be fair, there are several disclaimers in the titles so one can overlook this license with history taken by the director.

What is sad is that the script props cardboard characters and insists that they are larger than life. Not much is known of the relationship between Akbar’s powerful foster mother Dai Anga and Jodha Bai. But the characterisation in the film turns into a mocking recreation of Kyunki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu thi ethos with domestic struggles taking place on who controls the kitchen and what food is to be cooked for the Emperor. The handling of this conflict in the film reeks of those infamous STAR Plus serials hugely popular in India. If at all, this conflict was about power as the Rajput Empress (like the later Queen Nur Jehan) inducted her kith and kin in senior positions within the Empire. That Dai Anga was a female power centre at the Mughal court is glossed over. And, what can one say about the poor Nau Ratans — the famous nine advisers of Akbar – they appear such caricatures and lifeless beings on screen. Admittedly, the film was not about Akbar’s court; however, this does not mean that the larger setting of this love story should have been treated with such an amateur brush.

One fails to understand why the honour-obsessed Rajputs in India are protesting. If anyone needs to protest it should be the Muslims of the subcontinent. Except for Akbar and his Persian mother, Hameeda Banu Begum, the film unwittingly promotes the Muslim stereotyping agenda. From Bairam Khan to Akbar’s brother-in-law, almost every Muslim is barbaric, intolerant and, more often than not, scheming. The Mughal characters were complex people, neither barbaric Mongols nor Kabir chanting Bhagats. Ancient and medieval Indian history is replete with tales of violent Hindu rulers, so what differentiates them from the Mughals? From a subaltern point of view the local populace underwent a discontinued experience of exploitation. Akbar’s humanism and tolerance was unprecedented in that age. The film harps on these themes for a particular message but ends up validating all that the Hindutva brigade loves to say, and is never afraid to say, about Muslims and Muslim rulers in particular.

The performances are perfunctory except for the leading protagonists. Both Roshan and Rai come across as fairly fluid actors and for once do not massacre common Urdu words such as Khoob and Khush . The cinematography is first rate and the costumes (including the jewelry) are aesthetically noteworthy. Alas the script and its structure, is what undermines the entire effort. Bollywood may have surpassed world cinema in technique and viewership but it lacks that elusive attribute known as “quality-screenplay” not to mention its total disregard for time in true South Asian fashion. For instance, Jodhaa-Akbar at times appears to be a real time drama. The total length of the film is three and a half hours. Was there an editor on the team?

Having said that, it is a fairly watchable film as it tries to re-invoke the medieval process of Hindu-Muslim co-existence; and brings a lost era back to life. Jodhaa-Akbar also, rather boldly, depicts the unusual cinematic tale of a Hindu woman falling for a Muslim man, albeit grounded in political opportunism. Rajput “honour protests” against the film in India need to be understood in this light. For once Bollywood has undone the cliché of Muslim woman and Hindu man.

Those interested in the Mughals should see this film preferably on a big screen. Jodhaa-Akbar could have been a great film. Its main theme held that intrinsic potential but it was splintered by an overdose of pop history, a flaky script and the relentless commercialism that defines our age.

(Initially posted on www.razarumi.com)

About Raza Rumi

A Pakistani blogger. Also writes at www.pakteahouse.wordpress.com and www.lahorenama.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Review: Jodha Akbar

  1. Pingback: Islamify.com

  2. Zishaan says:

    Did he walk to Ajmer from Agra barefoot? I thought Akbar walked from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri to Salim Chisti’s shrine.

  3. Achal says:

    “The film harps on these themes for a particular message but ends up validating all that the Hindutva brigade loves to say, and is never afraid to say, about Muslims and Muslim rulers in particular.”

    Why should anybody be scared to say anything? If you dont like then debate about it, protest it….In a democratic set up in India I hope there is never a day when people are scared of saying things….You have to learn to take criticism without threatening to kill people…Look at how ur community is reacting to fitna? if u had any sense u would have made a movie countering all the claims of fitna….instead of giving death threats.

  4. kaatib says:

    It is heartening that after the lots of comments and negative at that, Raza concedes that the film is watchable. I did watch the film and found it showing a lot of positives like the absense of any scene showing him disregard to Islam as history has been claiming. It was a story showing localisation or nativisation of the Mughals which negates the vicious propaganda of the Criminal Brigade that indianisation means Hinduisation. It has been proved in the film that being Indian never means only being Hindu as almost all of us accept of portray. Even Raza did this. As far as claim of plagirism are concerned, many a times, Roshan sounded to be Prithviraj Kapoor and Raza did not mention this, may be he failed to recollect ‘Mughale Aazam’!! Fortunately, I am not interested in films especially the English (not the langauge) ones, but hope that people will be open minded as see for the same practice we do with Arabic and Pakistani Music. I am hopeful that Plagiarism never means stealing western ideas as contrasted by the idea that Barbarism can be committed by non-Christians only. Let me remind all of us that the recent controvery about aborigins is not considered meritable to be mentioned because the perpetrators were whites and ….. . Mind this, all these things happened after medieval history!!

  5. Taha says:

    I found the movie both boring, full of cliches and very one-sided. Seemed like the Rajput princess and her people were full of good morals and excellent characters, while all the Muslims seemed to be deceitful in someway or the other (except Akbar). It wasn’t worth watching.

  6. 1conoclast says:

    I personally felt that it was a good movie. I wrote a review about it as well which is available on mutiny.in or through a link on my personal blog.
    You may want to read it if you’re looking for positives. Will help get a balanced view.
    Taha… you’re carrying some baggage.

  7. aashana says:

    it was a very good movie. i liked it so much. i think to make such a big film people think first and i think that the writer of this film thougt and then only wrote the movie. so if u r so much particular about the movie scenes then make a movie like this one with the same film actorss.

  8. Pingback: Jodha Akbar - a disappointment : NAACHGAANA

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