Saturday, February 16, 2008

Jodhaa-Akbar - Almost a Masterpiece

I can understand how Ashutosh Gowarikar conceptualized Jodhaa-Akbar. A love story between two people - a Mughal King and a Rajput princess - whose marriage was purely for political reasons opens up immense possibilities, especially when history books don't talk anything about this. He must've thought that he could build a story about how two individuals separated by culture and religion fall in love after marriage. That is surely an imaginative thought. Only, the basic assumption here is that there was 'love' in that relationship in the first place. From what I have read about Akbar and his roving eye, it is very possible that love didn't even enter the picture. But Ashutosh had made up his mind about creating an 'immortal' love story from this relationship that doesn't get more than two sentences in history books. Fair enough, for that is what creativity is all about.

But how does one go about creating a love story for a man who married multiple times and is believed to have had a harem of more than 300 wives and concubines? Simple. Just ignore these facts. Ignore that Akbar was already married twice before the Rajput princess came into the picture (history books don't call her Jodhaa and even the film starts with a my earlier posts about the stories told by the guides at Agra). Ignore that Akbar has been described as a "sexual predator", whose "sexual appetite had seemed insatiable" in his twenties, and whose eyes "fell even on married women". Ignore that "Akbar, for all his intellectual refinements, was very much a ruthless medieval warloard, driven by earth hunger and blood thirst". If you want to spin a yarn about pakeezah rishte (chaste relationships), it becomes necessary that the individuals forming that rishta are cleansed thoroughly of any vices – or seemingly negative traits - in their characters.

Oh no, don't dismiss me as a purist who wouldn't want history to be tampered with. I'm all for it, because history can be annoyingly boring and if one has to make a historical film it is imperative that some elements of fiction (at least some dramatization) have to be sprinkled through the screenplay. What is history if not an interpretation of what happened somewhere in the past? It might be based on tons and tons of research, but at the end of the day, it's still an interpretation. A filmmaker has the creative license to interpret history in his or her own way as long as it results in a compelling film. So what I mention above is not a grouse against Ashutosh Gowarikar, for he has surely made a good film. Just that I felt that he could not make up his mind about what his focus should be.

A love story in a historical perspective is a great idea, but the narrative should keep its eyes firmly on one of the things: love story or history. Here Ashutosh keeps jumping unsurely from one to other, such that there are times where too much stock is used up for events that do not impact the Jodhaa Akbar story. I found the final climactic moments completely superfluous. They did not add anything to the love story. It would have been a much better film had the film ended with the beautiful In Lamhon Ke Daaman Mein song, which marks the culmination and consummation of the relationship between Jodhaa and Akbar.

To give credit where it's due, Ashutosh has tried his best to weave actual events and characters around the fictionalized romantic core. I felt it was a nice touch to create conflict between the lovers through the character of Maham Anaga, Akbar's wet nurse, because here is a character that history identifies as a conniving person who held Akbar under her complete control. However, Maham Anaga is a much more interesting character than is actually depicted. Abul Fazal wrote, "….in reality the business was transacted by Maham Anaga… whose knowledge and perspicacity the bridle for opening and closing all affairs, political and financial, was…. entrusted at this time." She was the one largely responsible for Bairam Khan's fate, but that aspect is not shown in the film at all. Agreed that it would have made this already long film even longer, but that might have been more compelling to watch than the other historical sub-plots that Ashutosh Gowarikar chose to spend inexplicably long time on. And that would have further established Maham Anaga's character. I would have also liked it if Akbar's first wife, Ruqaiya Begum, was shown in the film and Ashutosh Gowarikar had created an imaginary sub-plot around the sexual politics between the two wives. That would have made the film even more interesting.

The film really comes on its own when it focuses on the lead characters (played remarkably by Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). They make the ideal Akbar and Jodhaa. And the chemistry between them is – for want of a better word - perfect. They are in complete control of their characters and even Aishwarya's worst detractors (and that's a HUGE number) cannot dismiss her performance as 'bad'.

Ashutosh Gowarikar seems to be completely at ease while handling the romantic bits. Whether it's the scene where Akbar is being given an important piece of advice by Maham Anaga and he is distracted by Jodhaa's visage on the terrace, or the scene where he gets completely mesmerized by her bhajan and dismisses his assembly at the deewan-e-aam, or when Jodhaa learns calligraphy for Akbar only to realize that her husband is illiterate, or that fleeting moment where Jodhaa catches a partial glimpse of her would-be-husband though the parting of the curtain – they build up the love story in a great way. The pièce de résistance, however, is the picturization of the In lamhon Ke Daman Mein song. Can't get more passionate and romantic than that!

It's the historical portions that the director struggles with. He tries to pack in more than he can chew. How can he not talk about Akbar's secular beliefs and people-friendly policies, when that's what everyone knows him for? So a reference to the abolition of the religious taxes (the film only talks about the pilgrim tax and not the jiziya tax that was abolished a year later) becomes mandatory. But the entire sequence of events that lead up to it – the Agra Bazar sequence – seems to have been penned quite perfunctorily and tends to acquire a sanctimonious, preachy tone.

Akbar's affinity for mysticism is depicted in a brilliantly composed and choreographed sufi qawwali, Khwaja Mere Khwaja. At the end of this song, a divine ray of light hits Akbar and he goes into a trance. One would think it is the writer's imagination creating this surreal sequence, but such an incident is actually recorded in history, although it is believed to have happened much later in his life. Akbar had gone hunting when a similar incident happened where "a mysterious divine call had descended on the emperor, which tranced him completely". Even though it has been used in a different context, Ashutosh Gowarikar deserves a whole-hearted applause for his research. I don't see anything wrong in using actual incidents in a different context as long as it doesn't dramatically alter the reality.

What doesn't work at all is the sub-plot about Akbar's brother-in-law. It has no role to play in the love story between Jodhaa and Akbar and the climactic moments are way too formulaic for my liking. Surprisingly (I certainly did not expect this of Ashutosh Gowarikar), the handling of crowd scenes, whether it is in the battle sequences or on the streets is very tacky and amateurish. Crores have been spent on the costumes of the lead actors, but the costumes of the extras seem like something out of a school play. Everyone seems to be wearing the same style of kurtas, with similar cummerbunds and headgear. Was it a feeble attempt at depicting 'equality' in Akbar's time, Mr. Gowarikar? If you're making a spectacular, high-budget historical of epic proportions there can be no excuse for cutting corners.

So, you might ask, did I like the film or not? I certainly did. Not once during its long running time did I feel bored, in fact even when the film ended I did not want to come out of the Mughal ambience that was so faithfully created in the film. And that is certainly a comment on the quality of the film. The performances by and large are good, the songs divine, cinematography mouth-watering and the art direction simply superb. It's hard to believe that most of the film was shot on sets. If I have spent more time expressing my reservations about this film, it's only because I wanted this film to be even better! It falls just short of a masterpiece it could have been.

PS: All sentences in quotes are from Abraham Eraly's wonderfully written book: Emperors of the Peacock Throne - The Saga of the Great Mughals