19 February 2008 | akbarnali
"Jodhaa Akbar" : Paro Grows Up, But She's Still A Little Girl (Oh, and Thank Goodness for Subtitles)
Ashutosh Gowariker's "Jodhaa Akbar" is the most ambitious film to emerge from Bollywood's stables in quite a while. Based on the historical alliance between India's greatest Mughal emperor and a Rajput Hindu princess, Gowariker models his film on the Shakespearean mould of palace intrigue with its collection of warring power brokers, plotting princes, distant queen mothers, bitchy but loyal eunuchs, and concubines galore. It's also something of a gamble: Gowariker has never treaded the historical epic in his earlier features, especially one about India's first attempt at religious pluralism. The results are mixed but laudable, largely because the script adheres to the golden rule about bringing historical episodes to film: know the history, but print the legend.
Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Pocahontas were all real people whose life stories have been told and retold in popular Hollywood films, each retelling adding and embellishing elements of the story which have helped the stories attain the status of pseudoreligious myth. India certainly has a rich history of quasi-historical legends: Anarkali, Heer-Ranjha, Umrao Jaan, Devdas, and now Jodhaa-Akbar.
Let there be no doubt: this is not a documentary nor do the filmmakers make any overt attempt at a documentary characterization of Akbar. History tells us that he was a unique and even megalomaniacal emperor: he had many wives and untold numbers of concubines in a harem which (depending on which account you believe) included a few male lovers, invented his own religion in which he was divine, and held court with atheists, Jews, and Jesuits, a practice which would become decidedly less common with future emperors.
Hrithik Roshan puts up what is probably his best performance as Akbar, though he is hindered by the sheer volume of activity making up the plot: an absent queen mother, sinister foster mother, devious brothers, and, above all, a reluctant wife, all demand his attention. Roshan is at his best when Akbar is wooing a banished Jodhaa and when he ventures off into his kingdom; in many ways, Akbar remains a symbol of tolerance and benign authoritarianism throughoutdespite the fact that he is the one who sets much of the narrative's action into play, surprisingly few scenes give us insight into his inner workings; the opposite is true for Jodhaa.
In the last decade since Aishwariya Rai was introduced to movie-going audiences, she has grown tremendously as an actress. "Jodhaa Akbar" is not her best work, but it offers ample evidence of her growth along the spectrum of Paro-type roles she has enacted since Bhansalli's "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam" : Nandini of "HDDCS," Paro of "Devdas," the eponymous Umrao Jaan, and now Jodhaa are essentially different interpretations of the same feminine archetype: a Lady Beloved of the Legends, who, having been robbed of all agency because of her gender, comes to embody beauty, suffering, fidelity, and, of course, love.
Nandini was a flighty romantic, Umrao Jaan a forlorn romantic, and Paro a languishing fool who settled for survival when love literally slashed her away. Jodhaa is decidedly not romantic, being that she is an emblem of her family's honor. She is given away as a peace offering to an emperor who demands alliance and submission only to find that he wants to become her ally in love.
Rai plays Jodhaa as a torn victim, but she is not without her own inner steel: she sets her own conditions for marriage, challenges palace customs, and steps on more than few royal toes along the way, notably those of the unforgiving Maham Anga. She's not as wishy-washy as Paro or as flirty as Nandini, but she is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth. And speaking of cutting, she's first rate in the five-minute sword fight between Jodhaa and Akbar, a scene which goes from swordplay to foreplay.
Rai is slated to play Anarkali opposite Ben Kingsley's Shah Jahan in an upcoming film and has yet another role as the pining courtesan in Bhansalli's next, "Bajirao Mastani." Normally, I would accuse her of self-typecasting, but it seems that filmmakers themselves are unwilling or unable to see her differently. Jag Mundhara did with "Provoked," extracting an emotionally naked performance from her which is without question her finest work to date. Will others be as daring to cast her in similar light? Probably not.
The film works best when the narrative focuses on the interaction between its two leads who are more similar than they perhaps ought to be: both are icons of physical beauty, sexuality, and glamour, but thankfully this has been tampered down by Gowariker's interpretation of the characters. True, Akbar probably didn't have Roshan's sinewy physique, and Jodhaa (whose existence continues to be challenged in certain historical readings) probably couldn't write in Arabic and likely never set foot in a kitchen. But such considerations are immaterial when you're telling a love story.
The other striking thing about the film is that for non-native Hindi and Urdu speakers, the dialogue is virtually incomprehensible without the subtitles. The old fashioned Urdu recitations are especially difficult to ascertain, though sometimes the subtitles only further your confusion. One line in "In Lamhon Ke Daman Mein" which is literally translated as "Beauty is imbibed in cherished blandishments." What???
Gowariker makes a valiant attempt at a film that is war epic, love story, and costume drama all in one, but never does "Jodhaa Akbar" approach the charm or finesse of "Lagaan." The main flaw with the film is that it is overly ambitious: Akbar may have been a polymath, but there's no way a single film could encompass all of his endeavors. Gowariker's script strays into too many quarters looking for the historical Akbar and ends up offering what is an unfortunately shallow characterization. Jodhaa, conversely, has less to occupy her and is more clearly defined.
And so in the end it turns out that "Akbar the Great" is, in celluloid terms at least, "Akbar the Pretty Good."