Monday, July 28, 2008

On Jodhaa Akbar

Just in case you are not familiar with the world of Hindi movies, Jodhaa Akbar is one of the most expensive movies ever made in India. Set in the 16th century, it is based on Emperor Akbar's relationship with his Rajput wife Jodhaa Bai. This is my take on the movie. Short version: it lacks direction. Long version, read on.

Let's begin with the things that I liked. I liked the language. I had to use the subtitle to understand many of the Farsi words. But I did get the feeling that this is how the elite of North India might have conversed in the Sultani era and beyond. Also, listening to the Rajput’s Sanskritised Hindi and the chaste Urdu of akbar, one appreciates just how syncretic Bollywood is. And that’s a good thing. Bollywood for a peaceful Desh!

I also liked the costumes and sets. Again, I got the feeling that this is what people in 1550s India (not just the rich, but also the men in bazaar) wore, and this is what the place might have looked like.

And at 200 minutes, the movie didn’t really sag. The set, costume and dialogue kept it going. But the core of it — the love story between the Emperor and his wife — was at most 100 minutes. So the makers of this movie had two options they wasted: they could have done more with the love story, or they could show more battles and politics.

Amar or I would have liked the second option. As it were, the movie didn't have much of politics. It didn’t show any of Akbar’s reign. And I think that was good. The historical basis of the events covered in the movie are 6 months of akbar’s 62 years of life. I’m glad that the movie didn’t explicitly say that Akbar was a great king because of his marriage to a Rajput princess.

In fact, it almost certainly got the history wrong. For one thing, the 6 feet plus Roshan is a very improbable Akbar - according to the historical record, Akbar was a rather short fellow. But the movie doesn't claim to get the history right. It is billed as ‘one narrative of what happened’ in those months.

I was rather disappointed about the battle scenes though. I wasn’t expecting Lord of the Rings, sure. But Bollywood probably has reached a stage where we can expect something like Gladiator (the battle between the Romans and Goths). And I don’t think the problem was money or technology. I think the issue was more with direction. Even the one-on-one combats were not anywhere near as awe-inspiring as they could have been.

In any case, packing in more politics and battles probably would have made it a very different movie from what they set out to make. But there is really no reason why they couldn’t have taken the first option.

I think they could have done a much better job with the love story.

Now, romances are hard to do. A love story with a happy ending is even harder — to paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy endings are alike and so on. But even then, one can think of a number of possible avenues not pursued (or not pursued enough).

For example, Jodhaa could have had feelings for someone else, but she’d come to love Akbar: she was engaged, she could have had developed feelings for his fiance — Rai’s debut movie was based on the theme of love and marriage, and that was a great love story.

And if the romance didn't have a third person, then it needed other enemies and obstacles. They could have had lot more court intrigue. Indeed, there was a bit of it, with tensions leading up to the intermission, but then it all fell through.

They could have shown a lot more verbal jousting and battles of wit. Think of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story. In fact, Bollywood and Urdu literature have a rich tradition of this. One wonders, why wasn’t more made of that heritage?

I should also note couple of other things.

I was extremely disappointed with the Khawaja song. It's meant to be a Sufi devotional number. The idea is that the song should lead to the listener transcend into some ‘deeper meaning’ and dance away in a haze (I think ganjah helps). I love the genre, whether in Urdu, Punjabi or Bangla (in Bangla they mix Radha-Krishna/Ali/Rasul/pirs/tigers the whole lot — talk about a confused syncretic bunch). This particular song was just boring though.

I liked some of the lesser characters. The guy playing the renegade Rajput prince looks like Amitabh Bachchan circa 1975. Him and the guy playing akbar’s brother-in-law were both impressive. Maham Anaga was also really cool. But the evil mullah could have been a lot more evil.

Finally, having seen Taare Zameen Par, and noting Gowarikar and Farhan Akhter's recent outputs, one must wonder how much of Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai were Aamir Khan.