7 January 2016

Jodhaa Akbar (2008)

Directed by: Ashutosh Gowarikar
Music: AR Rehman
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar, Kashif
Starring: Aiswarya Rai, Hrithik Roshan, Sonu Sood, 
Nikitin Dheer, Raza Murad, Ila Arun, 
Kulbhushan Kharbanda, 
Suhasini Mulay, Poonam Sinha
I love period films. Which is why, when my friends wanted to watch Bajirao Mastani the week before last, I went along. It is after the film that R, one of my friends, insisted that Bajirao Mastani was but a poor imitation of Jodhaa Akbar. I remember having liked Jodhaa Akbar very much when I first watched it, historical inaccuracies notwithstanding, but for some reason, could recall only specific scenes, not the film as a whole. The next day, R sent me a message asking if I had the DVD of Jodhaa Akbar. Her daughter, interested in viewing the film, but needing sub-titles, decided to stream it from a site which infected her computer. I couldn't remember whether I did or not, so I went searching, and it was a surprise to find the DVD, unopened, still wrapped in cellophane. Obviously, I hadn't watched the film again, even though I had picked up the DVD some years ago. So, in preparation for R's daughter picking up the DVD before she went back to college, I removed the cellophane wrapping and got it 'ready'. And there it sat, tempting me amidst my work to watch it again. So I did the best thing I could - I gave in. Why not? After all, I had several hours to kill each week, while waiting around for my son at his various activities. 

Among the countless invaders who crossed the borders of Hindustan, are the Mughals - Zahir-ud-din Muhammed Babar turned his attention to Hindustan in 16th century A.D., and after the First Battle of Panipat, established the foundations of what became the Mughal Dynasty. This, then, is the story of a worthy heir to that powerful dynasty - Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar, the first Mughal emperor born in Hindustan. It is also the story of Rajkumari Jodhaa, the beautiful princess born in Amer, Rajputana, to King Bharmal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and his queen, Padmavati (Suhasini Mulay). (So begins the film.)
It is now1555, and the Mughal empire is being rocked by tremors of uncertainty - Emperor Humayun's sudden demise has  led to a struggle for power; Raja Hemu (Shehzor Ali), a vassal, has staked his claim to the suzerainty over Hindustan. The outnumbered and war-weary Mughal army under the able generalship of Bairam Khan (Yuri Suri) manage to overthrow the usurper (the Second Battle of Panipat), and secure the throne of Delhi for their 13-year-old liege lord, Jalaluddin Mohammed, who is now crowned the emperor of Delhi. The Sultanate is safe. For the present.
In the succeeding eight years, Bairam Khan consolidates the empire in the name of his emperor and protege, through a policy of alliances and annexations. Now, that callow lad is a strapping young man capable of making his own decisions. 
In Amer, Rajkumari Jodhaa (Aiswarya Rai) has grown up to be a beautiful young woman. Betrothed in early childhood to Kunwar Ratan Singh of Ajabgarh, she is an accomplished warrier, trained in the art of sword fighting by Prince Sujamal  (Sonu Sood), her cousin, a warrior worthy of his sword. Fond of her cousin, Jodhaa hopes her father will make him his heir. Unfortunately, Raja Bharmal anoints Bhagwant Das (Digvijay Purohit) as the crown prince; to add insult to injury, he appoints Sujamal subordinate to Bhagwant Das.
A humilated Sujamal leaves Amer, and seeks the help of Sharifuddin Hussain (Nikitin Dheer), the Mughal governor of Ajmer fort, to help him reclaim his patrimony. But everything comes with a price - it appears that the subahdar, Emperor Jalaluddin Mohammed's brother-in-law, has ambitions of his own - the throne of Delhi.
The news of their alliance leads Raja Bharmal to take a momentous decision to save his kingdom and his subjects from the devastation of war - an alliance with the Mughal emperor. But this decision, too, has consequences: at a meeting of the Rajput kings, he is branded a traitor to the Rajput cause; an enraged Kunwar Ratan Singh breaks off his engagement with Rajkumari Jodhaa. Amer is isolated.
It is now even more necessary for Raja Bharmal to sign a peace treaty with the Mughal empire - it's his only chance of containing Sujamal's rebellion. To strengthen the Rajput-Mughal alliance, he offers his daughter in marriage to the emperor. A surprised Jalaluddin asks for some time to think it over but religious strife is increasing in Ajmer and the neighbouring kingdoms. His marriage to the Princess of Amer will help align the proud Rajputs on his side. Political expediency wins the day, and he sends a message of acceptance to Raja Bharmal. Jodhaa is devastated at the turn of events. She is being sacrificed for the greater good but the thought of marrying a man of a different religion revolts her.
 And so, her doli leaves Amer for Agra. But before she will marry the emperor, she puts forth two conditions. One, she will not convert to Islam; two, he will build a temple for her in the zenana, where she can keep her idol of Krishna. Much to her surprise, Jalaluddin agrees to both conditions, and they are married according to both Hindu and Muslim rituals.
But while the emperor celebrates the occasion, Rajkumari Jodhaa is mourning her unwanted marriage. Later that night, a perplexed but understanding Jalaluddin leaves his distant, but forthright, bride alone.
Early next morning, the Emperor hastens to Malwa to quell a disturbance, leaving behind a conflicted young bride. And so, when the new Empress of Hindustan arrives at her new home, she is unaccompanied by her husband. However, she is warmly welcomed by the Queen Mother, Hamida Banu Begum (Poonam Sinha). 
The Queen Mother introduces Jodhaa to Maham Anga (Ila Arun), the emperor's dai ma (wet nurse), who is also a minister in the Mughal court. She warns Jodhaa of Maham Anga's influence, but little does Jodha know then that she has made an implacable enemy.
When the emperor returns to Agra, it is to be told of his brother-in-law's rebellion - Sharifuddin Hussain has usurped the throne of Ajmer. While Adham Khan (Shaji Choudhary) wants to squash the rebellion, Maham Anga counsels prudence. It is clear however, that Sharifuddin's concerns about the Mughal alliance with the Rajputs are shared by at least some of the Mughal court, including the ulemas, who fear that a temple inside the palace will destroy the court's Islamic traditions. 
It appears that their fears are not so unfounded after all. Especially when the emperor walks away from the Diwan-e-aam in the middle of listening to their complaints.
At Agra, Jalauddin's foster brother, Adham Khan has been sorely testing his patience; meanwhile, Sujamal is finally getting the support he needs at Ajabgarh - from Kunwar Ratan Singh, his sister's ex-fiancé, and from Raja Uday Singh of Udaygarh. Back in Agra, Maham Anga is noticing the emperor's increasing distraction with his kingly duties. And Rajkumari Jodhaa is noticing the emperor.
It appears that the new bride is not as cold as she appears. In a bid to woo her, Emperor Jalaluddin announces a Rajput feast in his wife's honour; Rajkumari Jodhaa, in her turn, offers to cook the food herself - not as the Empress of Hindustan, but as a wife. This sets her at odds with Maham Anga, who is quick to warn her that her alliance with the emperor is just political. It is better that she does not dream of exerting her 'rights' as the empress (or a wife), or of becoming a part of the Mughal empire. It is a clear and unambiguous warning - Maham Anga will destroy anyone who comes between her and the emperor.
And so it happens that when Rajkumari Jodhaa brings in the meal to the emperor and the court, Maham Anga insists that she taste it first - for the emperor's safety. It is a direct insult, and the proud princess knows it. So does the emperor. But the tables are soon turned and the young empress wouldn't be human if she didn't gloat a little. 
However, it appears that Jodhaa has underestimated Maham Anga. The latter has only lost a battle. She is ready to wage war. Jodhaa's fervent letter to Sujamal, written before her marriage to Jalaluddin, falls into Maham Anga's hands. 
Wily strategist that she is, she has the letter sent to Prince Sujamal, knowing that he will come to rescue his sister. The clouds of danger are gathering around the unwary princess and the trusting emperor. At Ajmer, Adham Khan is conspiring with Shareefuddin Hussain. Adham been embezzling funds in his province of Malwa, and the embezzlement has been discovered by Shamsuddin Atga Khan (Raza Murad), the wazir. Fearful of being imprisoned, or worse, for his sins, Adham Khan murders Atga Khan, a man whom the emperor considers his father. In retaliation, Jalaluddin sentences him to death.  
Maham Anga forgives the emperor the death of her son, but uses the occasion to cleverly plant the seed of suspicion against Jodhaa. A vial of poison found in Jodhaa's belongings provides additional proof of her 'treachery'.
As does the evidence of the emperor's own eyes - he witnesses Jodhaa secretly meeting Sujamal and, still smarting from the poison dripped into his ear by the woman he loves as his mother, jealously suspects the latter of being the crown prince of Ajabgarh; deeply hurt, and unwilling to listen to his wife's protestations of innocence, the emperor sends the unfortunate princess back to her family. Not, however, before Sujamal assumes that Jodhaa  has betrayed him. 

It takes Hamida Banu Begum's return to Agra to unmask Maham Anga. And her gentle counsel to convince Jalaluddin that he had behaved badly. Now all he has to do is to go to Amer and convince his wife to return. Or is it that easy?

Will Jalaluddin ever win Jodhaa's heart? It is not enough to wage war and win provinces, the spirited princess tells her apologetic husband. You need to win hearts, and for that, you need to learn to love. It is this lesson that a chastened emperor takes to heart that eventually gives him the title 'Akbar'. 

Does Rajkumari Jodhaa find it in her heart to forgive her husband? How will Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar manage his empire amidst the political turmoil of the age? What about the ulemas? The Rajputs kings? Sujamal? Sharifuddin? 
Jodhaa Akbar was both lavishly mounted and lovingly crafted. It is also very long, though mercifully, not boring. And for that, one has to thank the writing (Haider Ali and Ashutosh Gowarikar). And while one may cavil at historical inaccuracies, it is clear that Gowariker has taken a lot of care in the scripting.  

The film begins with a disclaimer that while historians agree that there was an alliance between Emperor Akbar and the daughter of Bharmal, ruler of Amer, there is a controversy about her name: she's alternately referred to as Harkha Bai, Hira Kunwar, Jiya Rani, Maanmati or Shaahi Bai...
But then, the story is not about history, but about a politically expedient alliance that matures into a respectful, loving relationship after marriage. A marriage that is continually challenged, not only by the bride's own misgivings, but by the machinations of a woman who is the power behind the throne, and the cacophony of the conservative Muslim clergy, not to mention the conspiracies that surround the royal throne of the Mughals - that is the focus of the film, and it succeeds very well in showing a young emperor navigating the shoals of palace intrigue and religious strife, struggling to establish his own voice, while at the same time, wooing his recalcitrant bride and striving for a religious pluralism that will stabilise his empire. It is to the writers' credit that they do not hegemonise the character, allowing him to be both benevolent and cruel, strong and gentle, harsh and merciful, giving multiple dimensions to a character who is both ruler and husband. 
Neither Hrithik nor Aiswarya are thespians when it comes to acting, but this is one of Hrithik Roshan's finest performances. It is not just the physicality that he brings to his Akbar (so much so one tends to forget that the real Akbar was only about 5'6"), it is the personality he infuses his Akbar with that keeps you watching. He owns the physical scenes - the sword practice, the taming of a wild elephant, his sword fight with Jodhaa, where he has more to lose than his throne... 

He makes his presence felt in the emotional scenes as well. His hurt when Jodhaa tells him that he hasn't been able to win her heart, his sorrow over his foster mother's betrayal, his awe when he looks upon his beautiful wife, his embarrassment when he confesses to being unlettered... Hrithik made the emperor human. 
Aiswarya Rai has never been so beautifully framed as she has been in this film. As Jodhaa, the spirited Rajput princess who is made a political pawn to keep the kingdom safe, but refuses to remain one, she did an commendable job.
As she did in the exacting sword fight scenes. If her dialogue delivery in the dramatic scenes could do with some improvement, she was quite proficient in the emotional scenes where her expressive eyes did most of the talking. 
She gave her Jodhaa a dignity, a pride, a self-respect, which made us root for her to win her husband's love and respect - on her terms. And her pairing with Hrithik is one of the more successful screen pairings in terms of sheer on-screen chemistry. ('...two rather astonishing specimens of human beauty' is what the New York Times film critic called them.)
The secondary characters also played their part well. The poisonous Maham Anga was brought to life by Ila Arun, her flashing eyes and haughty demeanour working amazingly well with her quiet dialogue delivery. It is easy to accept her as the manipulative power behind the throne, pulling the strings she needs to, to make the emperor do as she wills. 

Poonam Sinha, similarly, was effective in her short role as Hamida Banu Begum, the estranged Queen Mother. Sonu Sood has an impressive screen presence, and hypnotic eyes - in some scenes, he looked like a very young Amitabh Bachchan - but he suffered from a character that was woefully underwritten. 
One is never quite sure why he wanders around bereft, why he rebels, what motivates him to seek help from Sharifuddin... Neither is his change of heart - after he is certain that Jodhaa betrayed him - very well-developed; one quick scene and he's suddenly willing to give his life for a man he has cause to hate.

Gowariker certainly has a ear for music, and knows where to use the songs in his films. None of the songs are intrusive; Manmohana, Khwaja mere khwaja and Azeem-o-shaan shehanshah are all skillfully woven into the narrative; the latter two are also exquisitely choreographed. The romantic Jashn-e-bahaara appears in snippets, and has a sad refrain as well. Both suitably shot in the background, they provide a view into the characters' emotions. So does In lamhon ke daaman mein... It's a wonderfully crafted score by Rehman, and Gowariker makes good use of it.  Kiran Deohans is the cinematographer, and the visuals, like in Gowariker's Lagaan (cinematography by Anil Mehta), are breathtaking. Other than making Aiswarya Rai look even more beautiful than she usually does, Deohans has a fine eye for detail, both in the close-ups of the actors and the interior palace shots as well as the wide open vistas of the forts and the battles. (I do wish the battle scenes were shot a bit better, though. Considering the budget he had on hand, they were rather laughable, especially the Second Battle of Panipat).

Keeping aside the question of whether Jodhaa really existed - anyone who saw Mughal-e-Azam, and liked it, would perhaps be happy to believe so - if you are willing to watch this as primarily a relatively well-made work of fiction, focusing on a love story rather than on showing a historical representation of Akbar and the Mughal empire, I have no hesitation in recommending this film for its sheer beauty and spectacle. And I don't mean just the lead actors. Whether it is the bleakness of the desert, or the red sandstone of the forts, whether it is the grandeur of the Mughal palaces or the beauty of the Rajput ones, it is a visual feast on screen. Be warned however that Gowariker's films are epic - in length, as well as scope. My copy of the DVD came with two discs - the first half (until intermission) was two hours.

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