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And the rest isn’t history

Like it or not Ashutosh Gowariker, who is normally a fine and conscientious director, has miscalculated the technical logistics and emotional content of a period piece. Crucial detailing isn’t the virtue here, writes Khalid Mohamed.
By Khalid Mohamed | Hindustan Times, Mumbai
UPDATED ON FEB 17, 2008 07:18 PM IST

Jodhaa Akbar
Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sonu Sood, Poonam Sinha
Direction: Ashutosh Gowariker
Rating: **

Dig this. No eat meat on Monday, so the royal Rajput bride serves technicolour gattas, navratanpillauf and cabbage kofta curries. Emperor loves. Hey, now every Monday is firmed as an eggless, chickenless day. There’s no allusion at all to the Rajput partiality to red meat (laal maas). After all, it’s so cool to go veggie. Veal, well, veal.

Please, what is Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar trying to serve anyway? A romance dopiaza? Mughlai history biryani? Secularism sushi? Chandeliers-e-Azam? Battle Stroganoff? Absolutely no answers to that, except that you’re as disappointed as a guest who came away without a morsel from a wedding banquet. Sad.

As you know, the romance is between Shahenshah Akbar (from the look of things here, a bachelor at 30) and Jodhaaji (not exactly in the prime of her youth either). She is coerced into a marriage with the Mughal but won’t allow him his conjugal rights till she feels up to it from her ‘dil’. Frowns she like Kill Bill.

Till that belated Dil-Day occurs, they sword fence, she a crouching dragonette, he a patient tiger. Never mind, if her swashbuckling skills aren’t ever re-employed by the script. Misunderstandings and a patch-up later, the regal couple at last share common pillows-`n’-quilt. Takliya really.

Vis-à-vis history, you learn about Rajputana kings who either acceded to Mughal supremacy or hatched plots culminating in battles starring scabbards, cannon balls, bows-arrows and helmets. Sorry but you’re not sure which soldier is fighting whom and why. The body count rises to Ramboesque proportions; the displeased emperor banishes a mulla and good ‘ole lieutenant Bairam Khan to Mecca forthwith. Surprisingly, the mulla looks as if he were being sent to Siberia. Is this history?

Secularism is conveyed through such gestures as Akbar allowing Jodhaa her own temple space and approval of A R Rahman-composed bhajans. No mention of the emperor’s foundation of the all-religion-embracing Din-e-Ilahi faith. Moreover, how relevant is it to address the issue of Hindu tolerance of the minority today, instead of vice versa?

Sufism is touched upon by a clap-a-hand-here-clap-a-hand-there qawwali in the course of which the emperor is zapped by a sky light, causing him to break into a jolly jig with the qawwals. Unintentionally funny. Did Akbar ever boogie woogie?

For a tribute to Mughal-e-Azam, a fluttering palace eunuch is recalled and durbar cliches abound like “Hukam ki taamil ho.” Inevitably, flighty handmaidens clasp secrets to their bosom, eavesdroppers lounge around at jharokas. And the venomous Nigar Sultana is supplanted by a diabolical daai, or Ila Arun, playing the role as if she were a harridan from Harry Potter.

The Shahenshah’s mum, Poonam Sinha, is so benign that it hurts. So does one of her Eiffel Tower-tall hats. What a balancing act! In fact, the headgear displayed here – from Aladdin Cave turbans to those qawwals’ upturned ice-cream cones -- are a gas.

The action set pieces – involving a rather senior citizen elephant and the Troy-like one-to-one combat finale -- are sound and fury amounting to nothing. Amitabh Bachchan’s voice-over commentary is stale. Kiran Deohan’s cinematography is conventional and Ballu Saluja’s editing is rather old-fashioned, what with the 1950s-style wipes. The length of three hours-20 minutes is a punishment.

On the plus side, Nitin Desai’s sets and plush pageantry are eye filling. So is the elaborate picturisation of the

Marhaba

song in the style of the drum-stacked

Chandralekha

of yore. Still, like it or not Gowariker – normally a fine, conscientious director – has miscalculated the technical logistics and emotional content of a period piece. Crucial detailing isn’t the virtue here. The child actors playing the eponymous pair have coal black eyes which magically turn cat light on adulthood.

Of the cast, Sonu Sood in a strongly written part fits the bill. But Hrithik Roshan is a major let down. His Urdu diction is laboured, his physical presence unequal to the role, and far too frequently he blinks his eyes like a neon sign gone out of order. The imperial gaze and carriage are conspicuous by their absence.

Relatively, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is more convincing. She carries off difficult scenes with unexpected fluidity, her eyes conveying the pleasure as well as the pain of a woman oscillating between love and rancour.

Bottomline: Toss a coin, whether you want to buy a ticket for Jodhaa AkBORE.. or not.

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