The challenge of translating a historical era into a cinematic endeavour is daunting, especially when it concerns historically contested subjects such as the fabled love between 16th century Mughal Emperor Akbar and Jodha Bai, the legendary princess from Rajputana who later ruled India as Empress and symbolised the Hindu-Muslim accord of the times. However, it is not historical accuracy, or lack thereof, which defines the rather exasperating cinematic narrative of an otherwise glorious period of the subcontinent’s history. It is the facile treatment of history, its interpretative variants and its actors that makes the Bollywood film Jodhaa-Akbar a disappointment.
Akbar’s reign symbolised the zenith of the Mughal Empire and also some of its unique attributes. Whether it was the secular, tolerant governance based on the Sulah-i-Kul (peace with all) policy, opening up the frontiers of theological discussion, effective administrative systems or promotion of Indo-Mughal art forms, Akbar was a pioneer in most respects.
Jodhaa-Akbar attempts to capture the essence of that particular moment: the Indianisaton of the Mughal court and most importantly, the royal household. Whether it is to do with the grafting of a temple within the Agra fort or the introduction of vegetarian meals, these were significant markers for centuries to come, enabling a tiny Muslim minority to rule the non-Muslim majority. But the film fails to handle this momentous phase of history appropriately and instead churns out a masala mix that, despite the massive budget, results in mediocre film-making.
This is not to say that the film is without merit. It is visually stunning in places and A R Rehman’s music is outstanding. The two stars Ashwariya Rai and Hrithik Roshan provide glamour and unreal beauty. The settings are competently improvised and yes, the feel of the whole cinematic experience does convey the cliched Mughal aura of splendour, excess and a hybrid aesthetic. Rai and Roshan exude that enigmatic chemistry which makes them an attractive pair on screen.
But it is the treatment of the subject, characters and nuances that disappoints, especially when one remembers director/producer Ashutosh Gowariker’s earthy and under-your-skin rendition in Swades . In the pursuit of commercial success, Ashutosh relies on soft plagiarism. The battle scenes remind one of the Hollywood blockbuster Troy; the inanimate army contingents resemble those in Gladiator; and the sword fighting sequences re-enact the visual tricks of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . But these are all still pardonable. […]