You’ve got to hand it to Ashutosh Gowarikar. The man does like to go against the grain. First, he revives the historical epic with the blockbusting Lagaan. Then he defies expectations by following that up with the quiet, introspective human drama Swades. And now he has the audacity to mess with factual history (as opposed to the fictitious one of Lagaan) by setting out to tell the story of the marriage between Mughal Emperor Akbar, and his favoured Rajput wife Jodhaa. No mean feat, considering the scope of the story’s context as well as the contentious issue of Jodhaa’s very existence. Well, I say when no less an authority than Mughal-e-Azam tells us it was Jodhaa Bai, let’s not quibble – for the moment. For there are bigger fish to fry here.
For reasons too tedious to get into, Shahenshah-i-Hind Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar (Hrithik Roshan) has to enter into a strategically important marriage to the Hindu Rajput princess of Amer, Jodhaa Bai (Aishwariya Rai), who is not a happy camper over this union. To preserve her indebted father’s honour, though, she agrees.
But Jodhaa is of course no blushing pushover of a bride. No sirree, the gal puts her virile spouse through much conjugal hide-and-seek – he won’t have her body until he’s first won her heart and all that nonsense. So under her guidance, the new kinder, gentler emperor gets in touch with his feminine side – the first metro-sexual Mughal, if you will. Where earlier he would kill time breaking in a dangerous, wild elephant (which, admittedly, looks not so much mustt as mildly annoyed), he now gets down and whirls with the dervishes, and like a giddy schoolboy takes sneak peeks at the nubile Rajput-ni and grooves to her bhajans. And, oh, starts to take better care of his subjects while he’s at it. In time, her heart too melts, particularly after ogling her six-packed hubby in all his half-naked, glistening-with-sweat glory, which gets her all hot under her gulluband. Much saucer-eyed gazing and heavy breathing later, love blossoms, but not before a rather bewildering swordfight-as-mating-ritual duel between the two, wherein Jodhaa is supposed to be shown as a blade wielder par excellence, except that with Rai’s stance, she buckles her swash less like Zorro and more like Dobby the house-elf. Somehow, though, that’s irresistible, and the marriage is finally consummated. Some pointless and inconsequential political sub-plots follow. Happily ever after.
The problem is that despite all the huffing and puffing and the maddening use of metaphors in the dialogue (honestly, didn’t anyone ever say a straight sentence back in them days?), Jodhaa Akbar is a cold, cold film. It would be another kettle of fish altogether if it were simply a bad film. It isn’t. It just leaves one indifferent. There are plenty of splendid visuals (though the one major battle scene runs out of steam pretty quickly due to some rather dodgy CGI) with beautifully envisioned sets done up cleverly in shades of saffron and mint, and some stunning costumes and jewellery. The music by A.R. Rahman is nice enough. The performances are not revelatory but competent, with Roshan actually getting in some rather good moments as the conflicted king. The cinematography is often breathtaking, and Gowarikar does a fair job. And yet, there is a whole lot of something that is missing; that certain, often elusive je ne sais quois that makes a film an emotional experience. Jodhaa Akbar fails (fatally) to leave an impact. Is that because the script gets the language right but the tone oh-so-wrong? Or because, despite its pretensions, the film is utterly devoid of gravitas? Or is it that it sets itself up to be a slice of history but then neglects to back it up with any substance?
There is a rather laughably let-me-pat-myself-on-the-back disclaimer at the outset which pretty much implies that they hope you won’t see all the historical bloopers that punch holes in the script, having been blinded by the sight of Roshan’s ever more unreal physique. Well, let the dog have its day, I say, and let’s put aside any and all factual considerations. Let’s ignore the possibility that Jodhaa may in fact have been Akbar’s (eww) daughter-in-law, or perhaps didn’t exist at all; let’s pooh-pooh the fact that Akbar – like all respectable royalty – probably had a harem full of goodies of all shapes, sizes, and faiths, and almost certainly wasn’t the one-woman monarch that the film makes him out to be. Let’s even ignore that Akbar’s beloved Dai Anga (Ila Arun) is painted as a malevolent bitch-in-residence. But it’s still hard to ignore that as a historical epic, Jodhaa Akbar is, at best, a Mughals for Dummies, and as a romantic saga, what with its array of misunderstandings, palace intrigue, and copious instances of eavesdropping, it’s really just a Balaji soap with a bigger budget and prettier stars.