Jodha Akbar (2008) Ashutosh Gowariker

June 8, 2008 at 12:47 am

Written, produced and directed by Lagaan‘s (2001) Ashutosh Gowariker Jodha Akbar is a clear-cut example of filmmaking on an epic scale. According to the Wikipedia article on the film, it was made for about $7.5 million and used over 80 elephants, 100 horses, 55 camels, as well as about 1000 dancers for the dance number ‘Azeem-O-Shaan Shahenshah’, the video clip of which I have posted below.

Dubbed in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil, and subtitled in English, Arabic and Dutch, the film was released in mid-February 2008 by UTV Motion Pictures, who organized a simultaneous launch in India (1,300 screens, of which 500 digital and 825 physical prints) and 26 other territories worldwide (1,500 screens; 122 prints in the US only), reportedly the widest ever global release for an Indian film. Amodini’s Movie Reviews noted that the film ‘made history of sorts’ by becoming the first ever Hindi film to be screened at mainstream theaters in some American cities. According to Indicine and at the imdb, the opening weekend gross in the US was an impressive $1.5 million (grossing $3.5 million within the first two months of release), and in the UK – about $700,000. Within months of its release, Jodha Akbar already ranks among the top-grossing Indian films. Like other lavish international epic superproductions, it appears that it is equally vulnerable to piracy: a search on Google immediately produces several invitations to download the film or watch it on-line for free.

The film is set in 16th century India, during the rule of the Mughals, and gives a fictional account of the love that grows between Mughal emperor Akbar (Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan), who is a Muslim, and his wife, Rajput princess Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai), a Hindu.

Locked in an arranged marriage that she originally vigorously resists, Jodha gradually comes to love the husband who has been forced upon her. Even though he has never learned how to read (being too busy mastering the sword), he reveals himself as the most tolerant person on Earth and allows her to continue with her pujas and the worship of Hindu deities at the palace. For the sake of asserting the promise he makes to Jodha (that she will not have to convert to Islam), Akbar gets at odds with the Muslim elders, a rift that permits him to gradually come and see things from various angles and grow into a wise, benevolent, and level-headed ruler who makes it his top priority to secure the freedom of faith for all denominatons. All this comes along with Akbar’s struggle to win over the strong-willed Jodha, amidst lavish palace settings and the gorgeously rich colors of the fabulous clothes they wear and the exotic food they eat.

The first message that the film perpetuates is the widely spread belief of Indians that true love comes gradually and normally evolves within marriages that are arranged for the couple by outsiders knowledgeable in the centuries-old tradition of matchmaking: a message that is also in the basis of modern day Bollywood films, like the NYC-set Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003).

The second message — of the ruler’s supposed enlightened approach to reconciling India’s deeply split religious communities — seems somewhat more problematic. Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar, the first Mughal emperor born on Indian soil, is shown here as ‘a forward-thinking fellow,’ who ‘sought ways to unite his country’s many kingdoms and win the hearts of his Hindu subjects’ (Marjorie Baumgarten in the Austin Chronicle) . Indian classic Mughal-E-Azam (1960), also set during the times of the Mughals, shows a radically different picture of the epoch: the whole conflict there is triggered by the wrath of the emperor-patriarch over the fact his son has fallen in love with a lower-caste woman.

So no wonder that, like it is often the case with most fact-based epics, the historical accuracy of Jodha Akbar has been questioned. There have been a number of inconclusive discussions as to the very existence of the historical personage of Jodha, as to her real denominational belonging and Akbar’s real attitudes on Islam and other faiths. There have been some adverse reactions to the film’s idealistic take. Reportedly, there have been protests in the state of Rajastan (the origins Jodha’s Rajput family); critically-minded viewers have asked why the many other wives of the emperor do not figure here, have called Akbar a descendant of Uzbek invaders, Jodha – an offspring from a family of traitors, and the film — disguised Muslim propaganda.

Director Gowariker has confirmed that while he consulted with historians he also used a significant dose of artistic license. But then, isn’t this the case with many other historical epics, from Hollywood and elsewhere, that have often been accused of frivolously interpreting history and in twisting facts for the sake of getting a good dramatic narrative and a tighter romantic storyline? Bottom line is that a present-day high profile Indian filmmaker chooses to think of his country as a place where a peaceful co-existence between religions is possible, and to present it this way to wider audiences, many of which would accept his vision without subjecting it to unwanted excessive scrutiny. And, like it has been the case with Hollywood epics that have been questioned and challenged but have nonetheless left an influential mark in the popular imagination, this is most likely the way Jodha Akbar will be received by mass audiences.

Jodha Akbar is still to be released in Pakistan. It was reviewed in a number of leading mainstream publications in the UK, US and Germany, normally praised by critics who also admitted that at this length (at 3hrs 35 min) they found it somewhat overwhelming. The critical consensus appeared to be that if the film were to cross over to non-Indian audiences, it would need to undergo some trimming . Writing in the NYT (16 February 2008) Rachel Saltz describes it as ‘filmmaking on the grand scale of Cecil B. DeMille.’ In other reactions, it was linked to Indian epics like Asoka (2001), Lagaan (2001), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), and The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005), but also to Chinese Curse of the Golden Flower (2005), to classic Cleopatra (1963), to American Troy (2004), Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

©Dina Iordanova
7 June 2008