Sunday, July 26, 2009
JODHA-AKBAR (Hindi; 2008)
You have to be a masochist to make a historical film in India: no matter what the subject, you can rest assured the film's release will be accompanied by protests (often staffed by rent-a-thug sorts), mock outrage by assorted politicos, and public interest litigants, all of them convinced that the nation's very soul will be jeopardized if this or that film is allowed to hit theaters. So too it was with Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodha-Akbar (2008), the much anticipated film by the director of Lagaan on the marriage of Jodhabai, princess of the Rajput house of Amer (Jaipur for us, since Jai Singh founded the city in the eighteenth century), with Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, and by just about universal consent the greatest ruler of that dynasty. Underlying the controversy is the fact that few women make appearances in the court records of the time (although the Mughals certainly had their share of monumental female personalities who simply could not be kept away from the historical records, ranging from Akbar's aunt Gulbadan Begum, his wet nurse Maham Anga; through the likes of Nur Jahan (one of the fourth emperor Jahangir's wives, and the de facto ruler for years); the fifth emperor Shah Jahan's daughters Roshanara and Jahanara; and the sixth emperor Auirangzeb's daughter Zebunnissa (the only one who seems to have plotted rebellion against her father): "Jodhabai" is more legend than fact, although the persistence of the tale, not to mention that there is little doubt that an Amber princess was married to Akbar, means that it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
In any event, the "controversy" around the film, or the history underlying it, was always hypocritical: whatever the facts about Jodhabai, and whether or not Jodhabai even existed, no one doubts that Mughal emperors married Rajput princesses on several occasions, beginning with Akbar (who had multiple Rajput wives), and continuing all the way down to the blink-and-you-miss-it reign of Farrukhsiyar (1719). The source of the controversy wasn't difficult to understand either, reflecting as it did contemporary unease (of both the communal and casteist variety) among the so-called cultural nationalists as to how a community held up in modern times as the very embodiment of Hindu resistance to marauding Muslim invaders, could have done what so many Rajput royal houses chose to do, namely, make their peace with the dominant imperial power. The answer, of course, is simple: their mindset was different, their reality was different. That is, the great warriors simply cannot be impressed into the service of contemporary political ideologies without grave violence being done to their worldview. In the world of the sixteenth century Rajputs and Mughals, it was quite common to seal political pacts with marriages (the process continued until well into the nineteenth century, as evidenced by Napoleon's marriage to the Hapsburg princess Marie-Louise in 1810). Not to mention, of course, that the right-wing consternation says much about the ideological function served by "womanly virtue" in the construction of group identities -- "giving" a daughter has implicated honor for far too long, and the appropriate response is not to deny what was manifestly quite common, but to interrogate the connection between "one's women" and one's honor.
The opposite position -- namely that Akbar is the precursor of twentieth century liberalism, the good and tolerant emperor who presages the benevolent nation-state of our days -- is no more defensible. While I have far greater sympathy for the pluralistic impulses of Akbar than, for instance, for the Sunni orthodoxy of Badauni, the fact remains that Akbar was no liberal -- not because he was illiberal but because the term doesn't mean much in the context of sixteenth century India. The historians who have complained that the film distorts history miss the point, and betray a naive view of their discipline: there is no such thing as a history that simply presents its subject as he or she was; the study of the past is necessarily refracted through the concerns of the present. It could not be any other way, not because there is no such thing as objective fact, but because we can only live in the present. The brutal and violent Akbar, standing in for a whole order of rapacious Muslim "outsiders", has long been the need of the hour where adherents of Hindutva are concerned; likewise, Akbar as symbol of an essentially pluralistic India also reflects the compulsions of mainstream nationalist historiography. Not all historical narratives are equally plausible of course (a view of Akbar as life-long bigot; or of him as orthodox Sunni; would be farce, not history); but when we critique historical narratives, we cannot help but critique the political ideologies that underlie them.
There is little doubt that Gowariker falls on the "mainstream nationalist" side of the conventional divide, and doesn't have too much patience for the right-wing ideologues who see most of the last millennium as an unending round of pillage by marauders (although he does recycle some of the more partisan prejudices, such as when the film's opening voice-over speaks of the untold war and pillage invaders have unleashed on India since 1011 AD (the date of the first Muslim invasions under Mahmud of Ghazni); evidently, pre-Islamic invasions, whether by the Huns, the Kushans, the Greeks, or whoever else, don't seem to register; or when Hemu's forces at the Second Battle of Panipat seem devoid of any Afghan troops: one simply couldn't glean from Gowariker's representation that arrayed against the Mughal forces was a joint Indo-Afghan front representing the displaced Suri order). But Gowariker has also gone on record to say that his Akbar is the emperor of the Amar Chitra Katha (the beloved series that has long served as the introduction of millions of Indian children to numerous myths and folk takes in comic-book form, including several about Akbar and his adviser Birbal) -- which might not increase confidence in how solid the history underlying the film is, but doesn't undermine the plausibility of Jodha-Akbar as a Bollywood vehicle either (indeed, films like Braveheart remind one that an essentially cartoonish and simple-minded reading of the historical record can make for quite an engaging film). The foregoing is not a patronizing compliment: rather, it serves to underscore that the function of a historical film is something other than presenting history to its audience; the filmmaker also wants to tell his audience where it needs to go, by the light of a myth about the past that tells us who we ought to be, and who we can be. As discussed above, the discipline of history might do that too -- but the comparative freedom of popular cinema enables film to do it in a far more naked way, and to potent cultural effect. That is, the film can be what scholarship, for better and for worse, cannot; and what Gowariker has shaped his film as: a fable
The film begins with a somewhat turgid segment setting the scene for what is to follow: it is 1556, and the Mughal throne is in a precarious state after the untimely death of Humayun. The thirteen year-old emperor is under the guardianship of Bairam Khan, who leads the Mughal forces at Panipat -- the battle's outcome shattered the Suri/Hemu forces, paving the way for a Mughal imperium centered on the Gangetic plain. After the battle has been won, the boy-emperor refuses to behead Hemu, so Bairam Khan does the deed himself (some accounts have the young Akbar personally killing Hemu). Flash forward six years, and the Mughal armies on the march, after ultimatums that have been sent to the Rajputana states have been rejected. Akbar (Hrithik Roshan) has assumed the reins of power, having used the occasion of another monarch's defeat to clip Bairam Khan's wings, and demonstrate that he's going to be doing things differently. Meanwhile, in the palace of Amer, the lovely Jodha (Aishwariya Rai) is seen practicing swordplay with her cousin Sujamal (Sonu Sood) -- I cannot say whether this would have been an appropriate pastime for medieval princesses, but in the best Bollywood traditions, her swordplay serves as the occasion for some dialoguebaazi, and there ain't nothing wrong with that.
The ruler of Amer, Raja Bharmal (Kulbushan Kharbanda), decides to save his kingdom by accepting Mughal suzerainty, and offers Akbar his daughter Jodha's hand in marriage (the film never delves into the thought process that might have led Bharmal down this road; which could be a sign of how normal this was, except it's evident from the reaction of Bharmal's Rajput peers that it wasn't, at least not where Mughal emperors had hitherto been concerned). Akbar accepts, but Jodha -- who is as horrified as Akbar's more orthodox Muslim advisers at the thought of a marriage with an unbeliever -- has two conditions of her own. Both of these are linked to her faith (and doubtless a reflection of the controversy surrounding religious conversions to Christianity in India today; as well as the long history of unease in the sub-continent resulting from the link between Christian missionary activity and colonialism): Jodha will not convert, and she wants to have a personal shrine built for her beloved Krishna in her Mughal palace. Gowariker displays a deft touch here, as Kiran Deohans' camera lingers a shade too long on Aishwariya Rai's face: Jodha seems horrified when Akbar announces that he has accepted her conditions. Evidently, the film's Amer princess had been counting on the emperor's orthodoxy in order to get out of the marriage. She wouldn't have been the last to be surprised.
Jodha-Akbar really takes off -- or settles in -- at this point, and it becomes all too apparent that Gowariker is more interested in the domestic drama of Jodha making her place in the world of the Mughal zenana than it is with the wider sweep of Akbar's story. This choice undoubtedly made the film a safer bet at the box office where the much ballyhooed (and much sought after) "family audience" (which, conventional wisdom assures us, likes nothing so much as domestic drama and/or romance, as opposed to anything that so much as smells of blood, gore, or politics; whether the conventional wisdom reflects the truth or simply the prejudices of male filmmakers who have their own views on what women will or will not watch is a separate issue) was concerned, but it does make Jodha-Akbar less interesting as a period piece, and treading a path rather well-worn by the likes of films like Swami (1977) and Hum Dil de Chuke Sanam (1999), and (more recently) Rab Ne Banadi Jodi (2008), not to mention (far more luridly) by various contemporary Indian TV serials. However, the choice also means that once Jodha and Akbar get married, Gowariker is on cinematic terrain that he seems more comfortable on, and the characters who have hitherto existed as history-bearing vessels are revealed as Hindi film types we are more familiar with, and who have stronger claims upon our sympathy: two strangers who find themselves married to each other, and who need to make do. With some twists and turns -- the domestic intrigue, the pesky rebels -- the end is never in doubt: Jodha and Akbar fall in love with each other, and, by film's end Akbar inaugurates a newer, kinder, and gentler Mughal empire (to give Gowariker and Haider Ali credit, their Akbar is depicted as predisposed to a more humane touch; the historical veracity of this is not the point -- the care the filmmakers have taken (for the most part; some segments do cut the other way) to avoid suggesting that a barbaric Mughal order was civilized by means of a Hindu ethos, most certainly is; in the film, Akbar underscores a related point even prior to his marriage, stressing to Jodha that his claim to "native Indian" status is no less than hers).
The result is surprisingly engaging, although one cannot help but wish for a more vigorous directorial style. Numerous scenes in the film are visually striking (costume designer Neeta Lulla, and production designer Nitin Desai, deserve high praise, although not for our first sight of Agra fort, which seems woefully unreal), but are reminiscent of set pieces, working better as stills than as moving images. [The exceptions, such as the superb image of Jodha watching, through a white curtain, Akbar and his guards leave for Malwa the morning after the wedding, simply prove the rule.] Perhaps that is always a danger with period pieces: absent emphasis on the kinetic, a historical risks getting bogged down in dialog and props. Typically (even if a bit reflexively and unimaginatively) that kinetic quality is supplied by battle sequences. But Jodha-Akbar eschews these for the most part (necessarily, given the subject), leading to a film that is pitched a few notes lower than it ought to have been. The Bollywood period piece (whether Mughal-e-Azam, Kranti (1981), or Mangal Pandey (2005)) takes fantastic liberties with the historical record, and the impertinence is justified on dramatic grounds. Jodha-Akbar errs in going no more than half way in either direction, possessed of much of the low-key sobriety of a more serious historical engagement, but lacking the substance; while falling short of the dramatic bullseye of the masala movie.
The foregoing notwithstanding, one advantage of Gowariker's focus is that the female lead is granted a full-fledged role here, a rarity these days in Bollywood, the odd Rab Ne Banadi Jodi notwithstanding. Fed a steady diet of the T&A aesthetic no matter how inappropriate to the film at hand, this viewer found himself crying hallelujah at the sight of an actress having entire sentences for dialog. Not to mention the inversion of the male gaze Jodha-Akbar achieves in the memorable sequence showing Akbar practicing his swordsmanship; Jodha stumbles upon him, then finds herself unable to tear herself away from looking at him from behind a curtain. I can't think of another Bollywood film where the female lead is shown so candidly lustful (and not judged for it).
Gowariker's slowness seems to have rubbed off on A.R. Rahman here, whose music is often beautiful, and at its best -- in the Sufi-accented Khwaja Mere Khwaja -- magically soothing, but never unexpected or especially interesting. The album is a bit low-key, in the manner Gowariker seems to increasingly want from his composer (the music of Swades (2004) was also in a relatively laid back register), notwithstanding the rousing Azeem-o-Shaan-Shahenshah (itself more impressive than compelling). One hopes Gowariker has Rahman change his tack by the time What's Your Raashee? comes along.
The lead cast is well chosen: Hrithik Roshan and Aishwariya Rai suit the parts of Gowariker's and writer Haider Ali's Akbar and Jodha to a 'T', and if one can rightfully complain that the parts themselves are no more than skin deep, that is a function of the sort of film Gowariker has made, and the limitation can hardly be laid at the lead actors' door. Rai is a natural for the role of the quintessential Rajput princess, and enjoys the advantage of being relatively free to fashion her character, not only because virtually nothing is known about the historical daughter of Bharmal, but because of the gender conventions of Hindi film audiences. Princesses just are a certain way: beautiful, decorous with a dash of fire, and bedecked in jewels. Not much more is needed, and Rai is unlikely to have found this sort of role (not too different from her characters in Devdas and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, which says more about how Bollywood writes women than it does about Rai) terribly challenging. To her credit, she holds up the rather stilted role unflaggingly, testimony to the sort of Jodha Gowariker and Ali had in mind: oozing star wattage from every pore (but not sass: for that you'll have to re-visit Kajra Re from Bunty aur Babli). If one misses the possibilities that a more expressive actress might have brought to Jodha's role, one would also have to concede that film would have been very different from the one Gowariker and Ali apparently had in mind.
Roshan is impressive as the youthful Akbar, using his body and eyes to great effect, and unveiling a regal, languorous walk that hasn't been seen elsewhere in his oeuvre. One would be hard-pressed to think of another contemporary Hindi actor who could carry off the clothes this film has him wear so effortlessly. And while Jodha-Akbar, like most Hindi films, assigns high-falutin Urdu to its Muslim historical personages and Sanskritized Hindi to its Hindu ones, irrespective of what period is being represented (the Bollywood equivalent of Hollywood actors speaking in accented English when playing non-English speakers), Hrithik's Urdu diction is commendable -- he betrays none of the Bombay-boy accent that mars the Hindi/Urdu of very many of his contemporaries. If the role has a flaw, it is that Hrithik is playing the storybook (i.e. a generic) emperor -- not the famously earthy Akbar of history, intensely curious and fond of a laugh. Hrithik's Akbar is all monarch, and a bit too starched: a couple of scenes that attempt the contrary notwithstanding, one is hard-pressed to imagine this body getting sweaty. Nevertheless, Hrithik Roshan is a worthy challenger to Prithviraj Kapoor's older Akbar (in Mughal-e-Azam (1960)) for the title of best Bollywood monarch (Dilip Kumar's monarch-in-waiting Salim from Mughal-e-Azam was all precious foppery and no steel; while Hema Malini's Razia Sultan (from the 1983 film of the same name, perhaps not coincidentally released during Indira Gandhi's tenure as Prime Minister) was simply hapless), and did a better job than I would have expected from the rest of his oeuvre. A special mention must be made of Roshan in Akbar's confrontations with Adham Khan (the son of the emperor's wet nurse Maham Anga): not only does Haider Ali skillfully weave in the grounds for Akbar's ultimate falling out with Adham Khan (who had been diverting some of the loot from the Mughal conquest of Malwa; this would have troubled the emperor not because it signaled avarice, but rather, political independence and the usurpation of the sovereign's prerogatives), he does so in a manner that absolves Akbar of any culpability in the brutality of the Mughal sack of Malwa, preserving the hero's aura for contemporary squeamishness. Meanwhile, Hrithik's anger at Adham Khan's excesses is a rare moment of passion in the film, and a reminder that the greatest of Mughal emperors was no pussy cat.
The supporting cast is uneven: among the more prominent cast-members, Kharbanda manages, as always (with the exception of his debut as the villain Shakaal in Shaan (1980)), to be both insipid and annoying, while Sonu Sood is reliably compelling as Jodha's aggrieved cousin Sujamal. Gowariker should have done better with the characterization of the lesser Mughal male characters: far too many are etched as rather brutish warriors, reminiscent of stereotypes about butchers rather than courtiers. While the fledgling Mughal court during the period doubtless retained some of the freewheeling (relative) egalitarianism and rusticity of the Turkic tribal tradition (as opposed to the more Persian classical monarchical model Akbar would (under the guidance of Abul Fazl) construct over the course of his reign), it is hard to shake the feeling that Gowariker is not bringing us a whiff of the Central Asian steppe here, but has reflexively resorted to stereotypes about "Muslim warriors". Bairam Khan (Yuri Suri) is surely the most hard done by, but he isn't the only one. [Plus, on the subject of stereotypes, one wonders what meat-eating Rajputs since time immemorial would have made of the notion of Jodha having a vegetarian meal prepared for a feast; as far as I know, vegetarianism has hardly been this community's culinary calling card]. The women fare much better, represented as "normal" in a way the men never are (the contrast between Akbar's sister Bakshi Bano (Abeer Abrar) and his brother-in-law Sharifuddin (Nikitin Dheer) sums up the distinction). The one female villain is a splendid embodiment of masala wickedness: Ila Arun as Maham Anga commands attention in every scene she is in, and knows her Bollywood tropes very well; who needs naturalism when you can have this much fun telling a daughter-in-law "Aap ka aur Jalal ka sirf sauda hua hai [The emperor and you have simply struck a bargain [i.e. as opposed to making a real marriage]]"? I wish the director and writer had drunk longer from this well.