[Statutory warning: I can’t promise that everything described here is an accurate reflection of what happens in Jodhaa Akbar. Parts of this review are as authentic a representation of the film as the film itself is of the Mughal era.]
It turns out that the controversy about historical authenticity in Jodha Akbar has been such a waste of everyone’s time. This film is really at its most authentic when it abandons all pretence that it was made for any reason other than to bring together Bollywood’s two most beautiful people (and a lot of shiny jewellery). Take the magnificently show-offish moment where a shirtless Akbar (Hrithik Roshan) displays his swordsmanship while Jodha (Aishwarya Rai) watches in womanly awe. The scene exists completely independent of context – it’s about Hrithik as the ultimate alpha-male preening like a peacock (an inordinately muscular peacock) for Aishwarya; it’s about sending vicarious thrills through star-struck moviegoers of both sexes. With just a minor alteration in setting and costume, it could easily have come out of Dhoom 2, a film that was a fine showcase for this same couple.
As it happens, this is one of the most assured scenes in Jodhaa Akbar. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the film makes a half-hearted stab at telling us about various things that may or may not have occurred in the mid-16th century. Yawn. Completely beside the point. Anyway, this is roughly what happens, or what I could make out as I drifted in and out of sleep:
(An unreliable summary)
The first few minutes give us the background on the many political intrigues of the time, in the stentorian but much-too-familiar voice of Amitabh Bachchan. (Like a stern father-in-law keeping a watchful eye on Aishwarya after that kiss in Dhoom 2, Bachchan’s presence looms large here: not only does he do these ponderous voiceovers but Sonu Sood, the actor who plays Jodha’s protective brother Sujamal, strongly resembles the young Amitabh – the moustached Amitabh of Reshma aur Shera, for example, or even Ganga ki Saugandh - from many angles.) Most of the historical information is tedious and complicated, though there’s a certain fun to be had in seeing the kings of Hindustan depicted as petulant little boys, sulking, whimpering and clinging to their thrones when faced with the prospect of being made vassals. (As the maharajah of Amer, Kulbhushan Kharbanda looks and sounds like he has serious breathing problems, and little wonder given the number of heavy necklaces weighing him down at all times.)
Meanwhile, on the Mughal side of things, there is Bairam Khan, a good old-fashioned medieval psychopath who uses his official status as guardian for the boy-prince Akbar to nurture a very personal fetish for lopping off enemy heads. Unfortunately for Bairam, the boy-prince soon grows up and dispenses with his services. To prove that he is worthy of ruling the country, Akbar then takes on a wild elephant in a scene that is reminiscent of Hrithik’s superhero-racing-the-horse in Krrish. But what really puts his courage to the test is when he agrees to wed the Hindu princess Jodha to complete a political alliance: her long list of demands includes the right to sing bhajans loudly in the next room while he is discussing matters of state with his viziers.
Sadly the marriage remains unconsummated because by the time J and A have finished removing all those layers of jewellery they are no longer horny and only wish to sleep. This puts the future of the Empire in jeopardy. Also, there are culture shocks that must be dealt with. The newlywed Jodha, wholly unaccustomed to the brutal ways of the Mughals, watches aghast as her husband has a traitor thrown to his death from the roof (cue bone-crunching sound) and then has him thrown off again when the job isn’t finished. (Aishwarya’s eyes widen: she never got to see such gory things in the Bachchan household except when Amar Singh and Shah Rukh came visiting at the same time.)
Anyway, after watching Akbar’s topless swashbuckling, Jodha decides that the way to a man’s eight-pack abs is through his stomach. So she takes over the royal kitchen and sets about preparing a large vegetarian meal for him with her own hands. However, things nearly go perilously wrong when she misinterprets an order for a “24-carrot salad” and slips some of her rubies and emeralds into the dish, causing the emperor’s courtiers to suffer from indigestion for days afterward. In a delicate and affecting scene, the crafty Ila Arun (playing Akbar’s wet-nurse) enters the kitchen grounds where countless heaps of vegetables are scattered about, and bursts into a rendition of “Mooli ke peeche kya hai”. This highly dramatic sequence ends with Jodha falling out of favour; however, after a timely reconciliation, our leads start making out on the floor of the chamber (as chronicled in a lost volume of the Akbarnama) before realising that they should move to the bed in the interests of royal decorum.
Meanwhile the political intrigues continue apace, but thankfully they are punctuated by some nice quiet moments between Akbar and Jodha – like the one where she bends down to touch his feet and he catches her mid-dive, in the manner of every traditional Indian husband in a Bollywood film (in other words: make sure the woman genuflects, but also make a token gesture that will show how modern-thinking you are). There are an equal number of scenes where the characters simply wander about languorously, admiring the gardens, reclining on bolsters, playing with rabbits and pigeons and looking a little bored, like they wish television had been invented.
Despite all the gloss, this is a static film, full of scenes that carry on long past their sell-by date. Ashutosh Gowrikar said in an interview that his movies are as long as the story requires them to be, but even someone who knows very little about the technical aspects of filmmaking will see that Jodhaa Akbar could easily have been shorter and more compact. (The number of reaction shots alone made me think that some bits could have been produced almost as competently by the Ekta Kapoor factory.) The battle scenes are indifferently put together and it's hard to work up much interest in which general's elephant is crushing which foot-soldier's head; I was immensely disappointed even by the final one-on-one combat, which I’d hoped would at least give the film a rousing ending. And when computer effects are pressed into service (as in the aerial shot of discharging cannons, with one of them shooting its flaming iron ball straight into the camera), the effect is still flat and uninspired.
Diamonds last forever; so does this film
I was forewarned that the only reason to watch Jodhaa Akbar was to feast one’s eyes on the extravagant jewellery adorning the persons of nearly every member of the cast. After seeing it, I have to agree that the experience was rather like four hours spent in a gold souk that has two large and handsome posters of Hrithik and Aishwarya on the walls, and some soulful A R Rahman music playing somewhere in the background. If you love jewellery that much, good for you – if not, you may feel that this film goes on for nearly as long as the Mughal Empire did.