Friday, February 15, 2008

Jodhaa Akbar

Minimum Distance

Today marks the premiere of Jodhaa Akbar here and the reasons for wanting to watch this film are simple - the pairing of Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, director Ashutosh Gowariker, and musician A.R. Rahman. It's simply an irresistible combination, one that everyone in the cinema hall would attest to, given the full house, and the full house in the next screening.

Jodhaa Akbar is set in the 16th century, which tells of an arranged marriage for strategic alliance purposes that blossomed into true love between a Mughal emperor, Jalaluddin Mohammad (Hrithik Roshan) and a Rajput princess Jodha (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). In fact, as how most historical epics would go, such as the likes of Alexander or peer Bollywood film Asoka (starring Shah Rukh Khan), while efforts are placed into extensive research to try and stay as authentic as possible, there still are various interpretations to characters, some of whom will be taken to task (like Oliver Stone's vision of Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great) by audiences. The contention here is the story behind Jodha, and the various names she goes by with different retellings, and that is put up front even before the opening credits start to roll.

Director Gowariker's pedigree with his successful epics like Lagaan and Swades puts him in good stead as he tackles this love story on multiple fronts. In fact, as he puts it, it's a story about the meeting of two cultures and two religions, so basically, what's in a name? Sometimes I wonder about similarities with the formation of big countries as we know it today, with China undergoing multiple civil styled wars in bids by conquerors to unite it, and with India, it seems that it's no different. We get to see the multitudes of ethnic groups, each with their unique practices which we were given glimpses on, thanks to the superb art direction and wonderful, authentic sets recreated.

Jalaluddin Mohammad hails from the Mughals, and is a Muslim, who from young is told by various quarters what to do, and how to lead his life as Emperor of Hindustan. He gains a reputation on the battlefield, which could parallel those in Hollywood in terms of sheer scale and grandeur, even utilizing hordes of marauding elephants and settled into some icky territory when elephants rampage and stomp on soldiers. Blood aside, we see Jalaluddin slowly become a man of his own, and in a bid to forge a strategic alliance, he's offered the hand of Jodha Bai. However, this arranged marriage was doomed a failure from all quarters, because of the difference in religion (she's a Hindu) and culture. Furthermore, the reluctant Jodha makes it all the more difficult by asking for 2 conditions, that she be allowed to practice her religion, and to build a shrine in their bridal home. He agrees.

And in today's context, I would say this act of proposition and acceptance would also raise some eyebrows sky high. But herein likes the key message that gets drummed through the movie - why can't we love despite our differences? Why can't we enjoy the diversity that each religion or culture bring, instead of baying for blood and inciting hatred? Jodhaa Akbar has its message of (religious) tolerance worn very prominently on its sleeve. It's quite radical and forward thinking in Jalaluddin's character, and we feel for the couple as they go journey from strangers to soul mates overcoming the various challenges posed from the outside, and between themselves as they try hard to break the thick ice.

But it's not all lovey-dovey in turmoil times like theirs, where politicking takes place from the macro with the constant threat of war and the running of a country, to the micro where internal jealousies and the defending of personal turf rear their ugly head, which kind of reminisce the many petty backstabbings found behind closed royalty doors, with Jalaluddin's nanny Maham Anga (Ila Arun) proving to be the attempted spoiler and go between in the marriage. And to leaders out there, there's a scene which while it's something that's not new, is always apt to remind them not to sit on their ivory towers, but to walk the ground and hear the grumbling first hand, as nothing beats ground level intelligence.

In most parts, Jodhaa Akbar had reminded me of Cecil B DeMille's historical productions, with its beautiful sets, costumes, great acting, and intense battle sequences. There are a couple of nice action set pieces ranging from full scale war with the clashing of two opposing sides (the elephants were a great bonus, trust me), to a duel which turns out to be a courtship ritual, something not new since both Hrithik and Aishwarya challenged each other before (though on the basketball court), with the latter quite well versed in swordplay given her earlier role in The Last Legion, and one featuring what I thought took a leaf out of the battle between Hector and Achilles in Troy.

Of course, no Bollywood movie will be without music and dance, and here, it's done quite tastefully as you don't expect sudden outbursts into song. The music by A.R. Rahman is top notch as usual, and dances here happen naturally as part of the narrative flow, with the first song coming out only just before the hour mark. Needless to say I found myself tapping my feet to almost all of them. There are a numerous plus points in this blockbuster, and if I'm telling you I'm getting the DVD when it's released, I'm already giving this a vote of confidence that it's a contender to make it to my top 10 movies of the year. Highly recommended! Oh, and you'll have to watch this yourself to find out if Hrithik and Ash did sizzle after their locking of lips in Dhoom2!

P.S. Running 213 minutes, I was thankful that the intermission was granted by the cinema operators for you to stretch your legs, and release the load in your bladder.

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