Almost too beautiful to bear – Jodhaa Akbar

Cecil B. DeMille could take lessons. Seriously. Though I’m not sure he would have used quite as many elephants as Ashutosh Gowariker.

Last night I saw the latest Bollywood mega-release, Jodhaa Akbar, and to say the movie is stunningly beautiful is an understatement. We know Bollywood loves colour, but this time it’s outdone itself.

The movie portrays the strategic sixteenth century marriage between Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar to the Rajput princess Jodhaa. Despite some dispute about her real name, or even whether she married Jalaluddin or his son, we know the marriage took place to bring Rajput into the empire. So the rest, as Gowariker admits, is artistic licence.

Stress the “artistic.”

Everywhere you look, there is riotous colour: in the elaborate designs on the walls, in the flowing silks, and even on the elephants and horses. Characters stroll through panels of lightly billowing fabric, or gaze through ethereal curtains, their bodies richly adorned with gold. A gathering at the Mughal court is a study in regional costumes, all wildly colourful.

The music meshes both with the intricate architecture (primarily Agra Fort outside Delhi, and Amber Fort in Rajasthan) and the swirl of the fabrics. Everything flows, in this movie. Hrithik Roshan, playing Jalaluddin, stands and walks like an emperor, each step measured and graceful, his Mughal dress flowing with him as though he was born wearing it. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, as Princess Jodhaa, carries her brightly coloured Hindu dress and veils with equal grace.

The music, more subtly than we’d normally expect from Bollywood, weaves organically through the plot rather than in the “insert musical number here” fashion of other movies. The first song takes an hour to emerge: a short piece featuring only Rai Bachchan. When we finally encounter a more extensive song, several Sufis singing at the wedding, Jalaluddin slowly twirls with them, immersed in mystical experience. None of the typically manic musical numbers here. Most of the remaining songs are equally solitary and dreamy.

But when the larger, heavily choreographed number finally shows up (you knew it must), it stuns you with its complexity, scale, and beauty. It’s as though they saved up the energy from earlier songs and lavished it all at once in a production that would have left Mr. DeMille, of the “thousand extras,” weeping. It certainly brought me to tears.

The casting of the main characters was frankly a master stroke. Roshan was born to play this role, perfectly portraying both the emperor’s carriage and authority (with a slight touch of arrogance), and the man’s struggle to rule and love justly without jeopardizing that authority. Rai Bachchan conveyed both grace and resolve, viewing the world with shy uncertainty one moment, then fixing it with a strong, steely-eyed stare. And both actors conveyed more emotion with their eyes than could ever be expressed in words.

Was this, then, a perfect movie? Of course not. For example, in the various fights, some of the “near misses” were too obviously faked, so these scenes were “not bad” rather than entirely convincing. They were plenty dramatic, though.

There were plot holes, too. Nobody ever explained why Jodhaa’s foster brother, Rajkumar Sujamal, was passed over as crown prince of Rajput. Given that much of the plot revolved around his attempt to regain his status, one might have considered such info to be important.

Similarly, it was never explained why Jalaluddin’s mother had to be away for 15 years, leaving him to develop his emotional attachment to Maham Anga. Nor did we clearly see how his mother acquired the information that exposed Maham Anga’s plots, even though it resolved the intrigue and set the stage for the emperor’s reconciliation with Jodhaa.

The various intrigues were in fact resolved rather more easily than they would have been in real life. But that’s an issue in most historical movies.

What makes Jodhaa Akbar important, aside from any art or imperfections, is its attempt to convey that one can rule justly, neither harming nor dancing attendance on any religious world view. Gowariker learned as much as possible about the different cultures brought together under Jalaluddin’s rule. And he made his point convincingly in the massive dance scene, where the costumes of those cultures were vividly displayed as each group paid homage to the emperor.

Taken overall, the sheer visual and musical magnificence of the movie, the emotional and convincing portrayal of Jalaluddin and Jodhaa, and the drama of a ruler trying to develop a just, secular reign in the midst of a religiously polarized world, make this a movie you must see if you love Bollywood. Even moreso, if you love India.

Wikipedia article on Agra Fort (be sure to enlarge the photos)

Wikipedia article on Amer (Amber) Fort

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