Let me dispense with the formalities first: Jodhaa Akbar is not a bad movie. However, it does fall distressingly short of being a good one.
The movie tells the story of Akbar as a young Mughal king on the way to greatness, and his marriage to the Rajput princess Jodhaa. It was, to be sure, a political union. But it was also a path-breaking inter-religious one, and Akbar’s gradual understanding of Jodhaa had much to do with his image as one of the most secular kings in Indian history.
If the above paragraph seems to paint history in broad strokes, you have gotten a sense of what the movie will be like. There has been much controversy about the historical accuracy of the movie, so I will, for once, not comment on something I know little or nothing about. Instead, I will regard this as a story, and comment on whether it has been told well.
In this case, my answer would be: not very well.
Oh sure, it has big sets, elaborate costumes, some fight sequences, plenty of political intrigue, a love story about two people from very different cultures… Unfortunately, what the movie doesn’t have turns out to be crucial.
Script: The movie is fundamentally about the romance between Akbar and Jodhaa, but whoever scripted that plot thought he was writing it for a daytime soap called Kahaani Akbarr Kii (Is the spelling numerologically correct?). It doesn’t help that there is little chemistry between the leads to elevate the material. The more interesting aspect of the story is how Akbar manages to eliminate his opposition and become the supreme ruler of his domain. But this aspect is short-changed in favour of the love story.
And whose brilliant idea was it to have an ending where the fate of a kingdom is decided by a duel between two people? Listen, if I wanted to watch Gladiator, I’d buy the DVD, okay?
Pacing: A three-and-a-half-hour movie isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided it earns its running length. Having your cast walk and talk slowly doesn’t count as earning it. This is a two and a half hour movie. A merciless editor and a smart scriptwriter would’ve been able to ensure that.
Dialogue: There is ample scope for a movie like this to have some eloquent dialogue. Unfortunately, many scenes are bungled by extremely pedestrian stuff. Nowhere is this most glaring as in the scene where Akbar goes into the Agra market in disguise, to find out what the common man feels about his regime. And don’t even get me started on the romantic dialogue between Akbar and Jodhaa – much of it makes the exchanges between Anakin and Amidala in the Star Wars franchise sound like Shakespeare in comparison.
Composition: Mr. Gowariker, you’re making a historical epic where want people to feel transported to a different place and time. How the hell do you do that by distancing the audience from the subject? You want the audience to feel like they are in the middle of the place, experiencing what it would be like. The battle scenes in the beginning are shot so amateurishly it’s a disgrace. If your idea of depicting the horrors of battle is to show multiple shots of men getting squashed by elephants, you need to get your head checked. The only fight scenes that work to some extent are the one-on-one duels.
Then there’s the matter of the big production number where Jalal-ud-din is given the name Akbar by his people. This is a song with hundreds of people dancing, and it is shot from the POV of Akbar’s throne. Dude, he knows what he’s seeing from there. The audience, on the other hand, paid good money to sit in a multiplex and feel like they are in the middle of that crowd.
And then there’s the love scene between the lead couple. Listen, I don’t expect soft porn, but the way the scene was shot, I began to suspect that Prince Salim was actually their adopted child. Either shoot it right, or dispense with it altogether.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
To its credit, here are a few scenes that work wonderfully. Like one cute little scene where Akbar chances upon Jodhaa when she has just finished performing her puja, and with minimal dialogue, the cultural gap between them is brought out. Or the scene where Akbar has his brother killed for having murdered his right hand man.
But this is scant consolation in a movie filled with missteps. The point of a historical movie is to depict a world from many years ago. Instead, Ashutosh Gowariker blew up a lot of money to make the movie like it would’ve been made many years ago.