Reviews Too Late: Jodhaa Akbar

by wjw on August 20, 2009

Jodhaa Akbar (2008) is an epic Bollywood film dealing with the relationship between the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (former child star Hrithik Roshan) and his wife Jodhaa Bai (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, known to her fans as The Most Beautiful Woman in the World).
What we have here is a chick flick, albeit one with sword fights and enormous battle scenes.
We open with a lengthy genealogy of the main characters, which proves necessary because everyone is related by marriage or blood to everyone else. The Young Akbar has to fight for the Mughal throne from the age of 13, which allows the filmmakers to create an enormous battle scene with masses of ranked elephants. Meanwhile, the young Jodhaa is raised as a Rajput warrior, with considerable martial skill. She’s betrothed as a child to a Rajput prince, and has a close relationship with her brother Sujamal.
Sujumal, who has reasonable expectations of inheriting a chunk of the principality of Amer (now Jaipur), is disinherited by his uncle the Raja. Sujamal then rides off to conspire with various other local rulers to regain his position, which alarms the Raja such that he gallops straightaway to the Emperor Akbar, to suggest a marriage between his majesty and Jodhaa, thus providing himself with an enormously powerful ally in the event of trouble.
The Raja arrives at the court just as Akbar is taming a wild elephant. It’s an unlikely scene, but it gives Hrithik Roshan a chance to do at least some of his own stunts— he leaps, bounds off wall, and lands on the back of the elephant. Very impressive.
When the Raja gets around to proposing the marriage idea, Akbar, who would like to ally with the ferocious Rajputs, is taken with the notion.
The sticking point: Akbar is Muslim, and Jodhaa is Hindu, with a special affection for the blue-skinned flutist Krishna. But Akbar is liberal-minded as ferocious Timurid Muslim conquerors go, and doesn’t see a problem (unlike everyone else in the film). (The real-life Akbar set traditional Islam aside later in life, and founded his own religion, which did not long survive him.)
Akbar meets Jodhaa, and she surprises everyone by refusing marriage unless she is allowed to bring Krishna to Agra and set up her own temple in the palace. Akbar is taken aback, but agrees, much to the scandal of his court.
Akbar is even more taken aback when, after a double Hindu/Muslim wedding ceremony, Jodhaa refuses to sleep with him. “You must win my heart,” she says.
As ferocious conquering Timurid Muslim rulers go, Akbar is a gentleman. He agrees to this.

Startling as this is, this is actually a fairly astute idea on the part of the screenwriters. In a political marriage, the courtship (if there is one) takes place after the couple say “I do.” This also permits the filmmakers to create literally hours of sexual tension. We see all the typical Bollywood courtship scenes— flirtation, music, misunderstandings, heartfelt conversation, symbolism, no kissing or touching— all set in scenes of spectacular beauty.

But all is not well in the Red Fort. Akbar’s politically powerful wet nurse, Maham Anga, loathes the idea of another woman getting between her and the emperor, and (along with her wild, thieving son) sets in train a complicated harem conspiracy to make Jodhaa seem guilty of treason. (It’s hard to have a harem conspiracy when there’s only one person in the harem, but Maham Anga manages it.)
Meanwhile Jodhaa’s brother Sujamal is off conspiring with various evil cousins-by-marriage of everybody, and the realm is getting shaky. A clash of religion threatens India. Assassins are on the way. We’re going to get more than one spectacular sword fight before this is over.
Jodhaa Akbar is an incredibly lush, gorgeous movie, full of color and spectacle. All the scenes in palaces are set in real palaces, not movie sets. The scenes in the Red Fort are shot in the actual Red Fort. Huge armies march across spectacular landscapes. The costumes are brilliantly colored and detailed.
There is plenty of music, but the principals don’t spend their time breaking into song. Instead they gaze soulfully at one another while love songs play on the sound track. They only actually sing to one another in the scene where they finally have sex, except of course they don’t actually have sex. Or even kiss. Or even kiss the same apple, as the Bollywood cliche goes.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan may not, as her fans claim, be the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, but she’s gorgeous and talented. Hrithik Roshaan makes a fine studly hero whose muscular torso is celebrated in many scenes. Action, romance, spectacle, conspiracy, danger— all the good stuff. I wish I’d seen it on the big screen.
Historical note: It’s a lovely movie, but it never happened. Jodhaa’s name wasn’t really Jodhaa, she was born Rajkumari Hira Kunwari, and becameMariam uz-Zamani Begum Sahiba after marriage. She didn’t set up Krishna’s temple in the Red Fort; she converted to Islam. She wasn’t Akbar’s first wife, or even his first Rajput wife. She gave birth to Akbar’s heir, Jahangir.
Akbar was, as ferocious Timurid Muslim conquerers go, very liberal in matters of religion, and he did end the pilgrimage tax on Hindus, though he later reimposed it when he needed the money. He was extremely cultured and a fine theologian who started his own cult, though he never learned to read or write.
Akbar the Great also has one of the great redundant names of history: since Akbar means “great,” he’s Great the Great.
But as someone who lives by the Rio Grande River, I don’t find this at all unusual.
Oz August 20, 2009 at 11:29 am

I just finished Michael Woods' Story of India and realized just how much raw material is there in the subcontinent's history. The British colonial period of 150 years is about 30 minutes of the 6 hour show.

Thanks for the writeup. This one was tucked away on my netflix list. Around here, Aishwarya is pretty high on the list of beautiful women, especially after viewing her dancing "item number" in Bunty & Babli. One of the kid's favorite Bollywood scenes.


Ralf the Dog August 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm

All it needs is sand worms.

Anonymous August 20, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Kathy sez: I really enjoyed this movie! If you're a fabric junkie, you'll really love it, because apparently one of the things the Indian Upper Crust did was wear gorgeous fabrics in palaces decorated with gorgeous fabrics.

Also, the number of men wearing pearl necklaces in this film is pretty amazing.

On a more serious level, I thought Akbar's wooing of his Hindu wife Jodhaa was symbolic of his relations with Hindus in general. Although he's a Moslem, he does not think he has to prevent Hindus from worshiping their gods. The closer he gets to Jodhaa, the better his relations are with his Hindu subjects, and vice versa.

After he has repealed a tax on Hindus traveling to worship their gods, he is thanked in a big, flashy Bollywood musical number. Hindus of various sub-cultures come to his palace and perform their regional dances for him. This includes the Busby-Berkeley overhead shots, where the colorful dances look like a big kalaidoscope.

The cinematographer went to town on this. Not only does he channel Busby Berkeley, but he also takes advantage of the battle scenes to show us a battle from the point-of-view of a cannonball. Original, to say the least.

dubjay August 21, 2009 at 2:04 am

The dance scenes are in fact reminiscent of Busby Berkeley, with the exception that in Berkeley's stuff, the surrealism was =intentional.=

Zora August 21, 2009 at 5:56 am

You might also enjoy Luck by Chance, an intelligent film about Bollywood by a born Bollywood insider (female, which is wonderful). Various mega-stars do cameos. Hrithik is one.

AND Om Shanti Om, which is witty as all heck. A *satire* on Bollywood. Farah Khan, the director, is a woman. Huzzah for the female directors of Bollywood.

AND Jaane Tu Jaane Na, well-crafted fluff. Sophisticated fluff, even. But not directed by a woman.

Steve Stirling August 23, 2009 at 5:42 am

Of course, Jahangir turned out to be a an aesthetically talented drunk under whom the Mughal empire started to go seriously downhill, and his grandson Aurangzeb was a ferocious bigot who persecuted non-Muslims pitilessly and set the stage for the British conquest.

dubjay August 24, 2009 at 12:09 am

Zora, thanks for the recs! I have added them to my Netflix queue.

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