Ashutosh Gowariker (AG) started his directing career with duds like “Pehla Nasha” and “Baazi”. Both the movies sank without a trace save for the image of Aamir Khan in drag in a song in Baazi. “Lagaan” hit the theatres in 2001 and AG was catapulted to the “A” list of directors. Despite its length and a predictable plotline, Lagaan was an enjoyable movie. Its heart was in its right place, it had a clear agenda. Then came “Swades”. Despite its not so good fairing at the box office, Swades was also a focussed attempt, AG was in control, the purpose was crystal clear and he managed to extract a controlled performance from SRK.
Jodhaa Akbar (JA), sadly, is a big disappointment. AG as a storyteller seems lost and confused in this magnum opus. He got too distracted with the mega sets, the costumes and the beautiful leading pair. As soon as a director looses his or her grip on what is that he is trying to convey, no amount of SFX, million dollar jewellery and wide angle war scenes can cover up the lack of a seamless narrative.
Do not get me wrong, JA is not all that bad – It has its strengths – the costumes, the sweeping locales, the Moghul palaces, the war scenes, the glorious beauty of Hrithik Roshan (HR) and Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan (ARB) , AR Rehman’s soulful music. Sadly though, it does not use these strengths to tell a neat story. At the end of three hours and twenty minutes you feel empty. You leave with the awesome jewellery around ARB’s slender neck and an ARR tune to hum.
Let’s talk about the lead character – Aamir Khan’s Bhuvan in Lagaan was a classic underdog hero, SRK’s Mohan Bhargava in Swades was a confused individual coming to grips with his roots – all text book protagonists in the art of cinema. Hrithik Roshan’s Akbar, however comes across as a manipulated character who reacts in an episodic narrative. In order for the audience to connect or empathize with the hero, they need to see the compelling reasons for his actions. JA lacks in this basic formula. It falters badly, it goes from one sweeping palace to another sun soaked battlefield to another grand palace and takes it characters along with it who seem only to react (and not act) to the situation they are in (which itself seems forced).
I am not looking for historical accuracy in such movies (let’s leave that for the History channel). Historical epics are more a vision of the director and the scriptwriter of a certain episode in history and I am willing to let them take liberties at that. This is exactly why I did not understand why JA was banned in certain places (Indian sensitivities are a subject of much intrigue). Fictionalizing history can be made into a fascinating product – Mughal-e-Azam is a fine example. It had all that JA has – palaces, fierce battle scenes, costumes and a strong script where the focus was always on the tainted love of Salim and Anarkali and the conflict that arises from this affair. JA’s middle act forms for a complete movie. The moment Akbar and Jodhaa consummate their marriage should have been “The End”.
Lets talk about HR and ARB’s performances. I must say they look royal and their physicality is regal. HR is like a Calvin Klein underwear model in Moghul period costumes. He tries too hard, he seems sincere but does not have the brooding, burning aura of a King. ARB looks stunning and luminous. But as soon as these lead actors talk – you know you are watching 21st century individuals reciting 14th century dialogues. There is a laziness, a slow drawl, a unique way of delivering dialogues in such movies. An Urdu word “Nazaakat” aptly describes this quality. If you want to know what I mean go watch Dilip Kumar, Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam, go watch Rekha in Umrao Jaan, hell even Rajendra Kumar in Mere Mehboob. These actors got it right, they mouthed their words slowly yet with a certain weight. HR and ARB completely miss the boat, in some scenes their dialogue delivery is just like it would be in Dhoom2.
Other performances are not noteworthy (Kulbhushan Kharbanda continues to talk like he has some fishbone stuck in his gums and is trying to take it out with his tongue ). There are too many unnecessary distractions and sub-plots in the movie. The battle scenes are mounted on a massive scale but when the soldiers on the two sides engage it reminds you of the battle scenes from Ramayana or Mahabharata. That’s all I will say about that.
ARR’s music as always is of exceptional quality. “Marhaba” and “Jash-e-Baharaa” make for classic musical pieces.
Overall, it seems like AG got caught up with the high expectations of a big budget extravagant historical epic and lost his attention from what he does best – tell a simple story well.