Directed by: Ashutosh Gowariker || Produced by: Ronnie Screwvala, Ashutosh Gowariker
Written by: Haidar Ali, Ashutosh Gowariker || Starring: Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai, Sonu Sood, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Ila Arun, Rajesh Vivek
Music by: A.R. Rahman || Cinematography by: Kran Deohans || Editing by: Ballu Saljuja || Country: India || Language: Hindi, Urdu
Running Time: 214 minutes
Much like with my reviews for the two film versions of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, 2011), this review is a continuation of my analysis of Mughal-e-Azam (1960, henceforth MEA) in that it is also a motion picture work of historical fiction that dramatizes more or less the same period and characters in Indian history, Emperor Akbar and his (alleged) primary wife, Jodhaa Bai. This review also serves as the second half of an “oldies vs. new releases” discussion, in that it’s the newest film generation’s take on the same historical figures from Mughal-e-Azam. In my previous evaluation, I noted that MEA was an incredibly well made classic that deserves the old-school respect it has received over the decades since its release, colorized and all. Can this newer dramatization of a remarkably similar story hold up to the same standard?
Jodhaa Akbar (henceforth, JA) certainly tries its best. At over three and a half hours in length, the film is a behemoth of a historical drama that takes its time in telling a story about one of India’s most famous historical figures.
The picture is directed by now well known Lagaan (2001) directer, Ashutosh Gowariker. Lagaan, which earned not only itself but all of Bollywood some much needed international recognition with its nomination for the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards, showed that Gowariker could be a director to watch. My own thoughts on that sports film’s overrated status notwithstanding, Lagaan was a solid film that earned its similarly massive length of 224 minutes. It was also notable for being one of the few Hindi sports dramas in Bollywood’s long, storied history to attract mainstream buzz within and beyond its native borders. Yes, I know Chak De! India (2007) is a Bollywood sports movie too, but I’m talking about movies that got any buzz, particularly in the international spotlight…
Anyway, back to JA. This newest film from Gowariker is noteworthy for both its historical subject and its director’s name. How does it fare as a complete movie compared to Lagaan? To MEA? To good Bollywood hits in general?
As I said earlier, JA tries its best, but that’s really the most it can be commended for — trying very, very hard to tell a captivating story. The problem is, while the love story central to JA concerning Hrithik Roshan’s Akbar and Aishwarya Rai’s Jodhaa is indeed interesting, the historical backdrop to the romance is plagued with inconsistencies and missed opportunities. What do I mean by that? For starters, JA misuses its supporting cast by cycling through narrative conflicts that never amount to any significant tension or drama. An example of this is a subplot involving Akbar’s wet nurse, who acts as both the emperor’s primary mother figure and a potential threat to Jodhaa’s acceptance in the Muslim royal court. However, the conflict posed by the wet nurse’s character is resolved about thirty minutes after it is introduced, and the impact of this confrontation is negligible to the overall story. We never see or hear from the wet nurse character again.
This trend continues in several other instances, with various political adversaries raising their heads only to be systematically chopped down ten to thirty minutes later, truncated before their subplots can have any room to breath and develop. Subsequently, there’s little drama, if any, garnered from these miniature conflicts that pop up every half hour or so. In the film’s defense, its overarching narrative structure is reminiscent of a Forrest Gump (1994) or Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) biographical tale, as it does follow Akbar’s life from a young child to married adult; and yet, none of the conflicts add any appreciable depth to Roshan’s or Rai’s characters. What’s more, films like Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button did possess several long-lasting conflicts that took their time to develop over their main story arcs and within their main characters. JA’s story isn’t very interesting beyond the meat-and-potatoes romance. Everything else is just kind of filler.
The lasting significance of all these wasted opportunities is that JA is much longer than it has to be. This story and its romance could have been told in less than two hours with all the movie’s filler removed. It’s quite a shame, because the romance that is central to the narrative works quite well, but it’s surrounded by all this borderline useless content that doesn’t go anywhere. The narrative also has no sense of urgency, with hardly any variation in pacing throughout the entire film. Right before the ending, I half-expected the movie to go on for another three hours because the film gave no indication of any climax approaching other than my checking the playback time on my computer screen. How’s that for unexciting?
In any case, the romantic side of JA is well done and effective. The patience and effort put into orchestrating the two lead’s screen time together far exceeds that concerning the narrative’s exterior content. Rai’s and Roshan’s chemistry is excellent. They play off each other and act as the yin to each other’s yang. The running time put into the love story also gives the romance an added maturity and a sense of realism that is often lacking in movie love-stories. Rai and Roshan have plenty of opportunity to get to know each other, letting their romantic and sexual interest build gradually in a way that’s more satisfying than if it had been rushed.
Another plus is A. R. Rahman’s excellent soundtrack. In characteristic Rahman fashion, the composer’s diverse musical score elevates the film to an extent that few other composers could hope to match. The tunes are both melodic and multi-layered, making the soundscape to this historical drama as easy a one on the ears as Roshan’s abs are on the eyes. Though the film’s music doesn’t take advantage of Rai’s dancing ability, the on-screen choreography mixes well with the songs to create a diverse range of numbers to carry the movie through its many dull parts. All in all, A. R. Rahman’s soundtrack goes a long way to save this film from feeling so spectacularly mediocre.
Taken as a complete project, JA manages to satisfy on enough accounts to make the biopic adventure worth it, but only by the skin of its teeth. It’s interesting to contemplate how effective JA might have been if all its narrative fat had been trimmed away. Beneath the excessive fluff, pointless plot deviations, and truncated, unsatisfying subplots is a throbbing romance that yearns to be appreciated in its purer form. Rahman’s music does much to make the experience worthwhile, but its hard to get too excited about the song numbers when they feel like a secondary act of contrition. A near perfect melding of musical ambiance and narrative a la Devdas (2002) this is not.
For me, this modern day tribute to the famous Mughal Emperor Akbar and, to a lesser extent, his wife Jodhabai, was a disappointment. Their partially historical, partially fictional dramatization is admirable, but ultimately, it pails in comparison to the previous attempt of dramatization of the same historical period done over forty years prior in Mughal-e-Azam. Gowariker’s expansive, deliberate style worked well in the cricket sports epic, Lagaan, but here, it satisfies less easily. The movie’s biggest errors are its painfully slow pacing and the lack of any real drama in or narrative significance of its numerous subplots. Despite how interesting the central romance is, the principle dynamic between Roshan’s Akbar and Rai’s Jodhabai is always interrupted every half hour or so by meaningless narrative obstacles and lazy attempts at political drama.
This is in stark contrast to the lean, focused drive in MEA, and the difference in aftertaste between the two versions of essentially the same historical drama is telling. Ultimately, MEA and JA are two completely different approaches to filming a similar story with the similar characters. I want to make it clear that I don’t believe that either style is inherently better or worse than the other — certainly many great stories have been told with the expansive, sprawling style of JA (e.g. Gladiator , The Lord of the Rings [2001-2003]) — but strictly between these two films, the more conservative approach by MEA worked better to tell this kind of tale.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Jodhaa Akbar’s romance between its two titular characters, when it’s in focus, is genuine and fully utilizes Roshan and Rai’s star power. The musical numbers are both diverse and melodic.
—- However… Jodhaa Akbar is filled to the brim with tedious, frivolous, borderline useless filler. This contributes to the film’s terrible pacing and bloated length, and includes the laughable action scenes. This movie is 214 minutes long and probably should have been 100.
—> ON THE FENCE: There’s a solid romance buried in here, somewhere, perhaps just a fan-edit away… but as it stands now? *shrugs*…
? It’s a sad day when even the mighty Mughal Emperor has to beg for sex from his wife. Come on, lady, let the guy get his rocks off, already!