Review: Jodhaa Akbar / Mithya

Posted on February 16, 2008


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Hrithik and Aishwarya shine as married royals… when not smothered under the bloat of Ashutosh Gowariker’s historical romance. Plus, the year’s film-to-beat.

FEB 17, 2008 – I HAVEN’T LAID EYES ON PICTORIAL REPRESENTATIONS of Jahangir as an infant, but going by Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar, he was doubtless the handsomest baby in all of Mughaldom. And how could he not be, with Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for parents – those flesh-and-blood advertisements for eugenics, with those cheekbones and that jawline and that hair and those eyes? Hrithik occupies screen space with such silent poise and regal bearing, it’s hard to believe this is the same actor with the loosest limbs in Bollywood. And while Aishwarya’s beauty is no breaking news – in fact, that’s the only explanation for the longevity of her career – she’s so luminous from certain angles, it’s as if the cinematographer lit her from within. When I first saw these two together, my concerns about the film – based on rumours that it’s too long, too this, too that! – simply melted away. There are films that you go to because they change your life, your perspective, your reason for existence. Then there are those that function primarily as tourist brochures on celluloid, showing you beautiful people and beautiful places, all from the comfort of your well-upholstered seat in an air-conditioned theatre. If Jodhaa Akbar had been merely the latter, if Gowariker had done nothing more than train his camera on his leads – after positioning them in and around the period architecture that’s almost as good-looking – I’d have considered my four-something hours (including commercials and intermission) extremely well spent.

Unfortunately, Gowariker isn’t content with the story of a Mughal emperor named Akbar and a Rajput princess named Jodhaa getting married, overcoming their differences and living happily ever after. (And this alone would have made for a wonderful addition to our canon of romances, because with the exception of Mani Ratnam, almost no other mainstream filmmaker appears interested in exploring aspects of love after marriage.) Gowariker wants to contextualise this love story within the political turmoil of the period – and while this is no doubt necessary when you consider that we need to know the kind of man Akbar was and the kind of woman Jodhaa is before they become Jodhaa Akbar (what a nice touch that her name comes before his in the title, for it’s her influence that tempers him to greatness), Gowariker simply isn’t equipped with the skills to tell that story, the whole story. To make an epic entertainment out of all these disparate elements is perhaps impossible without a dash of go-for-broke madness, and Gowariker is too sane a director, too methodical, too… nice. What he’s very good at is in filling in the emotional landscapes of people – think of the moment in Swades when Shah Rukh Khan finally comes home, by drinking water that isn’t bottled – and when he moves beyond people and into politics, he’s plainly out of his league. I was left wondering why this filmmaker with such love for old-fashioned filmmaking – he foreshadows the evil that’s to come with a shot of a dark cloud enveloping a full moon – didn’t take a leaf or two out of Mughal-e-Azam, which blissfully abandoned all pretence of addressing history and therefore functioned marvellously as just a love story.

Jodhaa Akbar takes a long, long time to take off, and even when it does, it doesn’t soar so much as stay airborne for small durations between bumpy landings. You get a glimpse of what’s in store when, early on, Gowariker unleashes the battle of Panipat. There’s no energy in this sequence, and it’s so laughably staged, it’s as if the extras leapt into position a half-second after the director yelled, “Action!” A later sequence that has Akbar taming a wild elephant is worse, with Hrithik dodging this way and that, trying his darnedest to convince us that the beast is a mortal danger – while the poor pachyderm just lumbers along, shaking its head as if puzzled by this man’s inexplicably enthusiastic exertions. But even with the non-action sequences – say, the ones involving discussions on taxes or religion – the staging is so flat, you feel title cards could have done a better job. This happened, we’re told in a plodding fashion, and then that happened, and then this happened, and then that happened… After luring us into theatres with the promise of a love story, Gowariker gives us anything but that for long, dull stretches. A crucial subplot involving a threat to the throne is downright ridiculous, considering the villains behind these machinations have barely been developed as characters, and we’re meant to take them seriously.

And when a largish chunk of a film is filled with things you don’t much care about, it’s a huge problem. Gowariker wants to do justice to every single detail (the end credits feature a “food dresser for the Rajasthani meal”) and to every single actor, right down to the insignificant slave girl who makes an exit after relaying a crucial bit of information to her emperor. (The camera lovingly keeps her in focus as she does a salaam and exits the frame, instead of having her leave while the scene shifts to the others.) You wish all that time had been used to accommodate more scenes of Ila Arun, say, who plays Akbar’s wet nurse. This is a fascinatingly complicated character – filled with love for the emperor she has breastfed, and equally filled with insecurity over his increasing attention to his new wife – but the way she comes across is as a petty, scheming, cardboard vamp. Then there’s Akbar’s mother (played by a stiff Poonam Sinha), who could have made for an interesting counterbalance against the wet nurse who’s supplanted her as Akbar’s mother-figure, but all Sinha does is smile benignly and appear and disappear with alarming suddenness.

But thankfully, Gowariker pulls off the love story – at least the portions of it written around moments between Jodhaa and Akbar. (Away from politics, they are just people, see?) The first great sequence between them occurs as strains of a bhajan sung by Jodhaa waft over to Akbar’s court, as he is being questioned about his decision to let his Hindu wife build a temple in her quarters. The acrimony is instantly soothed over by the melody. Akbar excuses himself and wanders off in search of the source, he reaches the pooja room, removes his footwear, tiptoes around the wife he hasn’t fully seen unveiled, and when he comes around, she stops and turns and they face each other… Whether it’s due to Akbar locking eyes with Jodhaa or Hrithik Roshan finally justifying his pairing with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, this is the moment that begins to restore some balance to the movie. And there’s a beautiful coda, as he walks away lost in thought – not an emperor who’s taken leave of his queen but a smitten man who’s left behind a beautiful woman. It’s these silences that Jodhaa Akbar needed more of, these little stretches of nothingness that let us bask in the pleasure of a made-for-each-other couple at the cusp of falling in love.

Had the film been culled down to just its Akbar and Jodhaa moments, it would have still made for a not-bad love story. There’s a hugely entertaining sequence where Jodhaa prepares lunch for Akbar (courtesy, I guess, that “food dresser for the Rajasthani meal”), and the second half features a lovely stretch where Akbar tries to apologise for packing off Jodhaa to her father’s home over a misunderstanding. If these scenes don’t quite crackle and pop the way truly great love scenes do, they’re at least written and staged well enough to provide much-needed respite from all the courtly intrigue surrounding their union. And I liked how Gowariker depicts Akbar and Jodhaa as practically mirror images, the only differences being those of gender and religion. Towards the end of AR Rahman’s moving Khwaja mere khwaja number, Akbar sees a blinding light and gets in step with a group of whirling dervishes, as if in a trance – and later, this blinding light visits Jodhaa as she prays to her God for her husband’s life. An early instance of Jodhaa winning a swordfight when a manservant distracts her opponent’s attention is mirrored later, when Akbar wins a swordfight when a maidservant distracts his opponent’s attention. And even as children, we’re shown that he is handed a sword before a battle, while the paintings she makes aren’t of plants and skies but of forts.

But when they get married and when he senses that she may not be interested in him, he tells her that his religion gives her the option to walk out of the marriage, while she gently counters that according to her religion, this is a “saat janmon ka bandhan.” I expected the Azeem-o-shaan track to feature first, because it extols the emperor and would seem the perfect backdrop for a strutting Hrithik Roshan, but it makes sense that the first numbers we hear are Manmohana and Khwaja mere khwaja. The initial encounters between Jodhaa and Akbar are almost entirely coloured by religion – his and hers – and it’s only when a compromise and an understanding is reached that we get to the beautiful love song Kehne ko jashn-e-bahara hai. (The song sounds lovelier without any instrumental backing, when it echoes around Akbar and Jodhaa when they are separated for a brief while.) And it’s only when they become soul mates that Gowariker lets loose the awesome In lamhon ke daman mein, and you note that the push-pull dynamics of the composition – which kept you wondering when you just heard it – finally make sense, for the mood alternates between tender romance and torrid passions. Looking at it logically, this song has no business coming in so late and lasting as long as it does, but it provides such a beautifully satisfying culmination to the great love story we’ve been promised that you don’t want it to end.

There is this thing that Aishwarya does where her lips slacken just a bit, with the outline of a smile waiting to be born – and she uses this to great effect in her scenes with Hrithik. She is less sure when she has to hold forth about this and that, but whenever the camera catches her in a pose, she’s exquisite – I know this doesn’t sound like a compliment, but trust me, it is – and for all the problems with Aishwarya’s “acting,” I cannot see any other present-day heroine as Jodhaa, just as there’s no one else you can replace Hrithik with as Akbar. From the authority and the compassion in his refusal to behead a defeated king to the close-up intensity in his prayer at the shrine of Shaikh Chisti, from his self-mocking heroism during an argument with a grain merchant in Agra Bazaar to the self-aware sexuality while wielding a sword bare-bodied for his new wife’s benefit, this is one of those star turns that almost carries the movie. Almost – because Gowariker doesn’t allow his star to entirely break through. He gives us a look at Akbar’s dark side when the emperor has a traitor thrown from a height (and when he doesn’t die, he’s brought back up and callously tossed over again) — but this one-off instance doesn’t translate into a sustained shades-of-grey portrayal. (Had that been the case, the wild elephant that was tamed earlier could have been a stand-in for Akbar, who’s himself “tamed” by Jodhaa.) Hrithik is there in practically every scene, but other than those where he’s with Aishwarya, his edge is mostly blunted by Gowariker’s bloat – and the Akbar we get is simply a nice, sweet, charming bloke who incidentally has to run, oh, an empire. There’s an intimate two-person drama in here somewhere, buried under all the pomp and pageantry, and it’s too bad we catch only the occasional glimpse. Walking out, I felt as if Gowariker had zeroed in on Romeo and Juliet and then devoted most of his attention to detailing the internecine dealings between the Montagues and the Capulets.

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ON A VERY BASIC LEVEL, MITHYA COULD BE DESCRIBED as the pitch-black sludge that trickles out of the bottom of a distillation tower after the essence of Don has percolated past stages labelled Black Comedy, Surreal Nightmare, Chaplinesque Pathos, Existential Drama, Shakespearean Tragedy, and so on – but nothing, really, prepares you for the mind-bending mix of feel and mood that is Rajat Kapoor’s latest film. At first, it seems that Kapoor is simply going for an arty-indie spin on the blockbuster that gave us the Big B’s most iconic double-role performance. VK (Ranvir Shorey) is a struggling actor who just happens to look like Raje, the city’s most dreaded gangster. A rival gang (consisting of a scene-stealing Vinay Pathak, Brijendra Kala and Naseeruddin Shah) succeeds in substituting VK for Raje for reasons I’m still not very clear about, but then, this substitution is, for all purposes, a MacGuffin. You only think it has something to do with how the rest of Mithya unfolds, while what follow aren’t revolutions around plot so much as ruminations on philosophy. This is a film best seen when you know very little about it. Going in, I wasn’t aware of even the amount I’ve told you this far, and coming out, I was practically shaking at the madcap brilliance of it all. Spoiler alert till the close of this paragraph – but I’ll be very, very surprised if I see a moment this year that surpasses in emotional heft the last scene of VK’s, when he utters but one name. It’s a one-word dialogue that leaves your heart in your mouth.

Ranvir Shorey has always been on the fringes of the films he’s featured in so far, but if Mithya doesn’t catapult him to another league, I don’t know what will. Alternating dazzlingly between slapstick and soul, the actor gives one of those performances that can only be described as career-defining. He leaves behind such a wake, we seem to be feeling the aftershocks of his acting even in scenes where he does virtually nothing, as when VK’s image is silently reflected on a photograph of Raje made to look like Al Pacino in the Godfather films. (A meditation on duality? A telling underscore of the man VK was versus the man he now is? A cheeky in-joke? Who knows?) If I had to crib, I’d go with the somewhat undercooked Neha Dhupia character (she plays a moll) and the overly precious flourishes like a couple of gangsters named Ram and Shyam. The latter is a needlessly self-referential touch in a film that’s as far away from Bollywood as is humanly possible – because after a while, the grand storytelling ambition behind the seemingly simple double-role switch doesn’t echo Chandra Barot and Don so much as Kurosawa and his Kagemusha. By the end, I was both thoroughly exhilarated and thoroughly depressed, because beginning next week, it’ll be back to the grind. Whether from mainstream Bollywood or niche multiplex avenues, I don’t see anything coming across soon to top the magnificently written (and realised) Mithya. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi