Ashutosh Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro opens with a big disclaimer that none of what’s to follow should be taken too seriously. I suppose this injunction is meant for those who missed the trailer with the flying crocodile, but it does make sense, especially when you see what it really means: This isn’t a history lesson, title be damned. We’re trying to make quasi-historical, quasi-mythical shlock, the kind Cecil B DeMille specialised in. Also, if you bought Elizabeth Taylor as an Egyptian queen in Cleopatra, which Hollywood has never quite topped in the schlock-o-meter, please don’t complain about Hrithik Roshan’s gold-tipped curls that manage to remain curly even after a wrestle with the above-mentioned crocodile. And please, no sniggers about his amazingly modern, gym-sculpted torso. Did burpees exist then? Sorry, wrong question. Here’s the right one: Who cares?
What Gowariker and his “researchers” have done is essentially corral up facts about the ancient civilisation and weave a Chosen One story around them. Facts like these: there was a Lower City and an Upper City; there was urban planning; they had “ghar ke oopar ghar” (flats, in other words); they liked Indrajal comics (characters are named Hojo, Lothar); they burnt their dead; they paid taxes; they built dams; they mined gold; they marvelled at horses and tropical birds brought in from other countries; they loved staging multicultural, multinational dance events (sort of like the opening ceremony at the Olympics, but with AR Rahman’s mighty shrug of a title track, which sounds like it was tom-tommed all the way from the Phantom’s jungles). In the final frames, we even see the famous “Dancing Girl” bronze statuette, whose hand-on-the-hip pose clearly inspired some of the choreography. What inspired the shockingly generic screenplay, though, is anyone’s guess.
So Hrithik plays Sarman, who, like all self-respecting Chosen Ones, lives in obscurity (he’s an indigo trader) and has portentous dreams. He dreams of a unicorn, which, thanks to the visual effects, looks more like a unigoat. Destiny, which always shows up in the supporting cast in these stories, drags him to the titular city, where he falls for Chaani (Pooja Hegde). I must say Hegde acquits herself more admirably here than she did in Mysskin’s ill-fated Mugamoodi, which impels me to coin a term for this phenomenon: The Taapsee Pannu Effect. After a series of insipid performances in Tamil films, I was shocked to see Taapsee’s entertaining turn in Baby. What a difference knowing the language makes. I’m not saying Pooja Hegde is great or even good – just that she at least looks like she knows which way is up, which way down. The problem, though, is that she looks too modern – and this is a problem with most of today’s heroines. You don’t face this problem in Utsav, the gold standard for Hindi-film period epics. Rekha had that kind of face, that kind of bearing. I had fun thinking who’d play Vasantasena in an Utsav remake today. You can think these things during Mohenjo Daro. In fact, you may have to think these things. The film is 150 minutes long, and if Gowariker won’t entertain you, you’ve got to do it yourself. Oh, the plot. It’s dazzlingly new. See, you have this rich girl who meets this poor boy, and they fall in love. What’s more, the girl is being forced to marry the villain’s son (Arunoday Singh). And, and… the villain (Kabir Bedi) killed the hero’s father. I’m amazed no one thought of all this before.
Gowariker, as always, directs with the sincerity of a class topper reading out an essay during Parent’s Day. There’s not a trace of wildness, not even when a mad plan is hatched to make a bridge by lining up boats. The jaw should drop. Instead, the eye rolls. Thank heavens for Kabir Bedi. He’s clearly the only one who read the screenplay and saw it for what it truly is – his gloriously hammy turn is one for the ages. And the one time Hrithik should have gone for broke with the nostril-flaring that has marked a lot of his recent performances, he reins it all in. He cuts loose only in an action sequence, before which we’re told he’ll face the toughest of tests. I expected something grandly trashy, like getting a blue flower from the head of the wife of a short-tempered, curse-prone rishi. Alas! Sarman is made to fight two musclemen who look like extras who have dropped in from shooting a Rohit Shetty action scene in the adjacent set. Oh well. At least, the film answers two pressing questions. Who invented democracy? And who named the Ganga? The answer to both is Hrithik Roshan. I know we live in an age where history is being rewritten, but this may be a tad much: our most sacred river being christened by Jadoo’s BFF.
The film’s finest touch is a fleeting one. Early on, the characters speak in a language we don’t understand. After a while, the camera zooms in on a pair of lips and zooms out – the conversations are now in Hindi. It’s a beautifully cinematic touch to imply translation. And for a while, the Hindi they speak sounds just a little odd: sapeena for sapna, janawar for jaanwar. We get the sense of people like us, but not exactly like us. Gowariker’s films always have a couple of good lines. Of Sarman’s anger, his aunt says, “Oas ki boond hai uska gussa, ek pal mein hawa ho jayega.” It reminded me of this exquisite line from Swades: “Apne hi paani mein pighalna barf ka muqaddar hota hai.” There’s a smashing masala line too, when Sarman yells, “Jo rakht tune bahaya main uska katra hoon.” My question, then, is this. Why do Gowariker’s films have just one or two lines that stand out? If you have an ear for dialogue, why not fill your script with prose that borders on purple? Because the film, otherwise, is the very definition of colourless.
- Baby = see here
- “ghar ke oopar ghar” = a house on top of another
- Mugamoodi = see here
- Utsav = see here
- sapna = dream
- jaanwar = animal
- “Oas ki boond hai uska gussa, ek pal mein hawa ho jayega.” = His anger is like a dewdrop. It will evaporate in a moment.
- “Apne hi paani mein pighalna barf ka muqaddar hota hai.” = It’s the destiny of ice to melt in its own water.
- “Jo rakht tune bahaya main uska katra hoon.” = I am a drop from the blood you have spilled.
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