As I've mentioned before, I'm willing to ignore historical accuracy in the interests of a good story, relegating the book or movie in question to the realm of "alternate history." When a movie opens with a disclaimer saying that the female subject of the film is so fuzzy in the annals of history as to have even her name in question, well, I can pretty much figure that I'm not gonna get a history lesson here.
Jodhaa Akbar released in February of this year. It stars Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai, and a whole boatload of other people who I won't mention unless their character comes up in this review, but feel free to read its Wikipedia entry if you're that curious. When I saw the length on the Netflix envelope I groaned (why? whyyyyyyy?) but hey, it's directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, he of the epic bent and spineless film editors, so what did I expect? (Ballu Saluja, my sore... dignity salutes you.) Still, his vision has produced movies like Lagaan and Swades in the past, so I had hopes for Jodhaa Akbar too. (And by the way, if you haven't checked out the Bollywood Fan's recent post on Swades be sure to do so; it gave me a whole new desire to watch the film.)
Jodhaa Akbar begins on a grand scale, with a massive battle scene involving lots of arrows, swords, and head-squishing by elephants. Yessss. We see young Mughal Jalaluddin (later Akbar), son of King Humayan, now king himself due to his father's untimely death, overseeing the battle from the sidelines while his general Khan (Raza Murad) wins for him. We see what might seem like squeamishness to his contemporaries as he flatly refuses to kill a defeated king. And we see him after he grows into that most rare of mortals: a man (Hrithik) of great power with great moral scruples as well.
After her father mortally offends her foster brother Rajkumar Sujamal (played by the supah-fine Sonu Sood), and announces his intention to ally with the Muslim Mughals, the Rajput princess Jodhaa (Aishwarya) discovers that she has lost her original fiance and now must be sacrificed on the matrimonial altar... to Emperor Jalaluddin. Terrified that she might be forced to convert to Islam, the devoutly Hindu Jodhaa puts forward three conditions to Jalaluddin: she must not be forced to convert, she must have a small shrine built in her quarters, and she must be allowed to bring a statue of her beloved god Krishna along with her to put into the shrine. (Geez, it's been two weeks since I saw the film last; I hope I got those right... if I didn't someone comment about it. LOL) Jalaluddin, or Jalal as he's called by those close to him, agrees, and she moves to her husband's palace after their nuptials.
One thing she doesn't do, however, is allow her husband to share her bed. It was at this point that I had to forcibly remind myself: "Alternate history! It's a movie!" because this seemed pretty unlikely. Unless, of course, he'd brought some members of his inevitable harem along with him, which would be rather tactless but perhaps period-correct... Except, in Jodhaa Akbar, Akbar (that means "the Great" and it's Jalal's title) doesn't have a harem, either. At least, I never saw any evidence of one in the film. But! Alternate history! Forge ahead!
Jalal agrees not to force Jodhaa to sleep with him, letting the decision rest with her. And here, the scale of the film rapidly dwindles down to focus on these two. Every court intrigue, every argument that affects the kingdom, every culture clash between Rajput Hindu and Mughal Muslim, is told through the lens of their developing relationship and how it's affected by the circumstances surrounding the two. That's not to say that the interest generated by the film dwindles too; in fact, as I got to know these two complex individuals I grew more and more fascinated with their story.
I loved Hrithik in this role; he played the arrogant emporer and lovesick swain equally well. And fortunately Gowariker prevented him from doing the roadrunner-on-speed vocal delivery he tends to fall back on when conveying heartbreak. Maybe the necessity of speaking Urdu instead of Hinglish helped there.
His portrayal of Jalal's growing love for Jodhaa is lovely, and when they finally get around to consummating their relationship, there's a moment in the song when all the music drops away and only his "voice" (um, that'd be Sonu Nigam's voice) sings, "Mere Khwaabon Ke Is Gulistaan Mein/Tumse Hi To Bahaar Chhaai Hai/Phoolon Mein Rang Mere The Lekin/In Mein Khushboo Tumhi Se Aaye Hai" (which [I think, according to others' translation] means, "In the garden of my dreams/Only you have brought about the most beautiful spring/The colour of the flowers might be mine but/the fragrance of those flower blossoms has come from you"). Guh. I died. To borrow Bollyviewer's phrase, it was bone-meltingly romantic. And Hrithik nailed that scene.
Aishwarya... hmmm. I enjoyed her depiction of Jodhaa--spunky, modest, indignant, and devout by turns. Her huge eyes lend themselves well to the little make-up she wears in the role. However, as far as her attraction to Jalal goes, well... I could tell he wanted her--I wasn't so sure about what she felt toward him until she flat-out said it. Maybe that's the way she was supposed to play it, though.
The sets are amazing: opulent and colorful, as are the clothes. The clothes! And the jewelry! It's total eye candy from start to finish. I'm not sure how Aishwarya even moved under the weight of all that jewelry when Jodhaa was dressed formally. Maybe that's one of the reasons she didn't dance in the film! Still, the famous swordfight between Jodhaa and Jalal is better than dancing. I really liked that they didn't make it look like she was weilding a super-long toothpick with ease; those swords are fantabulously heavy and it would be difficult for most court-raised women to weild one without looking slightly awkward, as Jodhaa does.
The songs are lovely, but most of them are overlaying the action rather than being lip-synched by the characters, so that's a bit different. I'm not complaining. The first two numbers are religious songs, which I always find a bit dull considering I'm not a member of the religions being celebrated musically. However, the music itself is beautiful, and the other songs are straight-up love songs for Jodhaa and Jalal... with the exception of the stirring "Azeem-O-Shaan Shahenshah," which I totally got into and features a beat that'll make you hop up out of your seat (and about time too, because by that point in the film at least half of your butt will probably have fallen asleep).
My only complaint about this film is very small: two Superfantastic Bollywood Moments. One, every time Jalal gets pissed there's this flourish of royal trumpets that plays. Um, yeah, I could've figured out he was mad without that, thanks anyway. And two, the end wraps up with a slideshow of stills from the film and some voiceover magic. I would've preferred a live-action fade-out. Other than that, I loved everything about the film and couldn't recommend it more; it's definitely worth every penny.
I guess I should say something about religious tolerance and Hindu/Muslim relations here, but I'm still so ignorant about Indian social tensions that I feel vastly underqualified to do so. In the end, I think Gowariker's main message is that only by seeing each other as individuals can we reduce group conflicts. But I could be wrong.