Monday, May 17, 2010

Bombay at Lincoln Center: Jodhaa Akbar

Eighty elephants, fifty-five camels, and over four thousand kilograms of gold jewelry reportedly went into its production. In addition to Braveheart style battles and courtly intrigue, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (trailer here) also features several lavish musical interludes. Welcome to Bollywood cinema, the internationally popular flamboyant films produced in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Growing in recognition and popular acclaim with American audiences following the success of Slumdog Millionaire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center launches Muslim Cultures of Bombay, a retrospective of Bollywood’s most ambitious and socially conscious historical dramas this Wednesday with a special screening of Gowariker’s three and a half hour epic.

The young Emperor Akbar has finally consolidated the Muslim Mughal Imperium’s hold on all of Hindustan. For the sake of peace with the restless Hindu Rajput principalities, Akbar has taken Jodhaa, a Rajput princess, as his bride. She also happens to be very beautiful, but is less than thrilled by the proposed union, only acquiescing when the Emperor promises to respect her faith and build a modest Hindu temple for her within the palace. While duly married, it will take a serious campaign of wooing for Akbar to win her heart.

Of course, India has experienced years of Hindu-Muslim conflicts, even predating Kashmir and the Partition. It is that subtext that deeply informs Akbar. While Rajput reaction has been highly critical, accusing the film of whitewashing the anti-Hindu campaigns of the historical Akbar and his heirs, western audiences will likely interpret it as a rebuke of militant Islam.

Whether historically accurate or not, Akbar’s pivotal decision to lift the tax on Hindu religious pilgrimage clearly celebrates religious tolerance. While the disapproving mullahs of the Mughal Court are unflaggingly portrayed as deceitful and intolerant, the heroic Akbar’s observance of Islam comes across as simply a requirement of his position rather than an examined faith. By contrast, the only unambiguous example of pure religious devotion is that of Jodhaa’s Hinduism.

Notwithstanding the important social and religious significance of Akbar’s story, it is very definitely grandly epic story telling. Wild elephants are tamed, pitched battles are joined, and there are indeed musical numbers, courtesy of Slumdog’s Oscar winning A.R. Rahman, perhaps the best being the Sufis serenading Akbar on his wedding night. It also has Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, often heralded in internet polls as the world’s most beautiful woman, as Jodhaa, and Hrithik Roshan (soon be seen in Kites, a major Bollywood trial balloon for mainstream American commercial acceptance) as Akbar. While their chemistry is okay, the film is most successful when luxuriating in the grandeur of its enormous scale and lush design. It even inspired a Jodhaa Akbar collection from the Indian jeweler Tanisq.

With some cool battle scenes and most of its courtship done through fencing, Akbar certainly satisfies the audience looking for more on-screen swordplay. It also has plenty of romantic yearning and high tragedy as befits a sweeping epic. Old fashioned in an entertaining way, the extravagantly produced Akbar is a perfect choice to kick-off the FSLC’s new retrospective, Social Dramas and Shimmering Spectacles: Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema, this Wednesday evening (5/19) at the Walter Reade Theater.