Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker. Starring Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sonu Sood, Ila Arun, Punam Sinha, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Nikitin Dheer. (2008, NR, 213 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 22, 2008
This new Bollywood film from the director of 2001's Oscar-nominated Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India tells an epic, 16th century love story about a marriage of alliance that gave birth to true love between a great Mughal emperor and a Hindu princess. Gowariker has a marvelous sense of epic storytelling – and not just in length (at three hours and 33 minutes, Jodhaa Akbar is only a few minutes shorter than Lagaan). The Indian director displays a heroic sense of visual composition and frames characters in vivid relief against the landscape and interior backgrounds. I can't vouch for the accuracy of his historical imagination (he co-scripted the film with Haidar Ali), although it's clear that the filmmaker's visits to the past are not barren exercises but attempts to lend context and insight to the present. Jodhaa Akbar argues for religious tolerance, a concept that violently warring Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India some 500 years later have yet to embrace. Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar (Roshan) was the first Mughal emperor to be born on Indian soil. A rather forward-thinking fellow, the ruler sought ways to unite his country's many kingdoms and win the hearts of his Hindu subjects. Though his marriage to the princess Jodhaa (Rai Bachchan, now using her married name professionally) was political in nature, their alliance, in time, grew to encompass love and affection. He agreed to his wife's demands to maintain her religion and have a prayer shrine in her quarters. He championed religious tolerance, as well as a restructuring of the tax system in order to reduce its strain on his subjects. Their courtship doesn't begin until about an hour into the movie, after their marriage has been agreed upon. Their struggle to overcome their differences and natural trepidation is at times like a Hollywood screwball comedy, no more so than when they lie in bed separated by a hanging sheet, à la It Happened One Night. It helps that Roshan and Rai Bachchan are excellent and captivatingly lovely to look at: We can barely wait for these two to couple and start making gorgeous babies. The music and dance that are such hallmarks of Bollywood filmmaking are here seamlessly incorporated into the story rather than creating a pause in the action. Though the history and the palace intrigue are not at all difficult for Westerners to grasp, a tighter running time would probably help this epic reach more eyes in America, where it has received the biggest release ever for a Bollywood film.