Sometime towards the end of the 21st century, when cricket pitches around the world started getting uniformly boring, Ashutosh Gowariker had the most sudden turnaround. After debuting with the rather bizarre Pehla Nasha and then Baazi, all his three new century flicks - Lagaan, Swades, and now Jodhaa Akbar - box-office results notwithstanding, have been classics in their own rights. I will really struggle to pick my choice of the lot.
At the risk of being immodest and unrealistically ambitious, Gowariker possibly makes his films with the same motives as I write - self-indulgent, excessive, and (maybe) commerce-unfriendly. When you sit through the three-and-a-half hour length of all his recent movies, it is not difficult to lose patience. Hence the lyrical Swades becomes a documentary for many. Similarly, Jodhaa Akbar, in the garb of being a love story, is actually a almost authentic bio-pic of Akbar (the non-authentic bit come from Akbar's cinematic stunts with a raging elephant). In the movie, the Jodhaa romantic track has the same role which Santosh Sivan intended in Asoka, rather unsuccessfully.
In Asoka, the idea was to track the protagonist's transition from a ruthless ambitious king to the first Great Indian ruler through a romantic track. Kaurvaki lies in the realms of tribal myth, his depicted wife Devi was a historical figure. In Jodhaa Akbar, Govariker's uses roughly the same premise - the growth of a boy to the second Great, depicted via a political marital alliance with a Rajput princess, who then becomes his conscience. (To establish the historical coincidence further, Ashoka's grand-father Chandragupta Maurya married a Greek for similar political-military benefits). If Kaurvaki was a myth, then Jodhaa is historically controversial. But I will rather go with the existence of Jodhaa in Akbar's life than Anarkali in Salim's (which is fiction).
In tracking Akbar's growth, Gowariker delves into the vital sub-plots in the making of the Emperor - his illiteracy, his religious counsel, the punishment of a rogue half-brother, the Diwan-i-Khas, his secularism, his military conquests, even the Fatehpur Sikri architecture (where Hindu devotional songs spread across a Muslim fort). In fact, his turning against his mentor Bairam Khan is a fascinating human saga in its own rights, and is (thankfully) skimmed through. The only major phenomenon conspicuous by its absence is his establishment of a new religious order Din-i-Illahi (Divine Faith), of which the legendary Birbal was the only follower.
I obviously like Govariker's style of movie-making. His sets are big, because they need to be, not to be irritatingly loud like Devdas. He claims that he has used no Urdu word which he does not understand. My difficulties in grasping even that shows my total ignorance of Urdu. He can do with a more ruthless editor. The climax fight, inspired by Achilles and Hector, simply goes on. Yet, the same slow pace totally works in the brilliant old-fashioned number when J & A finally consummate their relationship (God knows after how many reels).
In terms of casting, I have somehow grown-up on a more portly J&A as depicted in Amar Chitra Katha and Mughal-e-Azam. In fact, A's parents-in-law in the movie (Kulbushan Kharbanda and Suhasini Mulay) fill the bill perfectly. To see a more svelte, gym-toned Hritik and Aishwarya in their place calls for a radical shift in the mindset. Performance wise, I think they have done a wonderful job. While I always trusted Hritik, Aishwarya Rai in the movie is an absolute revelation. She actually looks pretty (not plastic) as an Indian beauty, not the real-life giggling caricature (which we will surely get to witness in her promotional media-meets). Her famous chemistry with Hritik is brilliantly on display in their tantalizingly suggestive sword-fight.
I guess it is my frame of mind these days, but somehow the only aspect which does not really fully match up to Gowariker's last two movies is AR Rahman's music. I have always loved his Sufi tracks (here Khwaja), be it the passionate Satrangi Re from Dil Se, or the devotional Piya Haji Ali from Fiza. The Krishna bhajan is quite melodious, still not up to O Paalanhaare in Lagaan. The best track is Azeem-o-Shaan Shahenshah, picturised as a cross of influences between Mani Rathnam and Subhash Ghai.
Of the support cast, Ila Arun (crooked as the surrogate mother) and Poonam Sinha (graceful as the real mother) deserve a special mention. Kiiran Deohans' cinematography is world-class. In fact, the Panipat battle scene reminded me of Gladiator (another comparison which SRK wanted to achieve with Asoka).
In a nutshell, all the old-timers who grew up on the fascinating fictitious romance of Mughal-e-Azam need to go and check out Jodhaa Akbar, a more realistic if not better celluloid portrayal. The movie has not really been marketed that well, and I am not sure if the pace will appeal to all and sundry. Yet, if we have to nominate Indian films for the Oscars, Jodhaa Akbar is a more deserving bet than the ridiculously wishy-washy Eklavya.