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Romeo and Juliet in Rajasthan

 | February 22, 2008 | Updated 09:44 IST
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Kohl-rimmed eyes in a permanent-tanned face look into a pair of cat eyes, framed by carefully curled eyelashes, in a unison of passion, all make-up sponsored by MAC. The diaphonous dupatta artfully displays the pearls, embellished with rubies the size of giant tear drops, brought to us by Tanishq.

The angrakha skims a man cleavage, set off by embroidery from Neeta Lulla’s craftsmen. And Akbar romances Jodha Bai in a movie brought to us entirely from writer Haidar Ali and Ashutosh Gowariker’s imagination, with an unacknowledged debt to K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

The Rs 40-crore Jodhaa Akbar is Bollywood’s costume central, where more care has been lavished on crafting the 14-kg armour embracing Hrithik Roshan’s manly chest than in ascertaining whether Jodha Bai was Akbar’s babe or his bahu. It’s enough to agitate self appointed custodians of Rajput honour who are frothing at the mouth at Jodha Bai (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) being portrayed as Akbar’s wife.

In what has by now become mandatory before the release of any movie which seeks to reflect on politics, past or present, activists of a freshlyfloated Rajput organisation called the Karni Sena, demanded that cinema halls in Rajasthan not screen the film— typically none of them had seen the movie.

Their argument: Jodha Bai was the daughter of Motaraja Udai Singh of Marwar and was married to Jehangir, Akbar’s son. These amateur historians, such as Lokendra Singh Kalvi, chief of the Sena, have been saying they would not have objected to the film if it had been called Akbar-Harku Bai or Salim-Jodha since these names have certain historical credence.

Akbar’s wife, says Kalvi with the confidence even scholars cannot muster, is Harku Bai of Amer, who was never called Jodha. Gowariker has his answer ready in the disclaimer carried at the beginning of the movie—this is just one version of history. There may be others.

Whatever the version though, it has successfully reduced Akbar the Great to Akbar the Lovestruck. As noted historian Shireen Moosvi from Aligarh Muslim University puts it, “The film is doing a disservice to the country’s legacy by saying that one princess could change the course of our history, that Akbar’s ideas were not an outcome of Hindus and Muslims living together over a period of time, a natural evolution. Ashoka and Akbar were two emperors committed to reason and logic. To ascribe Akbar’s actions to the love for one woman is to undermine our past.”

So in the film, Jodha, a modern day princess who seeks a meeting of hearts and not a strategic merger, is conveniently the only wife in Akbar’s harem. She is the reason he turns to vegetarianism, parts ways with his influential foster mother Maham Naga and even abolishes the pilgrimage tax.

She is also the force behind his desire to get closer to his subjects, and it is her words he echoes—“aap fateh karna jaante hain, par raj karma nahin” (you know how to conquer but not rule)—when he first goes to Agra Bazaar to see how his people lived.

Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan in Jodhaa Akbar
Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan in Jodhaa Akbar
Jodha Bai is also shown to have a tendency of breaking into a Krishna bhajan whenever the Diwan-e-Aam is in session—that is when she is not stealing Kama Sutra-worthy glances at Akbar’s glistening pecs or engaged in a swordfight-cum-mating dance across Amer Fort’s zenana. 

What Gowariker and Ali have cleverly done is to weave fiction around actual characters, in what Moosvi dismissively calls a “publicity stunt”. Yes, Abul Fazl’s Akbar Nama tells us that Akbar was offered the daughter— inconveniently never named—of Raja Bhara Mal of Amer in 1562.

Historian Satish Chandra tells us that such alliances were part of Akbar’s grand design of empire building and often the Rajputs’ way of protecting themselves. So Bhara Mal is shown to have a dispute with his nephew Suja Mal, who then seeks the help of Akbar’s rebel nobleman Mirza Sharf-ud-din Hussain.

What the movie doesn’t show is the importance of Bhara Mal’s son Bhagwant Das, a loyal Rajput who was in attendance on Akbar most of the time, built the Jama Masjid in Agra, and on more than one occasion guarded the imperial camp. Here though he is shown as a cipher who opens his mouth only once during the movie and that too to utter the dying Suja Mal’s name.

Maham Naga (played with campy venality by Ila Arun) is also given undue importance, given that Akbar had three other foster mothers. And rather than try to turn Akbar against Jodha Bai after he kills her son Adam Khan, Maham Naga actually retreated into private mourning and died quietly after 40 days.

 Fiction around actual characters

Jodhaa Akbar is lavish in scale but skimpy on facts.

Fiction

Fact

  • Hindu wife named Jodha: Jodha Bai, the daughter of Raja Bhara Mal of Amer, was married to Akbar.
  • Don’t know: Bhara Mal did offer his daughter to Akbar but her name was not Jodha Bai. 
  • Her influence: Akbar gave up eating meat, abolished the pilgrimage tax and even started mingling with his subjects because of her. 
  • Not at all: These decisions were part of Akbar’s evolution and a product of the society in which he was living.
  • Foster power: Akbar’s foster mother Maham Naga was powerful and tried to conspire against Jodha after he killed her son Adam Khan. 
  • No way: Maham Naga was one of his four foster mothers and while close to Akbar, did nothing but retreat into private mourning after her son was killed.
  • Sole soul: Jodha Bai, or let’s say Raja Bhara Mal’s daughter, was Akbar’s only Hindu wife. 
  • There were others: Like the niece of Rai Kalyan Mal of Bikaner and Jaisalmer’s Rawal Har Rai’s daughter.
  • Straight arrow: That Akbar, though a mere child, had the presence of mind to aim for Hemu’s eye, which swung victory for him in the Battle of Panipat in 1556. 
  • Accident of fate: The arrow was a fluke, though it did render Hemu unconscious, and led to the re-establishment of the Mughal dynasty.
 

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