Controversy stalks Bollywood megastars Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan. Their last co-starring smash, Dhoom:2, got them obscenity charges for daring to kiss; now, they’re under fire for historical inaccuracy in an epic about India’s beloved Emperor Akbar the Great (Roshan).
Religiously tolerant even by today’s standards, 550 years ago the elephant-taming Muslim ruler shook up his Mughal Empire by marrying (and converting) a Hindu princess (Rai) in a strategic alliance. He wanted to rule by overwhelming his people with goodwill, as does Ashutosh Gowariker’s three-and-a-half-hour epic (four with intermission), which chooses to have Rai’s Empress Jodhaa keep her faith and so put the weight of acceptance on the Muslim court. In her new home, the prideful Jodhaa must deal with two mothers-in-law, including her husband’s scheming childhood caretaker Maham Anga (Ila Arun), and a palace that resents her trilling the praises of Krishna when they’re trying to have a meeting. But as she’s Aishwarya Rai, the most beautiful woman in the world, Akbar can’t resist her charms. (Her choice punishment for him is hiding her face.)
Rai tends towards period flicks that have her cry and look pretty, for extra effect sometimes even having her hold bunnies, birds and trays of flowers. With each film, she sings and dances less and less. There’s only two major numbers here, but the second is a doozy—all the diverse tribes of India praising Akbar’s benevolence in a salute to Busby Berkeley. That it must have taken half the extras in Mumbai shows Gowariker’s intent to cow the audience into appreciation. Even Rai and Roshan’s pearls are decorated in pearls, and strident violins or an echo chamber underscore each dramatic plot point.
Of course, it’s too overly long and overly familiar, even if you’ve never before heard of Akbar the Great. Luckily, Rai’s mesmerizing good looks make three and a half hours tick by like, well, two and a half hours and in the home stretch, there’s a mano-y-mano battle in the sand over the empire’s fate that sends life tingling back into your legs.
Cast: Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan
Director/Producer: Ashutosh Gowariker
Screenwriters: Ashutosh Gowariker and Haidar Ali
Genre: Bollywood biopic/romance; Hindi-language, subtitled
Running time: 193 min.
Release date: February 15