One of Bollywood’s most anticipated releases since production began in 2001, “Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal — An Eternal Love Story” is big on bling but, notwithstanding widescreen lensing, never escapes the period miniseries feel associated with helmer Khan. Long-gestating epic based on Shah Jahan’s romance is reputedly Bollywood’s most expensive pic to date, but a fortune in coin can’t shake its Las Vegas-like all-glitz, no-substance feel. Initial home outlook may get a boost from years of mass media hype, but whether the crowds will stick remains to be seen.
In recent years, Bollywood has witnessed three battling Taj Mahal films based on the Mughal emperor’s undying love for his wife and the monument he commissioned as a tribute to their union.
The three are: Bharat Bala’s Imax entry that has not been released yet. Helmer Robin Khosla’s version which went into theaters back in 2003. And, Khan’s version.
These three pics aren’t the first films to tackle the subject. There was a blockbuster “Taj Mahal” in 1963 with Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai, and another in 1941 starring Suraiya.
The recent Khosla film’s dire B.O., however, could serve as a warning to Khan, whose pic’s preem, after its unspooling date was postponed more than once, is now set to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the Taj Mahal this August.
Toward the end of the reign of Shah Jahan (Kabir Bedi), his sons — the favored Dara Shikho (Vaquar Sheikh) and the more volatile Aurangzeb (Arbaaz Khan) — are trapped in a fight for succession. In a decisive battle — impressively filmed with armor-plated elephants but too ordered and clean in its staging — the heir apparent is decapitated and Aurangzeb takes control, imprisoning his father in the Red Fort. Only the deposed emperor’s daughter Jahan Ara (Manisha Koirala) is allowed to minister to him as he spends his time gazing at the Taj Mahal in the distance.
Pic settles into flashback mode about 40 minutes in, with Shah Jahan prompted to recount the love story symbolized by the Taj Mahal. As a youth then called Prince Khurram (Zulfikar Syed), Shah Jahan fell in love with Arjumand, later renamed Mumtaz Mahal (Sonya Jehan). Their romance angered Khurram’s father, the Emperor Jahangir (Arbaaz Ali), who wanted a more diplomatic match for his favorite son.
Meanwhile, Empress Noor Jahan (Pooja Batra) schemed in the background, hoping to solidify her own power by arranging a marriage between her daughter from a previous marriage, Laadli Begum (Kim Sharma), and Khurram.
Helmer Khan’s swooping crane shots of the sieges give the impression he has spent too much time studying “The Lord of the Rings.” However, he doesn’t have a handle on how to build tension, and the scenes seems disconnected, like one of those accordion picture postcards with each scene attached but only tenuously related.
The explanatory dialogue stops the action dead, while other dialogue is overly flowery.
Thesping is a mixed bag. Leads are blandly attractive in a Harlequin Romance cover sort of way; both were initially announced as new discoveries, but pic’s extended production life meant that model-turned-actor Zulfikar (aka Syed Zulfi) snuck in a few titles in the intervening years.
Supporting roles are outrageously over-acted. In particular, Batra appears to be channeling Ming the Merciless. Bedi, resembling a cross between Richard Harris in “Gladiator” and King Lear, has little to do except allow glycerin tears to well up in those expressive eyes.
Garish sets and costumes, all bon-bon bright, aren’t helped by harsh lighting, which over-illuminates the blanched white walls and destroys any sense of depth. Color continuity is occasionally problematic, as are abrupt edits between scenes; presumably these will get ironed out before release.
Dance numbers give a lift to the proceedings but are fairly standard issue. By and large pleasant tunes, by legendary Bollywood composer Naushad, include a memorable highlight: “Ishq ki daastaan.” However, the dramatic incidental music is used too frequently and inadvertently plays up the already heightened sense of camp.