After the memorable screen heat they generated in dumb megahit “Dhoom:2,” Bollywood marquee thesps Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan go for the slow, slow burn in costume romancer “Jodhaa Akbar,” a connoisseur’s epic that relies more on character and dialogue than on big battles and teeming extras. A return to form by writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker (“Lagaan”) after his sappy “Swades,” this cross-cultural big-budgeter about a legendary romance between a Muslim emperor and a feisty Hindu princess opened with a socko $9.7 million in its first frame Feb. 15. In the longer run, it looks to carve rosy, though not spectacular, returns.
Effectively a prequel to the 1960 classic “Mughal-e-azam,” centered on a romance between the couple’s son and a court dancer, “Jodhaa Akbar” is much more than just a preachy tale about religious tolerance between Muslims and Hindus. Along with scripters Haider Ali and K.P. Saxena, Gowariker has come up with a long-limbed story that is utterly simple in structure, but decorated with enough character interplay and side plots to keep the movie ticking over to a powerful finale.
Clocking in at a mere 205 minutes, compared with the 223-minute “Lagaan,” the movie lacks the latter’s narrative tautness, and could benefit from trimming in the early stages of part one. But from the first musical interlude a half-hour or so in, there’s little downtime, despite the intimate nature of the material.
Solemnly narrated by veteran Amitabh Bachchan, pic’s intro sketches the era, starting in the mid-15th century, when the Mughals (supposedly descended from the Mongols) invaded India. After a succinctly staged battle,resistance crumbles a century later and Mughal influence spreads through northern India.
The first Mughal emperor to be born on Indian soil, Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar (Roshan), is a strong but tolerant guy. His arranged marriage to Jodhaa (Rai Bachchan) is meant to forge links with the Rajputs, the dominant clan of northern India with a strong warrior tradition.
However, Jodhaa has two demands: She doesn’t have to convert to Islam, and she can have a Hindu shrine in her quarters at the Mughal palace in Agra. Jalaluddin admires her spunk and agrees; when, on their wedding night, she says she needs more time before sharing a bed, he agrees again.
Next two hours chart Jalaluddin’s patient “courting” of Jodhaa in between various attempts by others to destroy the relationship and what it symbolizes. Villains include Jalaluddin’s devoted but ambitious wet nurse, Maham Anga (Ila Arun, wonderfully evil), Sharifuddin Hussain (Nikitin Dheer), Jodhaa’s relative, who teams up with a snubbed Muslim cleric (Abeer Abrar); and a corrupt governor (Shaji Chaudhary). But aside from a manufactured misunderstanding between Jalaluddin and Jodhaa that provides the pre-intermission climax, their growing bond proves stronger than anything politics can throw at them.
Pic is bookended by well-staged setpieces in which opposing armies face each other on a vast plain. Otherwise, Gowariker avoids military spectacle, concentrating instead on sequences that define the central relationship: the putative lovers dueling in a courtyard; Jalaluddin identifying Jodhaa among a bevy of veiled women; their eventual, elaborately choreographed declaration of love.
As well as managing the story’s epic span (and showing a natural feel for framing his characters in widescreen), Gowariker seems to have a liking for classic Hollywood epics. Parallels abound, the most obvious being with “Cleopatra” and “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”
No stranger to elegant-cum-spunky costume role, Rai Bachchan handles Jodhaa with ease. Biggest surprise is Roshan, who brings a commanding physical presence and vocal heft that he’s shown in none of his earlier, standard-Bollyhunk roles.
Production values are lavish, with Neeta Lulla’s costumes complemented by richly dressed locations in Rajasthan and northern India. Typically rhythmic, percussive score by A.R. Rahman is stronger in ceremonial setpieces than lyrical ones, though most of the songs are not directly sung onscreen. CGI in the battle sequences is OK.