In recent years, the main reason to see a Hrithik Roshan movie was to bask in the star’s magnificence. The standard description, “Greek God,” is an entirely accurate assessment of Roshan’s celestial beauty. Plus he can dance. So it may seem a little churlish to complain that “Mohenjo Daro” takes a similar trajectory to his superhero franchise “Krrish,” without the goofy humor: a simple man given to wearing tight-fitting shirts (or no shirt at all) goes from childish naïveté to hero status and saves the girl, or the city, or the world. Here he saves a civilization, the Bronze Age Indus Valley society known as Mohenjo-daro, thanks to his brawn and strength of character. Expectedly epic though disappointingly weak in production numbers (there are only two major dance sequences), the film re-teams director Ashutosh Gowariker, composer A.R. Rahman and Roshan for the first time since “Jodhaa Akbar,” a better film by far.
Unquestionably, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had, and the film, reportedly costing around $17 million, has earned a respectable if not outstanding $6 million on its Aug. 12 opening weekend at home, bolstered by an impressive three-day haul of nearly $750,000 in the States. With this star-director-composer combo, it was bound to succeed, yet the prosaic script feels far too derivative, and only the impressive rain-lashed finale succeeds in delivering that tingly thrill one expects from historical action epics.
Gowariker, still best known internationally for his Oscar-nominated “Lagaan,” is a clever man, and he certainly meant for audiences to chuckle at the opening, when characters are purportedly speaking ancient Sindhi before magically morphing into modern Hindi. In the first production number, “Mohenjo Mohenjo,” when extras, according to subtitles, sing in ancient Dilmun and Bukharan and Sumerian, surely we’re all meant to smile, knowing these extinct languages are impossible to recreate.
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A more valid criticism can be directed at the mediocre CGI used for the opening crocodile attack, which elicits more giggles than gasps. The year is 2016 B.C., and sheltered, orphaned indigo farmer Sarman (Roshan) is dying to go to the metropolis of Mohenjo Daro to sell his wares at the bazaar, but Uncle Durjan (Nitish Bharadwaj) and Aunt Bima (Kishori Shahane) try to stifle the call of the big city. They know however that the unicorn featuring in Sarman’s dreams is a sign (a graphically poor one at that), and they let him go with comic relief friend Hojo (Umang Vyas).
The city is imposing in a Babylonian/Nebuchadnezzar way — the set covered 25 acres, divided between the Lower City, for plebeians, and the Upper City, for the higher classes. Sarman is struck by the beauty of Chaani (Pooja Hegde), daughter of the high priest (Manish Chaudhary) and prophesied as the Chosen One, who will usher in a new order. The current order only works well for Senate chief Maham (Kabir Bedi) and his greedy yes-men, all turning a blind eye to their leader’s smuggling operations with the Sumerians. Chaani has been promised to Maham’s cruel son Moonja (Arunoday Singh), but the more she gazes at Sarman, the more she can’t get the man with lower décolletage than her own out of her system.
Naturally Maham and Moonja won’t let Chaani escape from her promise, nor will they let upstart village boy Sarman tamper with their self-serving plans. Their conflicts inevitably lead to several fights, but fortunately Sarman’s muscled body has a miraculous ability to heal itself (not mentioned in the plot, but how else to credit his disappearing knife wounds?). It all comes to an impressive climax around the Indus River, when Sarman’s leadership wins the day.
With so much going for it, the surprise is that “Mohenjo Daro” doesn’t live up to its potential. It’s good as spectacle, though it lacks the beauty of “Jodhaa Akbar,” and many viewers will feel short-changed on the musical numbers: For example, “Tu Hai” would be OK as a low-key set piece if only it were balanced by a more energetic production number toward the end. At least there’s the dramatic watery finale, recalling Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea, which is genuinely impressive on all levels.
A further problem is former beauty queen Hegde, making an inauspicious Bollywood debut after a few Tamil and Telegu features. Though lovely to look at, with a charming smile, she’s little more than window dressing; even more disappointing, she’s not a good dancer. Fortunately the camera adores Roshan, and everyone else melts away. He nailed the hero persona long ago, and even if it feels like a rehash here, there’s no resisting the star’s potent charms, whether battling a giant Tajik gladiator or pulsing his muscles with terpsichorean grace.
Drone shots make the most of the sprawling sets, apparently constructed in consultation with archaeologists. Tonalities are mostly in the clay and earth ranges with splashes of color for Chaani’s elaborate clothes and headdresses — they might not be historically accurate, but surely neither were Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra outfits. Chaani’s theme music unfortunately bears more than a passing resemblance to Nicola Piovani’s “Life Is Beautiful” tune.