Ashutosh Gowariker's take on the story of the ecumenical court of the great Mughal emperor Akbar owes a debt to Hindi classics like Mughal-e-azam as well as modern Hollywood epics in the vein of Gladiator or Troy. Epic in scope as well as in length, Jodhaa-Akbar does not quite hit all the right notes, but at its best moments it's effective, painting a story with modern resonance on a lush historical canvas.
The young Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Mohammed (Hrithik Roshan) dreams of a united Hindustan, joining both his own Mughal territories with the tribal lands ruled by the valiant and proud - and Hindu - Rajput clan. He attempts to annex the Rajput kingdoms with a combination of military might and honorable rule, doing away with his ancestors' practices of slaying conquered kings and making slaves of their people. Meanwhile a succession struggle within one of the Rajput kingdoms, coupled with the ambitions of certain members of both the Mughal and Rajput houses, leads to a marriage between the young emperor and a Rajput princess, Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai). This alliance - and in particular the marriage of the Muslim emperor to a Hindu princess - sends shockwaves through both the Mughal courts and Rajput palaces alike, and tensions flare even within Jalaluddin's own household. Jodhaa demands respect for her religious traditions, and the ecumenical Jalaluddin is happy to comply, to the outrage of his Muslim advisors - particularly his closest advisor, his wet-nurse and surrogate mother Maham Anga (Ila Arun). She begins plotting against Jodhaa almost the moment the Rajput princess arrives. In the midst of this grand-scale political battle and the politics of the royal court, Jalaluddin has clear goals that are easier to state than to achieve - to unite Hindustan without bloodshed; to rule a peaceful nation where Hindus and Muslims are each free to worship as they choose; and to win the heart of his stubborn Rajput bride.
This is truly the stuff of which epics are made, but it's a whole lot to fit into a movie. Gowariker attempts to graft a classic filmi love story - where partners in an arranged marriage gradually develop real tenderness - onto a grand historical tale with all the full complement of battle scenes, palace intrigue, and allegorical resonance. The result is a film that is not always sure what it's trying to be.
It is one part a paean to Jalaluddin, whom history remembers as Akbar - the Great - and the film's Jalaluddin is certainly flawless almost to the point of dullness, with his limitless capacity for compassion and forgiveness, and his vision of a united and tolerant Hindustan. Jalaluddin is presented as the first Mughal emperor actually born in Hindustan - these roots are part of why he sees himself as an emperor of the people rather than a conqueror. The parallel between Jalaluddin and the generation of Indian leaders born after Partition is certainly not lost on Gowariker. And just as Mughal-e-azam made its subtextual plea for Hindu-Muslim unity to a post-Partition audience, Jalaluddin's impassioned speeches about tolerance are clearly directed to the modern audience even more than to Jalaluddin's ministers and subjects. Indeed, the film portrays his great proclamation of religious equality - abolishing the Pilgrimage Tax against Hindus - as the act that earned him the title Akbar.
In another aspect Jodhaa-Akbar is a grand swords-and-horsemen drama, with interminable battle scenes in which Gowariker shows his technical skill at managing sophisticated shots stuffed with thousands of extras and adding little to the film except a Hollywood sense of spectacle. The alliances and betrayals swirling through the Mughal and Rajput camps add more in the way of substance, but even the best of these episodes of palace intrigue - the betrayal engineered by the terrifying Maham Anga - is reduced to shorthand and resolved almost instantaneously after it unfolds, with no real lasting consequences for the story.
Finally, and perhaps most indulgently, Jodhaa-Akbar is a romance, developing a love story between the emperor and the princess in occasional moments of erotic heat embedded, unfortunately, in a large base of rather ordinary filmi conventions. In one of Gowariker's cleverer moves, he provides the requisite gratuitous bare-chested shots of Hrithik Roshan exercising in the sun - firmly anchoring the scene to the story's arc by showing Jodhaa (who has not yet allowed her husband to touch her) slack-jawed with lust, surreptitiously watching him. The effect is that even if the beefcake show isn't your thing - it isn't mine - the scene is memorable and appealing.
On balance, despite Jodhaa-Akbar's directorial indulgences, it's a satisfying spectacle, a solid timepass with a few elevated moments. While its stars are too pretty by half - their bearing is more like movie stars playing dress-up than like a young emperor and princess - their performances are adequate to the film's unsubtle presentation. (In a nice detail, Jalaluddin speaks high Urdu while Jodhaa and the Rajputs choose a much more Sanskrit-derived vocabulary.) It is a waste that neither Hrithik nor Aishwarya gets to dance in the film. Gowariker attempts to compensate by giving them swordplay but it isn't the same; Jodhaa's swordplay in particular is a gratuitous and silly plot device, if pretty to watch. But there is some wonderful music all the same, including two very memorable song sequences - the grand, imperial celebration of "Azeem-o-shaan shehenshah" and the gorgeous hymn "Khwaja mere khwaja" (discussed further by Sanket here). The latter ends with the swirling dance of a troupe of Sufi dervishes, and in another of the film's touching moments the sensitive Jalaluddin is moved to join them in the dance.