Jodhaa-Akbar: The First Bollywood Movie I Ever Watched

Jodhaa-Akbar (2008) is not a typical starting point for those interested in Bollywood. In fact, when people ask me where they should start I don’t recommend it as a first time watch. It’s a long, sweeping epic that might challenge those looking for a foray into the traditional song and dance numbers they expect based on pop culture. That said, this movie does have great music and dancing. But more on that in a bit.

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I found this movie because I wanted to know more about Akbar the Great (1542-1605), the Mughal Emperor and his Hindu wife, whose name is debated. For this film they settled on Jodhaa. Bollywood loves forbidden romance and a Muslim Emperor with a Hindu wife is about as unusual as it gets, especially in the sixteenth century.

This is an Ashutosh Gowariker production, with the leads played byHrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Both are Bollywood superstars, but Aish is Bollywood royalty. Starting out as Miss India and Miss World in 1994, she married into the Bachchans, a family of Bollywood legends led by the patriarch Amitabh Bacchan. Of course, both Hrithik and Aish are insanely beautiful. So is the production. Gowariker is a legend in his own right, having directed Lagaan (2001) and Swades (2004) as well.

Jodhaa-Akbar begins with an epic battle and ends with a fistfight. The story unfolds slowly, but gracefully. It reminded me of the stories of Old Testament kings. There are kingdoms and feuds, family conflicts, battles, exiles and escapes.

However, it has all the same beats as your typical Bollywood fare. We meet the characters as they are before they know each other. Fate or design brings them together romantically. But there is an issue, an insurmountable one. Maybe it’s status, maybe it’s religion, or war. The male pursues the female anyway. There are numerous misunderstandings but there is resolution in a climactic final confrontation so momentous that all those who witness leave the scene convinced of the main characters love and their error in keeping them apart. Or something like that.

Do not come to this movie for a history lesson It’s not trying to be that and you would miss what it’s actually trying to do, which is  romanticize a fascinating point in India’s history with a very familiar story. At this, for me, it does very well.

Few combine tenderness and strength in a character like Aishwarya Rai. Her Jodhaa is Disney-princess esque in her beauty and connection with heritage and nature. As a Rajput princess, she knows how to fight for herself and she nearly destroys a critical political alliance by asking to see her groom before the wedding so she can make demands. Her most important requirement is that she be allowed to worship her god Krishna in the Mughal fort. (Spoiler alert: he agrees)

Hrithik is a bit unbelievable as Akbar but then he’s unbelievable as normal human male. He also does fairly well playing off the roles of both fierce warrior and tender lover. Despite the emphasis the movie puts on his physique. the tenderness comes across much more authentically. His angry moments sometimes feel more impetuous than imperious and many of the film’s central conflicts would be solved if his character would simply ask one or two questions.

The Music:

Jodhaa-Akbar has gorgeous, gorgeous music. My favorite is Jashn-E-Baharaa, a gentle and melodious love song that overlays the typical “they’re falling in love” montage.

There is also a great Sufi worship track, “Khwaja Mere Khwaja”, to which Akbar dances.  The movie stops completely for this scene, but it’s a welcome moment of relaxation. Jodhaa also has her worship song, Mann Mohana.

Where other movies might have an item number, this historical epic as “Azeem-O-Shaan Jahenshah”, an enormous musical number performed by hundreds of performers for the Emperor. This is the song featured in the trailer.

There are countless moments that reveal important information about the Indian outlook on marriage and religion, if not for everyone. The moments that linger most in my mind are those that occurred between Jodhaaa and Akbar once they were married. For example, Jodhaa refuses to utter her husband’s name. I learned that in traditional Hindu communities, this is still practiced. When Jodhaa enters her new home for the first time, she puts her red hand prints on the doorjamb and pushes over a container of rice with her foot. The movie took for granted that the audience understands these customs, presumably still in practice today.

I was surprised to learn later a few found  this movie a bit boring and unmemorable. I would definitely recommend it to someone looking to branch out in what’s possible for Bollywood movies.

What I took away: After I watched Jodhaa Akbar, I knew I needed more. More romance, more music, more images of India. Fortunately, I now knew where to go.

Next time: My first SRK, aka the real first Bollywood movie I ever watched

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