In my earlier non-Spoiler review, I mentioned that Mohenjo felt like 3 good movies smashed together into one, a romance, a political drama, and a big action movie. Now, after I’ve had time to let the movie percolate in the back of my mind, I think the romance is the best of the 3. Not by much, they are all strong, but the romance was just the slightest bit better filled in and more emotionally resonant.
I really want to talk about all 3 of these films, and there strengths and weaknesses, which means I need to give plot details. I thought about doing my usual full summary for this movie. The problem is, it’s too long and complicated to just spin through in one long post, like I did for Rustom. But it’s also not really deep enough to deserve a multi-part epic like I did for Sultan. So I’m going to the system I did for Kali, and just lay out the whole narrative start to finish in the beginning, with minimal details, and then discuss it. This means I may miss a scene here or there, or some minor detail of an event (like, say, the mercenaries refusing to work for Kabir Bedi if he can’t pay them), but you should get the general sweep of the story.
We start by being dropped right into the time and place, three tiny boats made of bundled reeds being paddled down a river. Slow pan up to reveal Hrithik standing in the bow. His hair does not look any better in the film than it did in the ads.
Ashutosh is shooting for something like that epic Hrithik intro from Jodha-Akbar. That is one of my all time favorite hero introduction shots, right up there with Trishul, because it tells you everything you need to know about this guy right in one sequence: wears armor both inside and out, carries his power easily, has a mustache.
(So good, they made it the poster image)
This shot doesn’t quite achieve that, we are supposed to get that Hrithik is naturally a leader, standing above other men, blah blah blah, but it’s too fast and without enough context to really land. And then an alligator jumps up! And the movie stars with a shockingly good action sequence!
It’s not just that the alligator looked realistic, but that I could follow everything that was happening, where the boats were in the water, what Hrithik’s plan was, all of that. Awesome! And then they go back to the village, and it gets all Lagaan-y with the village elders blessing Hrithik and blah blah. His aunt was worried about him, his uncle is proud but concerned, the crops were weak this year, Hrithik wants to go to Mohenjo Daro for the annual market, but his uncle forbids him. Also, his aunt actress is phenomenal!! Seriously, there was a scene between them two early on that felt like serious chemistry and I just wanted to watch a movie with Hrithik and his aunt falling in love/having adventures (looks like the actress, Kishori Shahane, is mostly in TV and Marathi films).
Hrithik goes to sleep and dreams of a one-horned goat. Ooooo-kaaaay. I’m going to assume that the one horned goat thing is an actual image for Mohenjo Daro excavations, because otherwise it isn’t really anything you would choose to have in your movies. What with the dreams and his natural farm boy’s enthusiasm and all, he is determined to go to Mohenjo Daro this year, even if it means running away from home. His uncle finally gives in and sends him off, along with his best friend, to bring their indigo crop to the market. And I go down a wiki rabbit hole looking up indigo. They keep talking about it like it is something you grow, but it kind of looks like stones? Aha! It is grown from plants! But the plants are then processed and fermented to remove the pure indigo chemical, then that is mixed with lye and other things, and left to marinate for a while as it turns into a kind of powder brick. So when it looks like they are digging lumps of indigo out of the ground, they are actually digging lumps of indigo out of the ground, but it is lumps they have previously stored there while they matured.
(Ha! Yes! It was part of the artifacts which is why they used it)
And we’re off to Mohenjo Daro! Cool effect here, Gowariker signifies a night passing by a quick glimpse a fire being lit with flint, and then darkness enveloping the fire, and then we are back to the sunlight. He does that a few times in the film, each time showing a different way of lighting a fire, whether it is taking a stick from a communal fire or using flint or lighting a cook stove. It’s a lovely way of showing the importance and variety of people’s relationship with fire. And it comes back in a big way at the end when those fires are all extinguished.
Here we are, at Mohenjo Daro! And it looks…..Not actually that big! There’s like five carts, including Hrithik’s, entering the gates. That’s it, for this big big annual market. But we do get a fascinating view of how the market economy worked. Well, fascinating to me. The merchants are required to hand over part of their goods at the gate, in return a clerk marks a small piece of wet clay, passes it through a flame, and hands it to them to serve as a sign that they have paid the tax and can sell in the city. They are also told that there are certain areas they cannot enter, and certain gates that are only for use of the cities citizens, not “foreigners”. And there are helpful city guardsman types standing around directing traffic and making sure everyone knows were to go. Fascinating!!! It’s like civilization in a microcosm, taxes to support the common good, outsiders separated from insiders, and public servants to protect the safety of all.
On the way to the market booth, Hrithik is stopped by a crazy old man who tells him to go back, his kind is too pure for this city. Hrithik is kind to the old man, and gives him a shawl. This old man, by the way, is the character that Rajesh Vivek clearly would have played, if he were still alive. There is a scene at the end that Rajesh would have knocked out of the park, and this random actor just can’t quite do it as well.
(Still miss his face!)
The guardsman notices Hrithik’s kindness, and tracks him down at his booth later, to give him a quick tour of the market. We meet foreign traders from here there and everywhere. Including Mongolians who brought horses! So one of my biggest problems with the trailer is solved, the horses are here only as strange animals no one had ever seen before, not supposed to be local animals to the region.
In the middle of this, EEEEEEVIL appears! Poor Arunoday Roy (I WILL misspell his name many many times in this review. Sorry Arunoday!) is, once again, playing the unwanted 3rd leg of a love triangle. He just has the perfect face for it, poor man. And it looks like he isn’t married in real life. Now I feel bad! I wonder if it’s getting to be like Prem Chopra for him, women in real life crossing the street when they see him coming?
Oh right, in this film he is evil because he doesn’t want to pay full price for cotton, even from a poor weavers community whose whole village was swept away by floods and all they have left is a little cotton. Hrithik jumps over and tries to bargain, insisting he pay full price, but Arunoday is all EEEEEVIL and says he will only pay full price if the weavers throw in one night with each of their women as part of the bargain. The guardsman intervenes and pulls Hrithik away and Arunoday throws coins on the ground. And we don’t actually see anyone then pick them up, and I am distracted for a good 5 minutes worrying about these poor weavers who sold everything they had and then forgot to pick up the coins.
Just as Hrithik is decrying the filth and villainy of the city, saying he can’t “draw a clear breath”, a vision of loveliness appears! Pooja Hegde, wearing a ridiculous and hideous outfit! She’s got one of those stupid shell and stone and feathers headdresses on her head, and this odd sort of tied in front dress with a big loose slit down the front. None of the other woman have to wear these strange patched together revealing outfits, but I guess she is “special”, so she has to show little glimpses of her legs and tummy all the time.
(See what I mean about the slit?)
Oh right, and Hrithik is in love at first sight. Even though he is immediately told that Pooja is “special”, a blessing on the city, the head priest’s daughter of whom it is foretold she will bring in a new era for the city. And that’s what the stupid clothes and headdress signify, that she is all special and everyone should respect her. And also, everyone feels happier and better just seeing her around, since she is a promise of better times, so they need to be able to recognize her.
I really like Pooja’s introduction. Not the part we are “supposed” to like, her pretending she has the power to turn someone into a frog, in order to force him to apologize for bumping into her friend, but the way her situation is so carefully drawn. Yes, she is “special”, but special like a statue or a monument. She is important for what she means to others, but she in herself is just an average girl. Which is why it is kind of good that they have cast an “average” actress in the role. Someone like Aishwarya Rai or Deepika Padukone would have been too beautiful, too powerful. But Pooja Hegde just comes off as a pretty young girl, like any other pretty young girl, who happens to have been forced into this position.
And, like any other pretty young girl would, she immediately notices and starts making eyes at Hrithik. And Hrithik does a fairly convincing job of reacting like a 20 year old boy would, all excited and infatuated and not thinking clearly. Of course, then you look at his face and go “But you’re so OLD!” But so long as you can pretend all those crows feet and smile wrinkles aren’t there, he can pull off young and in love. He’s got the posture and the head tilt and the big eyed smile down pat.
And since he is in love, he is willing to stay in the city, which means we get to see the city music festival that night. That’s the title song, which really does work better in context! There’s all these traders from around the world doing their local dance thing, Hrithik gets caught up and starts dancing, and it feels like a natural expression of his excitement at being in the city, and his excitement at falling in love. And Pooja is there, and she joins in the dance, and again it feels partly like the Spirit of the City dancing through everyone, and partly like a young girl in love being so happy she can’t help but dance.
Oh, and meanwhile EEEEEEVIL Arundadoy and his EEEEEEEEEEEEEVIIIIIIIL father Kabir Bedi are being EEEEEEVIL together in the senate. It seems to be a craft guilds run senate, with representatives from the weavers, the farmers, the traders, etc. And one senate chief who runs the meetings. And, we learn later, rather than regular elections or contests to determine Chief, it follows the parliamentary system, where if one strong vote goes against you, the government is dissolved, and whichever senator lead the vote against you takes your place. Kabir Bedi is crowing about how Mohenjo Daro is now the strongest city in the region, specifically more powerful than that stupid Hadippa. And also, we should raise taxes again. Honest old farming Senator tells Kabir Bedi he shouldn’t raise taxes, the farmers are suffering with no water for their crops (Hrithik was hearing about this in the market too), and also he knows why Kabir Bedi hates Hadippa and isn’t afraid to reveal the TRUTH! That Kabir Bedi was thrown out of Hadippa for cheating them, and now has come to power in Mohenjo Daro only because he wants Mohenjo to go to war and destroy Hadippa.
So, Kabir waits until everyone else leaves and then stabs him with a teeny-tiny little stone knife. And then stabs all his followers too. And then hangs them on poles by the riverbank. And the next day, Hrithik and a crowd find them, and the crazy old not-Rajesh Vivek guy says they were all killed for the crime of telling the truth. Again, not enough people! If Kabir Bedi has been EEEEEEEEEEEvilly running things for 20 years, this riverbank should be mobbed with bodies. And it’s just like a dozen! That’s not EEEEEEEVIIILLLLL, that’s just Slightly Bad at Governance.
Meanwhile, Hrithik is all “I must see her again!” about Pooja, and wouldn’t you know it! There she is! She has brought her handmaiden to the market with her, dressed in normal clothes and without the headdress. You know usually when a character Roman Holidays herself, there is the idea of “I am pretending to be just a girl, just for once!” But in this case, she truly IS just a girl! Pooja’s position comes entirely from how she is perceived, not from an intrinsic power. So Hrithik recognizing and appreciating her now, when she is “just a girl”, is a sign that he is the only one who really truly sees and loves her when she is just herself, not some dressed up symbol for the city.
And then there is the song that they cut. Where Pooja runs around the market knocking things over. Instead, we go straight to the two of them talking on a really fake looking rooftop while she points out places of interest in the city and Arundahoy spots them and recognizes her, but not the guy she is talking to. And there is NO ONE ELSE IN THE SQUARE!!! Where are all the people?!?!? Come on Ashutosh, if you can’t afford extras, at least don’t set up these deep field shots so we can see there are no extras!
Oh, and somewhere in here, Hrithik heard the new taxes being announced, and lead the people in declaring they refuse to pay them, better to be killed by Kabir Bedi than to watch your children starve! So Hrithik, newly arrived in the city, is already making his presence felt.
And then there’s “Tu Hai”, which is so drop dead gorgeous and powerful it literally made me cry. And it’s all in the set up. You need to know that Hrithik and Pooja are young dopes in love, not some magical priestess and great warrior. Which the previous scenes have established, that they are both sort of normal people over-whelmed by these emotions. And you need to know that they just spent the day together, so they do really know each other already and like each other, this is more of a 3rd date kind of revelation, not a magical first meeting. And what you really need is Hrithik sneaking in and totally messing up the dance at first. He’s just being a big dumb boy in love, not thinking ahead at all, just running forward because he has to tell her he loves her right now!!!
With all of that in place, there is this lovely progression of the song right to it’s incredible emotional peak. First, Pooja singing to the Spirit of the Sindhu, being just an innocent girl with no thought of romance at the moment. Then, Hrithik dancing and bouncing around, kind of making a fool of himself in front of her until she notices him. Then a back and forth, as they sing together and dance together, both kind of enjoying their little secret flirtation in front of everyone. And finally, that amazing moment when everyone else freezes and they keep moving and Hrithik confesses his love. And then the thing that makes me cry, when she responds in this amazingly clear voice, that she loves him as well. And finally, the epilogue, her having let in all her feelings, and finally handing off her priestess headdress in order to immerse herself and the Goddess icon into the pool of water.
It’s just so lovely! It’s the whole wonder and magic and really religious power of young love all in one song. And it’s all about Pooja, that’s why she gets the opening and closing and emotional peak in the middle. Going from a maid worshiping the female spirit, to a young woman awakened to the joy of flirtation and having a boy dance around her, all the way to a full acceptance of the overwhelming power of her love, and taking that power and bringing it with her while she honors the Goddess.
(It doesn’t make any sense in the trailer, the way they chopped the whole thing up)
And the scene after the song is a perfect follow up, Hrithik sneaking into her dressing room and her hiding him when EEEEEEEVIL Arunoday shows up to talk to her. And Hrithik taking the chance to kiss her when she can’t object without alarming Arunoday. And Pooja kissing him, to “show him how it feels” when you are taken advantage of. And then, finally, a legitimately hot open-mouthed kissing close up. The whole silly fun sexy thing is a great follow up to the emotional high of the song, both of them are clearly not thinking straight, feeling invincible after what just happened, and also feeling like they are completely in synch with each other, there is no shyness or uncertainty in making the relationship physical.
Let’s see, what happens next? Oh right, more evil! Kabir Bedi pressures Pooja’s wimpy Dad into moving up her wedding to Arunoday, Pooja goes along with it because it has been planned all along, Hrithik sneaks in to see her before the marriage and swears it won’t happen, and then gets into a huge fight with Arunoday. There’s a cool thing where they are fighting in the back alleys of the exclusive Upper City, and then burst through the doors right at the feet of the common people who have arrived to complain about taxes. And they are all there watching when Kabir Bedi shows up and decides to be “merciful”, just because it will play well in front of the crowd. He offers Hrithik a trial by combat instead of a quick death, and agrees that if he wins, Pooja can choose for herself who to marry. Interval!
Okay, so far this movie has a tight and excellent narrative. There’s a little bit of world-building, but it pays off with understanding how all the characters relate to each other, why Pooja is powerful-but-not, why Hrithik is aware of Mohenjo Daro and how taxes work and stuff but doesn’t know the details of this particular city, why Kabir Bedi is EEEEEEEEEVIL (he is raising taxes to pay for digging to collect gold to give to foreigners to buy weapons to defeat Hadippa). And we can see how, even though Hrithik is trying to be just a simple country boy who only cares about the woman he loves, he can’t help being caught up in the problems of the city. There is a clear path forward, Hrithik will keep trying to achieve his love and along the way will end up leading a revolt against the Bad Guys, there will be a big fight scene and a big celebration song and The End.
But then, post-Interval, it goes all cattywompas (is that how that is spelled?) and turns into a whole other kind of movie that kind of doesn’t line up just so with the previous movie. Before the trial by combat, Pooja’s priest father comes to see Hrithik and gives him a whole looooooooong explanation for all the problems of the city and how they relate to Hrithik’s “secret” history. Oh, I forgot, at some point earlier Hrithik had used a copper piece his uncle gave him to sneak into the upper city and had spoken with Pooja and her father (after saving Pooja from horses!), and her father had learned a little bit about his background.
Anyhoo, Hrithik’s father used to be the senate chief, but then Kabir Bedi showed up and forced the senate to vote to build a huge dam, which would block the water so they could easily mine gold from the dry riverbed. Bad bad idea! Hrithik’s Dad (who kind of looks like his Dad in Agneepath? That’s not possible, right? That there is some actor who specializes in playing dead flashback vengeance inducing Hrithik fathers?) finds more information and tries to decry Kabir Bedi in public. But everyone is too afraid to speak against him, including Pooja’s father and Hrithik’s uncle. And Hrithik’s mother died of the shock. (by the way, Pooja’s mother is dead also, in childbirth. We see a flashback of her dying, and then lean that babies of mothers who die in childbirth are considered ill omens usually. Only Pooja’s Dad took her to the temple, where the same crazy not-Rajesh Vivek said that she was going to be the savior and blessing of the city, so now everyone worships her. I suppose you could see this whole scene straight, but it really feels like it is supposed to be seen in a cynical way, of not-Rajesh Vivek telling a big lie to save the life of this poor baby)
(Such a good movie!)
Right, so, Hrithik now really hates Kabir Bedi and also feels a responsibility for the city? But, I’m not quite buying it. The whole first half of the movie was based on Hrithik being just a random farm boy slowly coming into his natural sense of leadership. But now they are trying to make it some kind of mystic connection with the city and he ISN’T just a farmboy? Also, it is the murder of his father that upsets him? More than all those dead bodies he already saw? Like, A LOT more?
But the biggest problem is mixing in the divine right of kings argument with a parliamentary system. We saw all through the first half that the senate ran like a senate, the most able person took charge, it wasn’t an inherited right. More importantly, it didn’t require a deep connection to the city, Kabir Bedi wasn’t even from there, he was from Hadippa. So, there is no tradition of a natural deep connection with the city from the leader.
Everything in the first half works with this, Hrithik had a natural ability to lead and concern for others. But now they are throwing in some sort of “since your father was the head of the Senate, you have an innate connection to this city and are automatically the best one to rule it” argument. That belongs fine in Bahubaali, for instance, where it is clearly a Monarchical system, with an assumption that those of the ruling family are somehow “better” than others-but not with the other things we’ve seen so far here! Hrithik is set up as “better”, because he believes in an ethical tax system. And his father was “better” because who could see the value in slow agricultural growth rather than fast trade growth. Not because they were born special. Only, now Hrithik is born to be the savior of the city just because of who his father was?
Plus, this whole revelation of his family tragedy and fate completely over-shadows the romance that the whole first half was built on! He goes out into the stadium to fight the “Cannibals” (just like in Suryavanshi! There must be some kind of a legend I don’t know that explains this), not to risk his life to free Pooja from a marriage she doesn’t want, but because he is burning with hatred for Kabir Bedi. Even during the fight, when things look bad, he doesn’t turn for inspiration to Pooja, but to Kabir! And when he wins, Pooja runs to the field to congratulate him, but they get barely a second of starring into each other’s eyes before her Dad the ineffectual Priest is there to start babbling about how Hrithik has won over the crowd and proved his destiny to rule the city.
I could see how this could work, in fact how it has worked very well, in other movies. Going back to Bahubaali again, they established right from the beginning that our hero’s destiny lay on top of the mountain. His love was important, because it was what inspired him to finally get there. But the movie didn’t move on to that destiny until the romance had been resolved. Not a 100% happy ending, there was still more movie to get through (a whole other movie, in fact), but a solid resting point for the couple, having confessed their love and commitment. But in this, Pooja is about to be married off to someone else, Hrithik risks his life for her, and then they never even have a conversation about it! There’s no time, we have to move on to the political story!
The EEEEEVILLL people decide to be evil and kill all the priests (how does this help anything?). Pooja’s Dad is killed, she and her friend run away, but Arundohay tracks her down and is about to strangle her when Hrithik does this massive run up to save her! It’s very cool. But when it is over, no time for words of love or anything like that, we have to have a huge public bariel. At which Pooja does not embrace Hrithik or anything like that, instead she makes a big speech about how Hrithik is the son of his father and therefore destined to rule the city? But, as I explained at length above, THIS MAKES NO SENSE IN THE POLITICAL SYSTEM AS ESTABLISHED!!!!
So, Hrithik gets the people all riled up, and they storm the palace and Hrithik is declared the head of the senate, but he knocks the chair over and says “No! There shall be no more Senate! The People shall rule!” So, democracy? Anarchy? What kind of political system are we talking about here?
Not that any of this matters, because almost immediately Hrithik gets word that the dam, which he noticed was almost overflowing when he went to look at it earlier, is about to burst. And we are right into our final of these 3 movies, the disaster film!
So, wait, the point of the romance, arguably, was to get Hrithik to stay in the city to begin with, and to get us to the moment in the arena when he becomes a hero to the people. And then we can sort of connect everything that happened in the first half to the whole over-throwing-the-corrupt-government plot. But now if the whole city is going to be swept away in a flood, whooooooooooo cares? Couldn’t we have just gone straight to Hrithik saving the people? Why overthrow anyone, if everyone is about to die anyway? I mean, I know the characters don’t know that, but the scriptwriters presumably did, and they must have known the movie wasn’t connected to itself in a really weird way.
But I can almost forgive it, because the whole flood sequence is so cool looking! Hrithik figures out the flow of the river by throwing a stick in the water, and uses that to figure out that if they tie a bunch of boats together along one bank, the river will push them over to the over bank, and they just need to ride the boats over and tie them across to make a bridge. And, of course, it works! Meanwhile, “all the people of the city” (meaning, like 3 dozen extras that Ashutosh could afford) are running around gathering their things because Hrithik ordered them to bring it all to the river and be ready to escape.
(It’s very this. Also, unrelated question, what happened to the 3rd son? The two oldest lived, the baby died in the flood, but wasn’t there another son? Or did I miss-count?)
So, the river bits look really cool. But there are two big problems with this section. First, it doesn’t feel like enough people in any part of the sequence. Hrithik is supposed to be saving an entire city, and an entire city worth of people are supposed to be under threat, but we only see a few of them. And the whole rescue plan wouldn’t even work if there were more than a couple hundred people, that bridge wouldn’t work for more people and the outcropping Hrithik has picked out to save them wouldn’t hold more than a couple hundred people.
Second, we spent this whole movie learning to love Mohenjo Daro, and now it’s going to be swept away? If it were done a little differently, it could feel like we were learning to love the city so we could really feel the loss when it was gone. But instead, it felt like the whole film was showing us the problems and solutions and building up the possibility of a better nobler city in future. But, nope! All that build up was pointless, they whole place is being swept away!
Although the actual little bits that deal with the loss of the city, not just the escape of the people, are really well done. Evil Kabir Bedi has been tied up in the market square, left to die with his city. And there is the classic “is he going to escape? Is he?” question, the tension building, and then nope! All gone! There is the old crazy not-Rajesh Vivek who stays, dancing on the city walls, and when Hrithik runs to save him, he declares that he was born here, and now he will die with the city. It’s kind of effecting here, and if it was really Rajesh Vivek, it would have been super touching.
But my favorite parts are when we see the water sweeping through the city. Pouring into the senate chamber, into the sacred pool, picking up the goddess figure Pooja immersed, and most of all, extinguishing the fire in the clay hearth, that same fire we have seen through out the film, signifying home and comfort and everything else, all gone.
Oh, and then Hrithik and Pooja and Hrithik’s uncle and Kabir Bedi’s wife who always disapproved of what he was doing, all stand on the hill and survive.
And cut to Hrithik taking a sip of water, in the bright sun, and then turning to Pooja standing next to him and saying “it’s good” while the camera pans back to show a crowd of the usual couple hundred tops behind them. And just when I’m thinking “well, woop-de-doo for you Hrithik, enjoying a sip of water, but we have all lost our homes here and would like to have some too!”, he turns and yells behind “It’s clean!!!” and the crowd starts moving forward. So, okay, he wasn’t keeping all the water to himself, he was taking it on himself to drink it before anyone else took the risk. Also, can we watch a movie sometime about Hrithik and Pooja leading the remnants of the city through out the sub-continent, searching for a new home? Wouldn’t that be a cool movie?
Oh, and then Hrithik says “we shall call this river-Ganga!!! Oooooooooo! So the Mohenjo Daro civilization and the modern Indian civilization are directly linked! oooooooo! Just like the Romans tried to do with Troy in the Aeniad! And it makes about as much sense.