I’ve been kind of thinking about writing about this movie, ever since the Padmavat thing started, and now it seems like the write time with Hrithik’s birthday this week and all. So here I go!
This, to me, is the perfect biopic and the perfect history film. Because the central story it is built around is almost entirely made up, giving the filmmakers the ability to mold it into a strong narrative with the write about of drama and humor and so on, but the stuff around the edges, the things which really build and inform the characters, are all true. You leave this film having a sense of who Akbar was and why he was so special, and that is the memory you take with you, along with but separate from all the romantic drama and angst.
It’s also perfect history because it shows the historical figures as three dimensional people, not legends. Akbar was great not because he was born great, not because he was naturally perfect, but because he worked to always improve himself, be better, learn more, think more. That’s what this film shows. And it also shows that Maham Anga, his foster mother, was wise but also sometimes a little short-sighted and jealous. It shows that his sister loved both him and her husband. It shows all the complications of history which can inform how we live our lives today. An understanding that nothing is inevitable, that we have the power to make choices, that everyone has the power to make choices and we should give them the opportunity to choose rightly. And, most of all, that people are complicated and cannot be simplified down to basic motivations. Because the film doesn’t simplify them, it keeps all the messiness of facts like Akbar being a brilliant leader of a civilization where art and language flourished, who was also illiterate. Or being a brilliant war leader, who was also a deeply spiritual man interested in all religions.
It shows them as three dimensional people, but also as truly Great people. Too often in western biopics, the need to make them feel “real” can turn into a need to tear them down, to make them less then real. I just finished watching the Netflix series The Crown, which is fascinating for how it twists real historical fact in order to make its central character appear weak and stupid. I’m not sure why the creators have chosen this path, but I find it a little depressing that they don’t want the audience to have something to look up to, any moment of inspiration to be better people as these other real people have been. Akbar in this film has flaws and problems, but he also has moments of greatness, things that you can take back into your own life and feel hopeful for the world, knowing that change is possible, that greatness is possible.
I’ve been talking about “Akbar” the character instead of Hrithik the actor, which is breaking my usual rule, because I’ve been discussing the historical figure and how he was written. But it’s Hrithik’s birthday, so I should switch gears and discuss Hrithik’s part in all this too.
I had no faith in Hrithik’s ability to play this role. I remember when it was being promoted thinking “really? Him?” The first time I started to think it might work was when I read an interview with him where he talked about how long he spent working on his posture for the role, his way of walking, because he had to be always and forever royal. And then the first stills came out, and by golly he was holding himself differently!
That’s what began to give me hope, and the hope was fulfilled when the movie finally released. I could see why Ashutosh wanted him for this role. This is an Akbar who speaks carefully and rarely, who commands with his presence, who uses his body as a tool and delights in it and is more confident in it than his mind. It is perfect for an actor who is still recovering from a mild stutter, who is a brilliant natural dancer, who always acts with his body more than his face or voice. Hrithik approached this role as a 3 hour dance performance, in many ways, and he succeeded brilliantly.
The other actors supported him, Aish was there being pretty and matching his naturally regal look with her naturally practiced mannerisms, the rest of the Ashutosh ensemble cast did their usual excellent job, but really this is Hrithik’s film. The title may be “Jodha-Akbar”, but that is just for show, this is Akbar’s story, Jodha is only there to start it off.
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In “reality”, Akbar did have a Hindu Rajput wife who never converted to Islam and who was mother of his heir. Her name is unclear in historical records, but popular legend has named her Jodha or Jodha Bai. That is as much as there is to build this entire romance in the film around. A Hindu Rajput princess married Akbar, and he cared for her enough to make her mother of his heir, and respected her enough not to force her to convert.
We don’t know if she was unhappy about the idea of marrying him or not. We don’t know if they had a flirtatious sparring match with swords at her father’s castle. We don’t know if he posed for her shirtless to spur her interest. But we also don’t know that WASN’T true.
We do know that Akbar had a close relationship with his foster mother and adviser but eventually sent her away. We know that he tamed elephants for entertainment. We know he was illiterate and possibly dyslexic. We know that he became king at age 8 and was a brilliant war leader. We know that his foster brother attacked his beloved prime minister and in response he had his brother thrown from a wall until he was dead. We know that he was a deeply spiritual man who moved from his childhood upbringing in basic Islam to following Sufiism and various other forms of worship before finally creating his own religions, that embraced all the religions of his realm including Hinduism, and remaining faithful to that even on his deathbed. We know that he lead the most sophisticated and global court in the world during his life, far ahead of Europe and the rest of Asia at that time. We know all of this, but that isn’t exactly a “story”. That is just a bunch of facts.
(Historical Akbar on a pilgrimage and in a trance)
That’s all history is, a bunch of facts. You can form them into a story, but it would be a story that never ends, because history never ends. Your best hope is to focus on one small part of that story, something that can be condensed down into a manageable amount. But even there, you will be leaving things out, be less accurate than you could be. And so this film went a different way, it created an entirely new story, and surrounded it with facts. And somehow, with the freedom of the centerpiece being entirely fake, the rest of it felt more real.
We start with reality, and with Akbar. A small child who is forced to be a war leader without having a chance to make the decision for himself. And then we follow him into adulthood, and see how much he has grown. Not just physically, but in every way. That little boy had no control over his life. In Hrithik’s introductory scene, the first thing we see is a small movement of his hand which directs his men to attack. It’s not just that a mere wave of the hand can control so many lives, it’s the way in which he moves his hand. Clear and firm, he knows exactly what he is doing and why he is doing it. It’s a very particular chop of the hand that is an early sign of how perfectly Hrithik will be playing this role, not in his dialogue delivery, but in the message of his gestures.
(One sec to applaud the costume designers as well. The distance between Akbar as we meet him in armor and Akbar later in colorful silks is immense)
The character backstory part of the film, that’s where a large part of the history is. As is appropriate, the facts serve to inform our understanding of the “Akbar” character and the times he is living in, the same way they would in a history book. We learn that he came to power young, that he focused on expanding his empire while still managing to create a stable system of government, and that by the time he was a young man, he was beginning to question those who had raised him and wondering if there might be an even better way to rule.
This film is a coming of age story, ultimately, through the lens of marriage. Which fits nicely with the place that marriage holds in Indian culture as the most significant coming of age ritual. We meet adult Akbar when he is nicely firing the general who has raised him, beginning to take control of his own life. And it is that new control of his life which inspires him to accept a peace treaty involving marriage with Aishwarya’s father. On their wedding night, he has a moment of spiritual awakening, another part of his growing maturity. Through their marriage, he learns to question his ways of living in the world and accept difference. He lets go of his ties to his foster mother, and his foster brother. Culminating in the moment when he changes the laws of his empire in order to be more fair to all his citizens, and thereby gains not just their respect, but their love.
(And his final softening and intellectual rebirth comes when he hesitantly recites a poem to his wife on their first night together, a remarkable breakthrough for a non-verbal person)
The love story is swoony and beautiful and romantic, but the statements about leadership and growth are more interesting to me. For instance, the attitude towards warfare. Akbar’s battles are not positioned as “wrong”. His goal is the unification of an empire, in order to strengthen and protect everyone (the film argues). We see him sending out his declarations and the alternate reactions to them among other rulers, either acceptance, or a request for compromise, or total rejection. We see that he does not respond with anger to rejection, but rather calm justice, he gives multiple opportunities for the other side to change their mind, to come to the bargaining table, and only then does he go to war. And he treats war as something to be finished as soon as possible, not glorious or triumphal, but a duty he must undertake in order to ensure the greater peace.
This is all historical fact, which means it is open to interpretation. Yes, Akbar gave his enemies many opportunities to turn back, issued formal agreements offering partnership as a vessel state, and so on and so on. But you could interpret this as a monomaniacal quest to conquer, just as easily as you could interpret it as a desire to unify India into one state for the greater good. But the reason this film turns his warfare to be considered “good” is, I think, ultimately in order to show that warfare is not the answer.
Akbar is not a bad leader when we meet him. But he becomes a Great leader when he moves beyond thoughts of conquering and war. This is not a journey of an anti-hero to a hero, this is a journey of an already good man to becoming something better than that. To struggle to a higher level of consciousness. And it is that struggle where this film lives, and where Hrithik excels.
Hrithik plays Akbar as a man who keeps everything internal. His feelings for Aishwarya are revealed in small glances, tiny gestures, moments that are slightly out of the realm of formal proper kingship. His spiritual awakening is shown not through a big speech or dramatic gesture, but by a blaze of internal light that hits him and forces him to stand and turn, for just a moment. But in all these small moments, we are seeing a story of great internal trauma. The slight stiffening of the face before he disobeys his general and foster father at the opening. The momentary wince before he orders the death of his foster brother. The ever so small pulling himself higher in pride and joy when he receives the love of his citizens.
The historical Akbar didn’t go through this journey of awakening in the exact same way, he probably didn’t have a challenge to win the love of his wife driving him own, but the fact of the awakening is true. He went from a young ruler who conquered and battled, to an older ruler who focused on reform and building a great civilization. That is historical fact, and that is the most interesting and wonderful and miraculous of facts, that people can change, can be better, can stop and pause and decide that now is the time when they can dedicate themselves to improving the world.
Moimeme in a comment on yesterday’s post brought up the question of whether Padmavat is worth all the struggle it has caused. I’ve been thinking about that, and I don’t think it is. Not this level of angst, not this much money, not this much violence. But Jodha-Akbar inspired similar levels of angst, and in that case, I think yes, it was worth it. Not because of the beautiful songs or the luxurious costumes or anything superficial like that, but because it is telling a true story of a truly Great leader. And a leader who became Great by listening to others and questioning himself, which is a lesson we all need to learn.