Who was Jodhaa Bai? Was she the wife of the 16th century Mughal emperor Akbar, or his daughter-in-law? Or a mere fictional character who gained popular currency, thanks to a super-duper Bollywood hit, Mughal-e-Azam, which had taken the entire country by storm back in 1960?
Coomi Kapoor In New Delhi
Despite a prolonged public debate on these and related questions, no definitive answers have emerged to quell the anger of Jodhaa Bai's present-day caste-brothers who are picketing, and pelting stones at cinema houses showing a film allegedly based on her romantic liaison with the legendary Mughal emperor.
The release of Bollywood offering, Jodhaa Akbar, starring Hrithik Roshan as Emperor Akbar and Aishwarya Rai as the eponymous princess Jodhaa Bai, has stirred a nationwide controversy in India. The film was banned outright in Rajasthan, the state to which the Rajput princess Jodhaa Bai allegedly belonged.
Months before its release, agitated Rajputs knocked at the door of the High Court seeking a ban on the film on the ground that it distorted history and depicted their womenfolk in poor light.
But celebrated director of Jodhaa Akbar Ashutosh Gowariker is at pains to clarify that his film was “only about 30 per cent history and 70 per cent fiction”. Gowariker explained in several interviews that his objective was to depict love across barriers of religion, caste, culture, etc.
Akbar was the Muslim ruler of India, and Jodhaa Bai was a beautiful Hindu princess of a regional Rajput community. They inhabited different social milieus and yet were inseparable. And, against all odds, were eventually tied in wedlock. Historians, however, had quite a different take on Gowariker's celluloid tale. They criticised him for taking liberties with known historical facts.
Professor Irfan Habib, well-known historian and a former head of the Indian Council of Historical Research said: “There was no historical character in Akbar's times named Jodhaa Bai.” He cited chronicles of Mughal era to back his claim.
Gowariker defends the depiction of Jodhaa Bai as the wife of Akbar, claiming that they had fully researched her character from various historical sources before finalising the script. His biggest defence, however, came from the present-day descendants of the Rajput princess. Maharani Padmini Devi of Jaipur not only vetted the script but also released its music score at a gala function a couple of weeks before the actual release of the film last month.
However, the Rajput community in Rajasthan was unimpressed. And the fact that the Rajasthan High Court had turned down the plea of the filmmakers to have the film shown in the state lent some substance to the charge that Gowariker had taken liberties, creative or otherwise, with the historical characters.
Various Rajput associations argued that Jodhaa Bai was actually wife of Akbar's son Jehangir and not Akbar's. It is conceded by Rajputs that their ancestors married their women to Mughal kings as part of a political game plan to buy peace with the dominant power.
There is near unanimity that the confusion over the name of Akbar's beloved Rajput wife might have been caused by another, and to date the benchmark, Bollywood historical film Mughal-e-Azam. The film centred around the unrequited love between Prince Jehangir and the courtesan Anarkali. Forty-seven years later, Gowariker has re-made that film with Hrithik Roshan as Akbar and Aishwarya Rai as Jodhaa Bai. So, the mischief could well be ascribed to the original Bollywood historical-fictional film.
As for the film proper, it evoked a mixed response. Reviewing the film, well-known critic Nikhat Kazmi wrote: “We aren't going to quibble with history here because Jodhaa-Akbar is a plain and simple love story between a man named Akbar and a girl named Jodhaa who tried to come close together despite the barriers of religion and culture. If you are willing to shed the trappings of history ... only then will Jodhaa Akbar work for you.”
Of course, if you are looking for a true historical depiction, you will be disappointed. For, 16th century Rajput women did not wear low-cut, halter-backed blouses with plunging necklines. Even to this day, they are more likely to be covered from head to toe in yards and yards of not-so-fine cloth than in skimpy blouses and short skirts. In sum, it is a glitzy version of kitschy history, which you watch for sheer entertainment.
This article was first published in ' The Star', Malaysia. Reprinted with permission.