Set against the bloody and turbulent period of the 16th century when Akbar is consolidating his empire through unorthodox alliances that includes a marriage to a spirited Rajput princess, Jodhaa Akbar is a leisurely and overdrawn film, which is nevertheless magical for good part.
In a way it is like reading an epic Russian novel. There are too many characters and too much happening. But if you can read through the first 50 pages, you get hooked.
In the case of this magnificently mounted and often thrilling film, with a career defining performance by Hrithik Roshan, the first 20 minutes look like a boring and at times, confusing history lesson which would have become burdensome but for the sonorous narration by Amitabh Bachchan.
But once princess Jodhaa (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is persuaded by her father (Khulbhusan Kharbandha) to forego an arranged marriage to a Rajput prince and marry the young Muslim ruler (Hrithik), the film begins to blossom, and hold your attention.
The film is about three hours and 30 minutes but once it hooks you, the length does not matter.
Never mind how the film, which reportedly cost $10 million, will fare at the box office, there is no denying that it is arguably one of the most spectacular films India has made. Two of its musical numbers, Khwaja Mere Khwaja and Azeem-O-Shaan Shahenshah, are among the film's highlights. The former, a beautifully choreographed Sufi number, which is enthralling and accompanied with gentle trans-inducing movement, takes place at a crucial moment in the film. So does the second number, performed with vigorous dancing, which fills the screen soon after Akbar has consolidated his hold. Add to these songs, the splendidly staged action scenes, especially the sword fight between Akbar and Jodhaa, and a number of battle scenes, and you then have a spectacular epic.
There are times you feel the changes Akbar goes through could have been better narrated but one applauds writer Haider Ali and director Ashutosh Gowariker for not making Akbar a one-dimensional cartoon figure. In one of the most important sequences in the film, for instance, you see Akbar giving into his baser instincts, as he orders a cruel death to a palace traitor.
It is not that the royal intrigues and violent confrontations go away after the Jodhaa and Akbar wedding. But the relationship between Jodhaa and Akbar, which is often fraught with misunderstandings and continually challenged by the Muslim clergy and the powers behind the throne like the foster mother Mahan Anga (a hypnotic Ila Arun), becomes the film's main occupation.
The main business then is how slowly the political alliance that created the marriage between Jodhaa and Akbar is turned into a loving and respectful relationship, and how the young emperor deals with the orthodox Muslim establishment, and proclaims religious pluralism. And how in the process he ensures his Hindu wife is given the due respect.
Some historians and viewers may question the plot lines developed in the film. Some may wonder why the film does not show any indication how, in his later years, Akbar would not allow his son to marry a court dancer.
But it is suffice to say that the Akbar we see in the film is quite an intriguing, colourful and tough ruler. And Hrithik brings his muscular presence and charismatic personality to make the role his own. Watch him negotiating with Jodhaa their troubled marriage, and the tense scene in which he saves the life of a friend and tames a wild elephant. Also, watch him in one of the most moving scenes in the film when he reveals to Jodhaa a crucial aspect of his education. Watch also his expressions when he discovers the betrayal by one of the most trusted persons of the royal household and how he lets his mother (an impressive Punam Sinha) come back fully into his life.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has never looked this gorgeous. Some of her dramatic scenes are weakly performed but she whips up excellent chemistry with Hrithik.
The film could have gained considerably if the secondary parts have been played with power. As Jodhaa's brother Sujamal -- who is estranged from the family -- Sonu Sood is rather weak. And as such his rebellion and subsequent change of heart do not carry the required emotional weight. The women fare better in the secondary characters.
Working with A R Rahman following Swades and Lagaan, Gowariker makes an excellent use of the five intricate tunes. The first song, Manmohana, which unfolds at a delicate moment disappears after a minute, and is deftly brought back at an important juncture many minutes later.
Rahman triumphs as a composer whose score, now sonorous, now very light, adds to the film's many moods.
Cinematographer Kiran Deohans not only captures well the vivid battle scenes but also the close ups that convey the growing relationship between Akbar and Jodhaa. Some of the film's most arresting visual scenes come at the end of the Sufi song when Akbar is bathed in celestial light.
Whether it is Rahman, Deohans, the choreographers or the stunt coordinator Ravi Dewan, Gowariker has shown once again what a great team builder he is. The next time he should try doing something very radical for him: make a two hour long, seamless but a pulsating film that has all the passion and intrigue of his previous films.