Written by Laila Ghaffar
Image: Still from Jodhaa-Akbar (2008), https://www.timeout.com/london/film/jodhaa-akbar, accessed 21 October 2018
While browsing Netflix the other day, I noticed a new addition to my ‘suggested’ list. The thumbnail displayed two well defined side profiles of two of Bollywood’s biggest stars: Hrithik Roshan clad in silver armour, and Aishwariya Rai in an ornate gown. Above their heads, the title: ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ is scrawled in golden cursive. A swift click on the image revealed that the film is a re-telling of the famed story of the marriage between the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his Hindu Rajput Princess Jodhaa. There are few things I love more than a romantic historical film, especially when it is a full-blown Bollywood extravaganza, so naturally I had to press play.
The film more than delivers on its promise of opulence. Every frame is visually stunning. Every man and woman is dripping in jewels and dressed in impossibly intricate embroidered costume. Director Ashutosh Gorwariker spares no thrill – every detail from the immense Mughal architecture to the elephants and dancing peacocks is provided for in abundance. There are, needless to say, unnecessarily long song and dance sequences which are characteristic of Bollywood films, but I was prepared to overlook them.
What I was not prepared to overlook, however, was the relative ease with which the story plays out. The film’s essential plot is quite basic: the Muslim Emperor marries the Hindu princess after her father forms an alliance with him. She then lives in his court based in Agra, from where the Mughals controlled their vast empire including modern-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This marriage seems to have produced a fairly limited backlash – in fact the most threatening opponent is Akbar’s elderly and malicious governess. The protagonists fall in love, and their story conforms to a very basic ‘boy meets girl’ narrative archetype. They take leisurely strolls together and frolic in rose gardens. In our contemporary world, there is still a great deal of taboo surrounding the marriage between a Hindu and a Muslim in the Subcontinent. However, this film suggests that back in the sixteenth century, this marriage – between two members of royalty no less – was considered normal.
So I decided to do a bit of research. And what I found is that what the film dilutes is not necessarily a compelling romance, but the story of Akbar, an exceptional man and ruler. Akbar’s tolerance for different religions was remarkable. Whereas his predecessors attempted to persecute religious minorities in order to strengthen their own authority as Muslim rulers, Akbar largely promoted tolerance and peace. Before his succession, it had been common practice to heavily tax Hindus going on pilgrimages. Akbar did not just get rid of the tax, but actively encouraged open discussion and debate pertaining to religion. This interest in theology and spirituality lead the Emperor to promote the mystic notion of ‘Suhl-i-kul,’ meaning ‘peace with all’ in Arabic. This philosophy enabled him to energetically promote the participation of Hindus and other minority groups in forming legislation and participating in his court. Although Akbar himself personally adhered closely to the principles of Islam, he did not insist on its dominance over other religions, and put an end to the forced conversion of prisoners of war. During a time where the Mughals were still perceived as foreign invaders, Akbar’s decision to encourage religious diversity in society rather than simply consolidate his own political power gave rise to a unique cultural identity across the empire.
As for his famed marriage to Jodhaa, the story is not as clear-cut as the movie would have us believe. Firstly, there are no records of anybody named ‘Jodhaa’ in either primary sources by eyewitnesses, nor in the Akbarnama, a chronicle of Akbar’s life commissioned by the Emperor himself. There are, however, mentions of a wife called Mariam-uz-Zamani. It was not uncommon for royal wives to change names upon entering their husband’s court. However, the lack of any concrete evidence regarding Jodhaa’s background casts doubt as to whether she truly was the daughter of a powerful Rajput king. Jodhaa’s alleged background is even less likely given the fact that the union between her and Akbar resulted in the birth of Jahangir, the heir to the Mughal throne – as this surely would have been exploited as a propaganda device to strengthen the alliance between Rajputs and Mughals. Many historians have tried to provide a narrative to fill the gaps in our understanding of Jodhaa, and their suggestions range from plausible to plainly ridiculous. One historian who fits under the latter category is Luis de Assis Correia, who claims in his book Portuguese India and Mughal Relations 1510-1735 that Jodha was in-fact a Portuguese prisoner named Dona Maria Mascarenhas. According to Correia, when the eighteen-year-old Dona was presented to the Emperor as a gift, he fell in love with her and married her. Correia suggests that the shame of a foreign Catholic bearing the heir to the Mughal empire is the reason why her narrative has been deliberately omitted by the records. However romantic this notion is, it is rooted in very little, unconvincing evidence.
The film also suggests that the marriage was a loving one – Jodhaa is depicted to be the only wife in Akbar’s court. In reality, she was one of the many wives of Akbar. The emperor married strategically rather than for love, and the exact number of his wives has been debated among historians. Some estimate that it was around thirty in total. But the number of women present in the royal court greatly outnumbers this figure. The historian Alex von Tunzelmann claims that the emperor harboured several thousand concubines in his royal harem. So as much as we would like to believe otherwise, if Akbar loved Jodha, she was only one in a long line of loves. Furthermore, it is very possible that she was not his only Hindu wife – it is estimated that the Emperor had at least three other Hindu wives who he allowed to practice their religion freely, even joining in on some of their rituals and rites.
So, while Bollywood may have lulled us into a fantasy world of love and longing, the film falls short on conveying the magnitude of Akbar’s achievements. I would still watch it for the visual treat that it is, but just take heed of the warning at the beginning of the film: ‘this is just one version of historical events. There could be other versions and viewpoints to it.’