August 12, 2016
Hrithik Roshan, Kabir Bedi, Pooja Hegde, Arunoday Singh, Manish Choudhary, Umang Vyas, Narendra Jha, Suhasini Mulay, Nitish Bharadwaj, Kishori Shahane, Sharad Kelkar, Diganta Hazarika, Casey Frank, Michael Homik
“The film does not support or promote any specific interpretations of the Origin, Character or Decline of the Ancient Indus Civilization. It does not claim to be an actual portrayal. Archaeologists and Historians have many different opinions and interpretations that remain to be confirmed through further studies. The Sindhu script is still undeciphered and no one knows the names of the cities at that time. So we have used the popular name – Mohenjo Daro!”
– Disclaimer carried at the start of the film Mohenjo Daro
If you wish to avoid heartburn and stand any chance of enjoying Mohenjo Daro, take the words of this caveat very seriously. Far from being a faithful portrayal of the Indus Valley Civilisation, writer-director Ashutosh Gowariker’s film uses the name of a city with high recall value as a mere hook – along with other markers from antiquity such as Harappa and Sumer – not to revisit history but as a vehicle for a true-blue Bollywood romance and an eternal story of good vs evil.
Gowariker, who earlier made Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar, seems well intentioned even if he plays around with facts here. The film is genuinely concerned about environmental degradation. It is clearly intended too as a slap in the face of autocracy, an indictment of politicians and citizens who stay silent when confronted with despots, and a salaam to democracy. All this would have been far more effective if the quality of the storytelling had been consistent. As I watched Mohenjo Daro, I spent my time being partly amused (by the liberties taken with history), partly irritated, and partly entertained.
Mohenjo Daro is set in 2016 BC where we meet Sarman (Hrithik Roshan) living with his uncle Durjan (Nitish Bharadwaj), an indigo farmer, and aunt Bima (Kishori Shahane). Sarman is popular with the locals for his daredevilry that includes killing human-eating crocodiles. He is restless though, haunted by dreams of a one-horned beast and has for long longed to visit nearby Mohenjo-daro, much to Durjan’s dismay. One day, Durjan relents and Sarman travels to the city with his friend Hojo (Umang Vyas) and sackfuls of their produce. Once there, he discovers a people manipulated and oppressed by their cruel ruler Maham (Kabir Bedi), he falls for the high priest’s daughter Chaani (debutante Pooja Hegde) and discovers his own connection to the place.
Even to an inexpert eye, it is obvious that authenticity is not Mohenjo Daro’s strength – or goal. Chaani’s blue gown, for example, is so glaringly the handiwork of a 21st century couturier rather than something from 4,000 years back as evidenced by statuettes of women of the Indus Civilisation unearthed by archaeologists. She takes a ritual dip in what appears to be a perfectly tiled five-star hotel swimming pool. Whirling dervishes pop up in a dance. And… I can go on.
To be fair, Mohenjo Daro is inconsistent in its inauthenticity. The unicorn is well chosen as a recurring motif since the beast appears on seals excavated from sites of the civilisation. The use of language in the film too is intriguing at first: the inhabitants of Sarman’s village are initially shown using a dialect that is just about decipherable to the average Hindi bhaashi, the camera then zooms in on the lips of a character as he speaks and when it zooms out they are all conversing in regular Hindi, which is really the only sensible route to take in a Hindi film since the Indus language is yet to be cracked. That clever cinematic device gives way to irregularities though, with “prateek” popping up as “parteek” (as Punjabis would say it) in the middle of the Sanskritised tongue spoken in the rest of the film. Never mind for a moment the historical appropriateness of Sanskrit in that setting. All that formal, old-world “kadaachit” and “sangini” and “anivaarya” sounds incongruous when the heroine wears dresses that in some scenes look like they were bought off a contemporary New Delhi catwalk and elsewhere seem sourced from the costumiers of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur.
The film’s special effects too have ups and downs. The river in the opening scene is not bad at all, but the unicorn and the aerial shots of Mohenjo-daro are flat. It is sad that Indian SFX studios do top-notch work for Hollywood, but our own cinema so often comes off looking shoddy.
Still, if you keep in mind the warning in Paragraphs 1 & 2, Mohenjo Daro is not a washout. The first 90 minutes or so are well paced, the action scenes are well executed, and Roshan shines. It is not just that he is one of the greatest-looking men in the history of great-looking men; the fact is that in the hands of a director who can check his tendency to ham, he is also a fine actor.
So even when all else around him fails in Mohenjo Daro, you want to believe what his character believes, because he believes it so much with those eyes. His love for Chaani is senseless since he knows nothing about her – nor do we – apart from the fact that she is a statuesque beauty, but you almost will yourself to buy into it. (Spoiler alert) When he rushes a mass of humanity across a makeshift bridge made of boats in the climax, though my mind was filled with questions about physics and crowd control, I could not help but notice how immersed he seemed in the moment.
Every step of the way, whether Sarman is fighting injustice himself or urging Chaani to do so, it is hard not to be drawn in by Roshan’s sincerity. Except for fleeting moments when he goes overboard with his cutesy mirth on first encountering the young woman and a couple of lines when he sounds borderline-Rohit-from-Koi-Mil-Gaya, Gowariker directs him with a firm hand.
They earlier teamed up in what turned out to be a highlight of both their filmographies. Jodhaa Akbar, however, featured a plus that is sorely missing in Mohenjo Daro: chemistry between the lead pair. Regardless of her acting flaws, when Aishwarya Rai Bachchan appears on screen with Roshan, the result is electric. Poor Pooja Hegde cannot be faulted here. Both Roshan and Rai have 42 years each of life behind them, and the gravitas and charisma that comes with it. Hegde is a child in comparison with her hero. She is further hampered by Gowariker’s treatment of her, not as a key player in the story but as a mannequin. She seems like she deserves better than that.
She is not the only one thus spurned. For a man who painted a fiery portrait of feminine strength in Jodhaa Akbar, Gowariker is disappointingly disinterested in the female half of Mohenjo-daro’s population. Women are missing from all the central action in the film. Literally. Not only do they have nothing to do, hardly any women are even seen on screen, even in crowd scenes.
Chaani’s only role is to look sweet and fall for Sarman as he goes about the business of being a born leader and an amazing human being fighting selflessly for an entire community. As Maham’s long-suffering wife Laashi, Suhasini Mulay has just one scene in which to do and say something worthwhile. While she is at it, she reminds us of what a commanding talent she is in comparison with the King of Over-Acting, Kabir Bedi, who gets to dominate much of the film as Sarman’s primary foe.
Bollywood’s obsession with female youth has unintended comic consequences in Mohenjo Daro. Kishori Shahane, who plays Durjan’s wife Bima, is just five years Roshan’s senior. I swear I did not know this when I watched the film, but when Sarman addresses her as Kaaki (Aunty) I laughed, because they look the same age and there are palpable lover-like sparks between them.
Among the supporting cast, Assamese film actor Diganta Hazarika – making his Bollywood debut here – leaves a lasting impression.
A.R. Rahman’s music is lovely and slotted perfectly in the narrative. Tu hai’s melody and the use of percussion in the title track are particularly haunting, as is the background score. The choreography is too basic though for Roshan who is, without question, one of the best dancers this industry has ever had.
The standout jarring note in Mohenjo Daro is in its finale. (Spoiler ahead) When a dam in the film is breached and the city is washed away, a new river is formed. What will it be called, Sarman is asked. Ganga, he replies. It is ludicrous to suggest that the Ganga – which was already in existence – was born at the death of the Indus Civilisation. If the implication instead is that the entire populace travelled to her banks, then the massive geographical distance that separates Mohenjo-daro and the Ganga tells us that would have been impossible in a short period in that era. For the record, Mohenjo-daro was on the north-western edge of the subcontinent, in Sindh (modern Pakistan), whereas the Ganga flows through north India and eastwards into Bangladesh.
Fictionalising history is certainly not a crime. It is bizarre though to make factually inexplicable claims around it, or worse, to take a rich history and water it down to suit contemporary Bollywood conventions. Today, the most iconic reminder of the Indus Valley Civilisation is the bronze figurine known as The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo Daro excavated from this ancient city. She briefly appears in the film. There she stands with her legs slightly apart, one hand on her hips, a woman child so confident that it is sad to witness her descendants so many thousand years later still fighting for gender equality. That Gowariker has marginalised her contemporaries in his story, reducing them to bystanders while his hero saves their world, is inexcusable.
It is the film’s good fortune that that hero is played by an actor whose chemistry with his director is unmistakable. Hrithik Roshan’s conviction and verve carry it through even when Gowariker’s perennial Achilles heel – the inability to compress his thoughts – sets in along with the silly season and laxity. Mohenjo Daro is well-meaning, even entertaining up to a point. Sadly, it is also a patchy, historically dubious affair.
Rating (out of five): **
CBFC Rating (India):
Footnote on the film’s Censor rating: Mohenjo Daro includes some Game of Thrones-grade violence, yet has managed to get away with a UA rating from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). In the same week has come the Malayalam film Pretham which was granted an even lighter rating – the most coveted U – despite featuring a vile rape joke. A depiction of sex between consenting adults in either film, as we know, would have automatically invited an A. Loud claps for the CBFC, please.
Trivia: (Spoiler alert) The film’s bloodiest scenes involve hand-to-hand combat in a stadium between Sarman and two mountain-sized savages who we are told are from “Tajik ke parvat”. Did you know that Casey Frank and Michael Homik who play the giants are in fact professional basketball players from New Zealand? Now you do.
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohenjo_Daro_(film)