By Subhash K. Jha
It's easy to write off a film that comes with the burden of a rather cumbersome history of its own - a non-happening star cast, a director who doesn't have anything to show for himself, a music composer who retired decades ago...
But "Taj Mahal" takes you by surprise. The rare care with which Akbar Khan mounts his tale of Mughal intrigue, the volume of 'epic' quality that he succeeds in investing into the plot's palpable periodicity and the attention he gives to bringing the characters to life makes this the most surprising film of the year.
Spanning two generations of the Mughal period, covering the youthful passion and autumnal memories of Shah Jahan (Zulfikar Syed/Kabir Bedi), "Taj Mahal" has that quality which is paramount to the success of a costume drama - the director believes in his vision and possesses the wherewithal to translate that vision into credible visuals.
The war sequences here are certainly impressive. Akbar Khan creates a kaleidoscopic crowd of linear conflicts, which make for engrossing viewing.
The narrative flows with a fluent flamboyance. As the passion between Prince Khurram and Mumtaz unfurls like a richly embroidered Persian carpet, we are swept into a world of ornate corridors and age-old political intrigue.
Having become habituated to seeing filmmakers take incredible liberties with historical facts, we are initially impressed by the way Khan has stuck to historical facts. The characters are straight from the textbooks. And yet most of them manage to avoid being bookish.
Arbaaz Khan's "Dara", for example, is portrayed as a very intriguing blend of black and grey. Such subtle characterisations take you by surprise in a film that outwardly appears to be a product of papier mache periodicity.
But looks are often deceptive. Khan actually succeeds in creating a life beyond the eye-catching dazzle of a costume drama. R.M. Rao's cinematography, Uttam Singh's background score and C.B. More's art direction furnish the Mughal texture with a sumptuous underbelly.
No recent film has spent so much on decking up the characters and the locations, without going over-the-top.
Akbar Khan leans heavily on that Mughal role model "Mughal-e-Azam" to create his feast of flurry. The defiantly- besotted Prince Khurram's confrontation sequences with his debauched father are a first-rate homage to the Salim-Akbar dialogues in K. Asif's classic, thanks to the word-spin that dialogue writers Gulrez Syed, Mohafiz Hyder and Rajeev Mirza set off.
The language is pure but accessible Urdu. The costumes (Anna Singh) are eclectically authentic, though at least one character (played by Pooja Batra) seems to be too contemporary in dress and manner.
The film would've gone to another level with a more happening cast. Nonetheless if you can forget that Prince Khurram (Zulfikar Syed) was last seen selling underwear on television or that his beloved Mumtaz (Sonia Jehan) is a wife and mother in real life, you could float away into the enthralling tides of a costume dazzle that the director has so bravely created in an era when historicals and costume dramas have both acquired a disrepute.
The temptation to write off this film as one more exercise in epic extravaganza is great. But let's not sacrifice this brave and often remarkably well-mounted ode to the spirit of old world resplendence at the altar of cynicism.