Teaching and researching religions, languages, literatures, films, and ecology of India: http://philosophy.unt.edu/people/faculty/pankaj-jain

Dr. Pankaj Jain

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Dr. Pankaj Jain is the author of Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability (May 2011), which won the 2012 DANAM Book Award and the 2011 Uberoi Foundation Book Award. His 2nd book is Science and Socio-Religious Revolution in India: Moving the Mountains (Routledge 2017).

He is co-founder of American Academy of Indic Studies (www.AAIndicStudies.org) and is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Springer).

He is Associate Professor in the department of Philosophy & Religion. He has published articles in journals such as Religious Studies Review, Worldviews, Religion Compass, Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, and the Journal of Visual Anthropology. He also contributes to the Huffington Post, Washington Post’s forum On Faith, and Patheos.
His research has been supported by the Fulbright fellowship and by the Wenner Gren grant. His teaching interests include Religion and Ecology, Indian films, and Religions and Cultures of South Asia and South Asian Diaspora in North America. Before joining UNT, he taught at North Carolina State University, Rutgers, Kean, and New Jersey City University. Interested in connecting ancient practices with contemporary issues, he is exploring the connections between religious traditions and sustainability in Hindu and Jain communities in India and the Indian diaspora. He serves as a research affiliate with Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, as scholar-in-residence with GreenFaith, as a board member of the Society for Hindu Christian Studies, and as a board member of the Executive Advisory Council of Hindu American Seva Charities, an NGO working with the White House Office for the faith-based initiatives. He has presented his research at Columbia University, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, University of South Florida, Florida International University, University of Toledo, Texas Christian University, High Point University, Lancaster University (UK), Andhra University (India), Univ of Rajasthan (India), and several conferences, high schools, radio and TV stations, temples, churches, Yoga centers, and other community centers.
He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and an M.A. from Columbia University (both in Religious Studies). In his “previous life” he had also earned a B.S. in Computer Science from India and had worked as a software engineer in India and in New Jersey. Dr. Jain is an active member of several academic and community organizations, is fluent in several Indian languages, and has published poems in Hindi. He was born in Rajasthan and had also lived in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Karnatak (in India) and in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas (in the USA). Some of his papers and articles are at:http://unt.academia.edu/PankajJain/Papers and videos are at http://www.youtube.com/pj2017. The Facebook page for his book is at:https://www.facebook.com/DharmaAndEcology

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jodhaa Akbar: A Review

Jodhaa Akbar: India’s Contribution to World Cinema

For long, Indian films have been criticized, ridiculed, and ignored by the elites both in India and abroad। Indian Cinema has been accused of lacking originality in its themes and contents. Being an admirer of the this media in general and of Indian films in particular, until now I had only names like Bimal Roy, V Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen to glorify Indian cinema. While Hollywood can boast of several epic films, Indian films in this category could only list names such as Mughal-e-Azam, Mother India, and Sholay. I used to wonder if India could ever produce films makers that can be counted among the great stalwarts of the world cinema. My expectations were fulfilled to a great degree when Ashutosh Gowariker came up with Lagaan. Here was a truly Indian film with Indian characters and music inspired by Indian folk and devotional music. After Lagaan, Gowariker continued with Swades, yet another truly Indian film with an original story inspired by Indian grass root work done by NRIs. I am happy to note that Gowariker has continued his genre of making truly Indian film inspired by Indian history with his latest film Jodhaa Akbar (JA).

While Swades was a dramatized version of true events in recent Indian history and Lagaan was a fictional account of an event that was placed in Indian colonial history by the deft direction of Gowariker, JA is a film that takes its inspiration from the life and times of Akbar, the great Mughal emperor. Again, like Lagaan and Swades, Gowariker has chosen to make use of full potential of this great medium that is largely underused by most contemporary filmmakers. Just to quote from my own review of Swades:
“Having watched it, I am once again full of exhilaration and optimism about Indian films. Pritish Nandy had said about Lagaan: “Phew! What a Movie!” He would say the same about Swades. He had then said “Move over, James Cameron (maker of the film Titanic), Ashutosh Gowariker has arrived! I would say “Move over, Chopras, Johars and others (who have looted public money for their profits and wasted this media), Ashutosh Gowariker has arrived.”
About JA also, I would make a similar comment. To be sure, it is not a documentary or scholarly presentation on the life and times of Akbar. We already have several history books with detailed research about Akbar. Instead, Gowariker has chosen to present a rare chapter of Indian history using the media of this film. We had long heard the name of Jodhaa Bai, a Rajput princess that Akbar had married in his efforts to reach out to the Hindu people of India just as he had abolished the Jaziya Tax that was collected from the Hindus before his reign. Gowariker focuses on the role of Jodhaa Bai in shaping Akbar’s life and rule by way of her Hindu and Rajput background. Just as Sikhism, Urdu, Indian classical music are all products of historic intermixing of the most different traditions of Hinduism and Islam, Gowariker presents Mughal rule by Akbar as a great amalgam of coming together of a Hindu princess and a Muslim King. Even if some historians can dispute the historic accuracy of this film, Akbar’s relationship with Hindus is a theme worth exploring. Like Indian Sufism and India Shiite traditions of Islam, Akbar’s rule is a glorious chapter of Indian Islam that has a unique imprint and impression of Indian culture that may well have derived its inspiration from Jodhaa.
The film starts with an elaborate battle scene with Akbar winning Delhi from the Hindu king Hemu. Akbar’s hesitation to behead Hemu shows his inclination towards Indian non-violence even in his adolescence that takes full shape when he becomes the emperor and asks his caretaker Behram Khan to leave for Mecca. Akbar dislikes the way Khan was conquering Hindu kings and bringing about massive carnage. Akbar changes the Mughal politics from confrontation to conciliation with Hindu kings. In this scenario, Jodhaa’s hand is offered to him by Amer’s king. As a Rajput woman with high self-esteem and pride about her culture and traditions, Jodhaa refuses to marry Akbar until he agrees to her demands. She extracts a promise from him to practice Hinduism after their marriage. She comes to Akbar’s palace in Agra but soon is disappointed by conspiracies and murders widespread in the royal court. Slowly and steadily, she succeeds in bringing about a fundamental transformation in the outlook of the emperor towards his subjects and his personal lifestyle. It is historically known that Akbar had practiced vegetarianism on certain days and had abolished a special tax on Hindus. The film merely connects these historic events to the influence of Jodhaa on Akbar. It was Jodhaa’s suggestion that inspires Akbar to examine the lives of his people to better rule them. Similarly, Jodhaa’s vegetarian Rajasthani delicacies inspire Akbar to be vegetarian on certain days in a month. Even the final battle scene that could have erupted to a huge massacre is reduced to a duel against his bitter enemy in which Akbar puts an end to his long-standing rebel.
The story by Haidar Ali does a great service to the role of Jodhaa who is not known to the audience except for her mention as the wife of Akbar in the history books. The director does not leave any stone unturned to present the power, grandeur, and grace of both Jodhaa and Akbar. The film shows several of their encounters with great subtlety and sensitivity. My favorite scene was when Jodhaa decides to cook herself in the royal kitchen even as the matriarch of the royal palace continues to doubt Jodhaa because of her Hindu background. In addition to a great story line and a great direction, the art direction by Nitin Desai, costume design by Neeta Lulla, and action by Ravi Dewan are other highlights of this epic film. In all, they succeed to portray the royal life of Akbar in all its grandiose and magnanimity. The casting of several characters is top-notch, especially their Urdu diction, including that of Hritik Roshan, shows their hard work. Even the final action scene has several innovative elements, a long scene in which the warriors keep dropping and changing their weapons. However, the music by A. R. Rahman leaves a lot to be desired especially after his superior performance in Lagaan. I was expecting the Sufi dance to be much more passionate and powerful with intense devotion that Rahman had showed in a similar sequence for Shyam Benegal’s film on Subhash Chandra Bose. Here Rahman sounded quite subdued. Similarly, unlike the Lagaan’s immortal Hindu bhajan, Jodhaa’s Krishna bhajan fails to leave an impression. Only high point in music is the title song celebrating Akbar’s rule with his people especially with its spectacular choreography. Coming to the acting department, Hritik has delivered the best performance of his career. I already mentioned about his Urdu, his acting as a Mughal emperor similarly shows his devotion to his work and his coming of age (after “Masala” films like Krish and Dhoom 2). However, Aishwarya Rai only partially succeeded in delivering a powerful performance expected of such an epic role. Ila Arun shines as the Mughal matriarch and so do rest of the characters.
Overall, Akbar’s role in the history of India deserved a bioepic films such as this. I am aware that people in Rajasthan have protested this film challenging the historical accuracy of Jodhaa’s life but they seem to have ignored that the film actually puts Jodhaa on a very high pedestal, a Hindu woman that transforms the Delhi politics and Mughal king in a major way. To me, this film and Akbar’s rule both are powerful celebrations of Indian culture. A culture that indianized several foreign invaders and murderers to adopt Indian ways of non-violence, vegetarianism, and respect for all traditions and religions. Before Muslims, Greeks, left behind by Alexander, were similarly absorbed into the massive “sponge” of Indian culture. After Greeks, Huns, Shaks, and several other invading tribes also were mingled into Indian society. Mongols who were fierce warriors and had established the largest empire in the world could not hold on to their victories in any other part of the world except their Indian descendents the Mughals. The success of Mughals was largely based on Akbar’s upbringing among the Rajputs and his later marriage with Jodhaa.

Again, historians can continue to argue about the historical accuracy of the film but Gowariker has largely succeeded in telling a story of Indian culture in his unique style. This film will be long remembered for its epic portrayal of an Indian king and his queen. Indian cinema should be grateful to acknowledge the contributions by Gowariker for his innovative films that succeed in raising the intellectual and cinematic contents and themes of the films. Kudos!

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