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The enigma of Mohenjo Daro, the largest site attributed to the Indus Valley civilization, continues to be one of the most beguiling mysteries for anthropologists and historians. To transfer to the big screen a title that instantly evokes nothing short of epic storytelling would be a stupendous task. Ashutosh Gowariker, a specialist in constructing large scale box office hits like Lagaan(2001) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008) steps up to this task, and he has his work cut out for him. Even though this expensive undertaking puts up gorgeous sets, spectacular city-scapes and a decent music score, Mohenjo Daro lags behind in the ratings for great cinema that Gowariker is best known for.

Combing through a trove of known historical Mohenjo Daro lore, Gowariker’s team has pieced together a film based on speculation of what life might have been at the time. Sarman (Roshan), an adventuring laborer along with his uncle Durjan (Bharadwaj) collects indigo, a precious trading commodity at the time. He is from the outlying regions and finds himself drawn to the capital Mohenjo Daro. There, a run-in with Moonja (Singh), the son of Mohenjo Daro’s strong man Maham (Bedi), sets Sarman on a collision course intertwined with nothing short of the future of the city-state. Sarman’s interest in Channi (Hegde), the enchanting daughter of the temple priest only complicates Sarman’s prospects further, as Moonja also professes interest in the same girl.

The tantalizing detail and care that has gone into bringing all of this together is remarkable. The sets, from a 25-acre model city built in Bhuj to represent the city’s central baths which are the same dimensions as the actual baths dug up at the Pakistan site are eye-popping and beautiful. The mythology that centers on an emblem featuring a unicorn, a two tier way of life–an “upper city” for the Indus Valley one-percenter power players and the “lower city” for folks of meager means also accentuates an outlook that taps into feudalism as an ancient practice.

To describe it in broad strokes, this movie is an action-adventure-love story. This means that Roshan and Hegde have to feature on the screen extensively. Roshan’s Sarman finds himself in harm’s way with man-eating crocodiles, giant-sized cannibals and hordes of Moonja’s goons and also possible flooding in the Indus River which Maham the usurper has sinister plans to exploit. Because the Indus Valley script remains undeciphered to this day, that language remains unknown. Gowariker uses an interesting ploy to have the dialog revert to (mostly) classical Hindustani. The sub-titles come in handy.

So where are the gaps? The staggering budget, for one. Covered by one of the largest budgets ever for a Hindi movie, the “making of” was talked about for months before. Then, we heard about cost overruns and also about Roshan’s payday for this movie, reported to be equivalent to the full budgets of most A-list Hindi movies. Ouch! The shooting schedule was further delayed by Roshan having to recover from injuries suffered during the extensive action shoots. Ouch again!

A. R. Rahman’s score has one or two stops that make those pieces good listening. Javed Akhtar’s lyrics also toss in bits of an imaginary lingo ascribed to that period. The title track here is from the same school as Rahman’s celebratory “Azeem O Shaan Shahenshah” from Jodhaa Akbar and here also it sounds moderately pleasing. There are ample tribal chimes and wood instruments that form an alternate sound. The “alternate” however, could be Rahman in an experimental mood rather than the score being an out-of-this-world salute to an era that slipped unknown into antiquity. Still, “Tu Hai” and “Sindu Ma” sung by Rahman and Sanah Moidutty are love tracks—the latter is an ode to the Indus River and lingers on.

Released on the same day as Rustom, the other recent box office contender, Mohenjo Daro underperformed at the Box Office on a one to one count with Rustom. We need to wait and see if the tepid box office returns can help recover the massive outlay for the movie. The story of the rise and relatively sudden disappearance of the Indus Valley civilization, a culture that thrived in what is now primarily Pakistan and India about 4,000 years ago is shrouded in the mists of history. If nothing else, Gowariker deserves kudos for imaginatively recreating bits of that history.

EQ: B

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

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