Naseeruddin Shah in a still from ‘Taj: Divided by Blood’ | Photo Credit: ZEE5
Perhaps the best cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear is Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic. Ran, The film’s title, explains Donald Richie in his book on Kurosawa, carries multiple meanings, ranging from ‘turmoil’ and ‘chaos’ to ‘rebellion’. “It was perhaps a combination of these meanings that appealed to the director,” writes Richie. “He was filming a story about sons rebelling against their father, and he was illustrating a time when all social values were in a state of chaos.”
ZEE5’s Taj: Divided by Blood, another story of rebelling sons and a father, aims for a similarly vast canvas, conjuring a 16th-century Mughal Empire riven by degeneration and dread and intrigue. The series — directed by Ron Scalpello and screen-written by William Borthwick and Simon Fantauzzo — begins with Akbar’s siege of Chittor in 1568, which consolidated Mughal rule in northern India. Later, we see Akbar visiting the Sufi mystic Shaikh Salim Chisti (Dharmendra in a long beard) in his hermitage. Chisti heeds his prayers for an heir, but warns, “You shall fear no enemy, but one of your own.”
Taj: Divided by Blood (Hindi)
Creator: William Borthwick
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Dharmendra, Aditi Rao Hydari, Rahul Bose, Zarina Wahab, Sandhya Mridul
runtime: 35-45 minutes
Storyline: Mughal Emperor Akbar watches on as a desperate power struggle grips his three ambitious sons
The story pulls ahead a few decades. Akbar, now a frail old man played by Naseeruddin Shah, is inclined to appoint a successor amid mounting troubles. He has sired three sons, Salim, Murad and Daniyal, strapping young boys obsessed with sex, warfare and religion respectively. They’re tested through horse-taming, and later through actual campaigns on the battlefield. Even as a feud brews at home—most explicitly between Salim and Murad—the brothers are forced to hold together, what with Rajput renegades pressing in and Akbar’s own brother Mirza Hakim (Rahul Bose) mutinying in the north.
Tajlike The Empire before it, represents another brave attempt at creating a game of thrones-like franchise centered around the Mughals. It’s a thrilling proposition – even without the dragons. The show is clearly inspired by the standards of international period TV, an expensive (and expansive) production spiced up with sex, gore and palace intrigue. So, we get hooded spies and assassins, and a muted exploration of homosexuality (it was there in The Empire too). But the other sub-plots don’t feel as subversive. The female characters, notably, are given short shrift. Akbar’s and Salim’s wives spend long hours lounging by the royal bath and getting into cat-fights. And while Anarkali (Aditi Rao Hydari) is a subject of extended dramatic interest, she’s painted in terms no different than the tragic romanticizing that surrounds her legend.
The series is low on wit – there’s hardly a memorable exchange between Akbar and his chief courtier, Birbal. More interesting, rather, is the show’s conception of secularism as filtered through medieval religion and politics. From a senseless slaughterer of Rajputs at Chittor, Akbar wizens into a moderate king (when advised by his clergymen to tax Hindus harder to fund a war campaign, he scoffs). During one of his epileptic seizures—the historical Akbar did suffer from those—he has a vision of universal brotherhood. This leads him to formulate ‘Din-I-Illahi’, or ‘Divine Faith’, founded on kindness, civility and the fraternity of all religions. Inevitably, it upsets all sides; Akbar is branded as the 16th-century equivalent of a ‘pseudo-liberal’.
Shah, 72, locates a weary intensity in his Akbar, emanating much rage from those pained, puffed eyes. Physically unimposing, he commands instead with his voice (it’s a pleasure to hear him intone old-timey words like ‘zalzala’ and ‘aapsi ranjish’.) With Shah at the vanguard, the show gets complacent, barely bothering to sketch out the other characters. It’s difficult to invest in a succession drama when you cannot root for a single camp. Salim, played by Aashim Gulati, is a chronic sensualist; Murad (Taha Shah Badussha) is a boorish brawler. Only Daniyal (Shubham Kumar Mishra) betrays some complexity, his gentleness of manner nicely offset by his religious fanaticism.
We get a mammoth battle sequence in Kabul near the start. Though immensely staged, it bored me to bits with its obvious choreography (first the archers come on, then the infantry, then the cannonballs…). Far more memorable, then, is this exchange between Akbar and his ministers, after he announces his plans for ‘Din-i-Illahi’. They look crestfallen until one of them calls for a change in conventional thinking. “For centuries we thought the sun revolves around the earth,” he argues. “But now news comes from the West that it is the other way round.” The look on the head clergyman’s face, after this pronouncement, is priceless. “Astaghfirullah (I seek forgiveness in God),” he mutters in shock.
Taj: Divided by Blood is streaming on ZEE5.,