We missed this amazing Bollywood film when it was released in 2008 and have only recently seen it on DVD. It is an Indian epic set in the 16th century and focuses on the arranged marriage between the first Mughal emperor born on Indian soil, Akbar the Great (Hrithik Roshan), and a beautiful Rajput princess, Jodhaa Bai (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan).
Although screenwriters Haider Ali and K. P. Saxena, in collaboration with Ashutosh Gowariker, the director, have not skimped on the sweeping desert vistas, the extraordinary beauty of the palaces and the barbarity of the battlefield, where bitter enemies wield their swords with deadly intent, the heart and soul of the film lies in the slowly developing love affair between the emperor, who is a Sufi Muslim, and the Hindu princess, who loves to sing devotional songs to the playful Krishna.
As the wedding day approaches, most of the Muslim court is shocked when the emperor capitulates to his bride’s demands that she not convert to Islam and that she be allowed to have a Hindu shrine in her chambers in the Mughal palace in Agra. He invites some Sufis to sing at the wedding; their song, “Khwaja Mere Khwaja,” written by the famous Indian composer A. H. Rahman, is addressed to the Chishti saint Hazart Kwaja Gharib Nawaz, and earlier in the film Akbar visits his shrine to ask his advice. Akbar listens intently, and when the dervishes rise and begin to whirl, he joins them. Across the room, the princess recognizes the beauty and emotional power of the devotional music. (Watch this scene on YouTube).
However, although Akbar’s kindness touches her heart, the princess is not ready to consummate the marriage. The emperor promises to win her love little by little. Again and again, he demonstrates that his Sufi practice of adab has honed in him a deep and abiding respect for all people. In various encounters with the princess, he shows only the highest appreciation for her religion, her beauty, and her soul. In turn, we see her devotion as she prays for her husband’s life after he is wounded in the shoulder by a poisoned arrow. When Jodhaa finally says that she is ready to love him, he takes her to a special room in the palace where the sunlight floods the room with a radiance that evokes the divine.
There is another radiance that comes out in Jodhaa Akbar, and that is the respect one has for family members, friends and partners. As a child, on the battlefield, Akbar spares the life of an enemy. Later, he fights with his heart when he has to face traitors and schemers. As he makes alliances and tries to rule justly, he weaves his tolerance of all religions into his policies. At one point, he travels in disguise to the bazaar to hear for himself what his subjects are saying, earning them the respect of his deep listening and empathy.
The adab – the courtesy of the Sufi way – is a spiritual practice that can make all the difference in the world for people who long to be honored and recognized for their gifts, talents and opportunities. In this unusual Indian film, we witness the many ways in which this kind of radical respect can transform both our lives and the lives of others.