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Romancing the Taj

Akbar Khan, brother of Feroz and Sanjay, is recreating the timeless tale of the Taj Mahal on celluloid. He tells ZIYA US SALAM that his film promises to be true to history in its details and will dramatise reality where no records are available.

A scene from the "Taj Mahal — An Eternal Love Story".

IF YOU believe in love, you have to believe in the Taj. If you believe in the timeless tale of the Taj, you have to believe in Akbar Khan, and hope and pray, that this time he succeeds.

He may have bungled badly with "Aakarshan". He may have been away from celluloid for a period long enough for the memory bank to lose its deposit. But you have to have a pathological affinity for the contemporary to hate history relating to the one and only Taj, Akbar Khan or no Akbar Khan.

Truth to tell, the man whose passport to fame in Bollywood carries the names of his two brothers — Feroz and Sanjay — has left no stone, unturned in a big venture to recreate the grandeur of some of the grandest of Indian rulers. In the desert State of Rajasthan where simple silence often takes the form of keenest enjoyment for an urbanite, he has brought to life all the inscrutable charms of the age-old Meena Bazaar. He has employed hundreds of artistes to shoot in Mehrangarh.

He has traversed to the little known, seldom seen Nagaur. And reportedly spent Rs. 500 million. Never mind. Quantity is not masquerading as quality here. All this is to tell us the tale we know like the ring finger of our right hand. And a tale we listen to with undiluted pleasure, mocking all along at all laws of marginal utility.

Akbar Khan

Once Akbar Khan starts speaking about "Taj Mahal — An Eternal Love Story," his enthusiasm rivals that of a nursery child with his favourite sweet in his hand. His talent at articulation is impressive, his power of oratory not quite well tapped by Bollywood. He can narrate history with a tinge of nostalgia, relate an anecdote with accuracy, reel out entertainment with pleasure.

He speaks from his heart, wears it on his sleeve too. "Inshallah, `Taj Mahal' will be a product to sooth the eyes of cinemagoers. They will return satisfied with Meena Bazar. After all, this was the place where Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan first set his eyes on Arjumand Banu Begum, popularly known as Mumtaz Mahal. I have a responsibility towards my viewers, I have a responsibility towards that great Moghul Emperor, towards history. I have to be faithful."

Incidentally, it may have taken Shah Jahan 22 years and more than 20,000 artistes to finish his monument of love, there are no such obstacles facing the modern-day celluloid Taj. The film is all set to be completed in 15 months with only about three weeks schedule left, which would be completed by the end of July.

This date with history is fine but why talk of medieval romance at a time when the film world is talking of Cannes and there are directors on the doorstep of glory at the Oscar's? "Well, the story of the Taj is timeless. This provocation has been with me for nine years. It has been there in my blood, my dreams and my thoughts. The inspiration came when I had gone to the Taj. My heart stopped beating, I felt that I had missed my something. I was almost in a trance. I sat mesmerised at Fatehpuri Sikri."

Well, it is not all "pure inspiration" behind the majestic project. It is simple logic. As Akbar Khan reveals, "Taj Mahal is a proven subject. The first film on the subject was a runaway hit. Era subjects have always provided good material for films. With this film, a new trend is likely to emerge. People will come back to see the glory of the bygone era. See, they are doing the same abroad. Hollywood is moving back to `Gladiator' and `Shakespeare'. Back home, `Lagaan' and `Devdas' have been period films. The trend of looking into the past is setting in."

Akbar Khan has other reasons too for moving back in time. "Current films with usual love and romance lack in profundity. People are fed up of shallow films. They are looking for passages of history. And Moghul period was one of the most glorious chapters of the world." Akbar Khan's "Taj Mahal" promises to be true to history in all its details except for the intimate conversation between royal lovebirds. "There are no records in any form of their conversation. So, we have had to dramatise that reality," offers the director.

Incidentally, Bollywood's fascination with Taj Mahal transcends generations. Way back in 1941, when most of us were not around, Nanabhai Vakil made "Taj Mahal" with Kumar-Sarojini-Suraiya. And in 1963, Roshan came up with everlasting tunes for M. Sadiq's "Taj Mahal", starring Pradeep Kumar-Bina-Jeevan-Helen.

Now Akbar's "Taj Mahal" is populated by Manisha Koirala as Jahan Ara, Aurangzeb's sister, Pooja Batra as the scheming Noor Jahan, Kim Sharma as the effervescent Laadli Begum, Kabir Bedi as the ageing Emperor Shah Jahan. And guess who is the youthful Shah Jahan? Zulfi Sayed, who is said to have more than just passing resemblance to Bedi. His ladylove, Mumtaz, is played by Noorjehan's granddaughter, Sonyajahan.

The director Akbar Khan giving instructions to the actors.

Why a cast without a major box office draw?

"I wanted actors who could adjust their schedule with mine and not land myself in a condition where I would have had to adjust my schedules according to theirs. It is true that I did consider Aishwarya Rai for the role of Mumtaz but she could not have adjusted her dates with mine. Also, she has a fixed image. She has portrayed so many characters. I wanted my Mumtaz to be absolutely fresh. Sonya has the advantage. She has the pedigree and will probably be known for the rest of her career as the girl who played Mumtaz."

His casting and most of the shooting over, Akbar is confident, the masses will like the film and remember it for its sets, for its performances, for Naushad's music — "He has his own standing, There is nobody to challenge him" — and, above all, for love.

"Taj Mahal connotes love. It should stir intense feelings. It is the ultimate example of ultimate sacrifice. And people will always talk of Meena Bazar of my film. This is the place where Shah Jahan did not only propose to Arjumand Banu but virtually offered his life on a sleeve. Such a love story without glory and grandeur of the period would have been a travesty. While planning took years, actual shooting is likely to be completed in only 15 months. The film is being readied for release later this year."

Overcome by emotion, he narrates a chaste Urdu couplet:

Taj naghma hai mohabbat ke dharakte saaz ka,

Yeh woh aaina hai jisme aks hai Mumtaz ka,

Mumtaz tujhe dekha, jab Taj Mahal dekha

Phir aaj ki aankhon se guzra hua kal dekha

Yes, we have heard it all, Mr Khan, but remember all of us have also heard Roshan's"Jo wada kiya woh nibhana padega... "

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