‘Taj: Reign of Revenge’ series review: Mughal succession drama creaks and crumbles

Naseeruddin Shah raises an eyebrow and twirls his moustache with flair, but ‘Taj’ on ZEE5 has become a crashing bore

June 02, 2023 04:51 pm | Updated 04:51 pm IST

A still from ‘Taj: Reign of Revenge’

A still from ‘Taj: Reign of Revenge’

The final episode of Taj: Divided By Blood, released in March, was called ‘All That Remains’. It was a pithy if misleading title: as it turns out, there is a lot more that remains. The Mughal-era series was back for a second season, Reign of Revenge, with four episodes streaming since last month (the remaining four have dropped now on ZEE5). It’s a sprawling series, yet its lengthiness wouldn’t be a problem if it were backed by insight. Succession skirmishes notwithstanding, 750 minutes is a lot of time to sketch out the social, political, administrative, religious, martial, and culinary backdrop of almost four decades of Akbar’s rule. Yet, after two gargantuan seasons, all I have learned is that he founded the Din-i Ilahi and occasionally reformed taxes.

Taj: Reign of Revenge (Hindi)
Creator: Abhimanyu Singh
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Aashim Gulati, Sauraseni Maitra, Dharmendra, Aditi Rao Hydari, Rahul Bose, Zarina Wahab
Episodes: 8
Runtime: 40-52 minutes
Storyline: A brutal succession battle rages on in the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar as his exiled prince Salim returns to the fold

15 years have passed since Emperor Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah) banished his rightful heir, Salim (Aashim Gulati), from the Agra court. The fanatical Daniyal (Shubham Kumar Mehra) is the new heir apparent, with the boorish middle son, Murad, killed by poisoning in the previous season. Almost no one seems to have gotten a shave. Salim, in a fur coat and a muzz of facial hair, obsessively seeks the grave of Anarkali (Aditi Rao Hydari). He’s become a gypsy outlaw, raiding his father’s protectorates from the hills of Aravalli.

A visit to Sheikh Chishti — veteran Dharmendra really tires by the fourth episode — convinces Akbar to end Salim’s exile. The prince returns, only to drink, bout and foment new rebellions. Soon, we are back in the mud, with multiple claimants squabbling noisily for the Mughal throne. The female characters have a more pronounced presence this time around, especially a grown-up Mehrunissa (Sauraseni Maitra). There is also a fraught, parricidal edge to the new season; Akbar recalls killing his regent Bairam Khan in a fit of rage, and Salim’s eldest, Khusrau, is turned spitefully against him.

British hire Ron Scalpello has passed on directing duties to Vibhu Puri (Hawaizaada). The change-up doesn’t help; Taj remains a visually dull, uninviting show. You can spot the lack of visual imagination from the way the musical sequences are staged. Puri trades in the most hackneyed of images — whirling dervishes, gyrating belly dancers — combining them with oriental hums and strings that conveniently dip in volume, so characters can conspire and crib. Not that he fares any better outdoors; despite the evident sprawl of the Mughal Empire, there is not enough variation of geography, culture or dialect.

Naseeruddin Shah strains to keep this rickety vehicle on track. As Akbar, he can still raise an eyebrow or twirl his moustache with flair. However, the new season finds the emperor on his last pins, puffing and wheezing as he inches toward the end. Aashim Gulati leans so hard into Salim The Tragic Hero there’s no room left for any other shade. After a while, his immense sadness, like everything else in Taj, becomes a parody of itself. There are moments here so inadvertently funny they deserve their own Instagram page. One can call it Sad Mughal Memes.

Taj: Reign of Revenge is streaming on ZEE5

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