After watching ten episodes of Taj: Divided by Blood – which amounts to approximately 400 minutes of 16th-century celebrity gossip – all I’m left with is the vibe of Naseeruddin Shah shaking his head in disappointment. His Emperor Akbar has every reason to be disappointed, given the show is about the aged Mughal leader presiding over a bitter war of inheritance between his sons. But the head-shaking feels more personal, like the expression of a veteran actor reacting to the mediocrity around him. It’s the look of a great artist whose patience is being tested. Who can blame him? Not only has Shah been typecast as yet another notoriously flawed father and husband, the long-form historical might have also accounted for a precious year of his career. It means two fewer movie and stage performances.
I can see why he did it though. On paper at least, it makes sense. The role of Akbar presents a rare opportunity to play a progressive king; his social reforms laid the foundation for a secular India whose very idea is under siege today. The timing is right – the image of Akbar preaching religious harmony is, now more than ever, an important one. Unfortunately for Shah, the makers of Taj don’t seem to have chosen Akbar as a cultural statement. All they see, for the most part, is an excuse to entertain without the fear of censorship. It’s not wrong per se, given that any fiction about the Rajput or Maratha dynasties is certain to be met with intense scrutiny these days. If anything, mining a non-Hindu legacy at the moment provides the creative license to be free and complex – if not authentic – about men and their messy relationship with power. It offers storytellers the chance to humanize the past instead of whitewashing or antagonizing it. It also offers them a golden chance to remake Succession as a Mughal-era drama. But Taj doesn’t use this license so much as abuse it. You sense that if it were a Rajput story, the courage and righteousness of everyone would be dramatized. The Mughal identity, however, leads to the fetishization of only the darkness and debauchery.
The dysfunctional Muslim family becomes a front to conduct a seedy (soap) opera of sex, betrayal, bloodshed and glorified cosplay conflicts. The caricatures cross over into bad-Muslim-sad-Muslim territory. Oldest son Salim (Aashim Gulati, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Siddharth Malhotra in the intense scenes and Gulshan Devaiah in the kooky ones) is the vintage version of a hippie. Middle son Murad (Taaha Shah) is a radical kohl-eyed nutcase. The youngest, Daniyal (Shubham Kumar Mehra), is a God-fearing softy. Nuance is for losers. All the juiciest and most unverified theories about the Mughal empire are cherry-picked for effect. Again, this isn’t the problem; dozens of films, some of them classics (Mughal-E-Azam, Jodhaa Akbar), have indulged in revisionist styles over the years.
But it’s the gaze and treatment of Taj that give it away. Any sort of heroism, for instance, feels like a half-hearted footnote. When Akbar preaches peace and tolerance through his Din-i-illahi creed, he comes across as a deluded old man who is reacting to a vague dream. When the crowd chants Allahu Akbar to voice their support, it seems like they’re only indulging him. When a popular Mewar ruler is confronted with an offer for unity, he recites a monologue about Mughal hypocrisies and dismisses Akbar as a poser. Akbar is presented as a fast-fading politician trying to stay relevant, and as someone who has no qualms exploiting his sons and wives to uphold his public image. Even if this were true, the film-making takes great pleasure in his irrational and lecherous moments behind closed doors. Especially when he misbehaves with Anarkali (Aditi Rao Hydari), a concubine he has secretly imprisoned in a corner of his harem. In a better show, this might have been a candid confession of grey shades – of a complicated king with a polygamy-shaped weakness – but Taj leans more towards the monster-with-a-mask syndrome.
The writing isn’t far behind. Every manipulative character in the show is Muslim – including Akbar’s grand vizier Abul Fazl (who went on to write the Akbarnama), the cleric Badayuni, hatemonger Murad, and Akbar’s two wives not named Jodha. This extends to Akbar’s queer son Daniyal, who goes from naive nincompoop to unhinged misfit over the ten episodes. All the noble characters and sufferers are Hindus – including Akbar’s loyal advisor Birbal, army general Maan Singh, Salim’s first wife Maan Bai, Salim’s best friend Durjan, even Salim himself who is half-Rajput. What takes the cake is that every Mughal mention of Rajput warrior Rana Pratap Singh ends with random tributes to his valour and skill. You can nearly read the producers’ notes every time a Muslim character praises the ‘enemy’. The signs come early when Dharmendra, as Shaikh Salim Chisti, reminds a young Akbar that the bonfires of his conquest represent the bravery of Rajput widows who embrace Jauhar. The implication, right from the beginning, is that the Mughals will be felled by their own amoral pursuit of power; all the Rajputs have to do is wait, watch, and exhibit chaste honour.
But look at me criticizing the politics of Taj: Divided by Blood as if its craft were on point. I could have started with this paragraph. Except for the haunting Salim-Anarkali score (which reminded me of the Bulbbul theme song), every single element reeks of an urban diploma-film aesthetic. It’s like the narrative scale has left the makers with no patience for basic details. Scenes in Akbar’s Agra palace look like they’ve been shot in the same room that’s repurposed for different moments. An early battle sequence in Kabul is awfully staged and edited; the gore feels like an extension of the poor costuming.
The performances alone could bring an empire to its knees. Every young actor sounds like a SoBo brat doing their best (and worst) Urdu impression. Daniyal’s hair is perfectly tousled and curled for a 16th-century out-of-bed look. Salim’s stubble screams for a hunky Aashiqui 2 sequel. Murad’s rage is so manicured that one can almost hear the director handing him a shot of tequila to loosen up. Rahul Bose, as Akbar’s jealous half-brother, acts like he’s parodying Rahul Bose. (It doesn’t help when Daniyal becomes “Daniel” by the end). Aditi Rao Hydari is cursed with the sort of beauty that male directors routinely interpret as a sign of damsel-in-distress fragility, so her Anarkali is only allowed to be trapped and glassy-eyed.
The dubbing is pointedly bad for a television show of this magnitude, especially in the orgies that make kissing sound like mango-sucking. Which is fitting, because there’s more sexual tension between the viewers and their predictions of how liberally Taj toys with Mughal history. I could go on, but I’ll save some for next season. Until then, I’ll go back to reading Tinkle comics’ Tantri the Mantri for some real insight.