In the opening scene of Ashutosh Gowariker’s latest epic drama Mohenjo Daro, a few men are floating down a serene river clearly looking for a hunt. A giant crocodile shoots out of the water.
Sarman (Hrithik Roshan) grabs his pitchfork and a battle follows. Sarman returns to his village a hero with his kill. The characters are speaking an intelligible dialect, but then the camera zooms into the lips of Sarman’s uncle, and zooms out with the characters now speaking Hindi. It’s a clever device and an effective way to connect the audience to the Indus Valley Civilization.
Sarman is an indigo farmers nephew but his dream is to go to the grand capital of Mohenjo Daro and experience a world outside of his tranquil hamlet. Within minutes of arriving at Mohenjo Daro, Sarman starts have strange experiences. A dishevelled mad man takes one look at the handsome trader and warns him to leave the town.
But Sarman is in awe of the construction, the scale and the women, in particular the priest’s daughter Chaani (Pooja Hegde). But Chaani is promised to the corrupt head politico Mahman’s (Kabir Bedi) equally shifty son Moonja (Arunoday Singh).
From here on you realize this is just old wine in ancient bottles. Gowariker uses the tropes of formula Hindi films – upper caste girl, lower caste boy, rivalry and deceit, etc — with one unique reworking — the setting is 2016 BC.
Much of what’s engaging in Mohenjo Daro is the imagining of that civilisation in its heyday, taking images (the bronze dancing girl, terracotta pieces, metal insignias, the upper city and lower city, the great bath) and notations from history book and archaeological findings to fill in the blanks.
Mahman has built a large damn on the Sindhu river in order to mine gold. He sells the gold in exchange for weapons. The diverting of the river has left the neighbouring lands barren. In this scenario, Mahman wants to raise the taxes. Sarman hears this decree and speaks against the increased tax. The lower city inhabitants follow his call to rebellion. Sounds much like Lagaan, but without the cricket and set thousands of years before.
Eventually Sarman learns the truth of his birth, and finds greater will to fight for Mohenjo Daro and Chaani.
This culminates in an epic and watery climax that is highly reliant on computer graphics but the quality of the effects is a huge letdown and dilutes the impact of the dramatic finale.
It’s surprising that Indian technicians turn in world class special effects for Hollywood films yet Indian films compromise on the visual effects. Besides the croc in the opening act, the visual effects in Mohenjo Daro don’t merge in seamlessly with the live action.
There are several loose ends to the script. For example, Chaani is proclaimed the Chosen One who is blessed by the river Sindhu, but neither does she demonstrate any special powers nor any great wisdom. On the contrary, when kissed by Sarman she whimpers like a nervous teenager.
The casting too is uneven – you have the rather menacing Kabir Bedi and Diganta Hazarika and Umang Vyas as Sarman’s earnest supporters Lothar and Hojo, but equally you have Arunoday Singh who can’t seem to decide whether to be comical or commanding. Pooja Hegde who, with or without her various floral, fruit bowl and feathered headdresses, just glides around with two expressions – smiling ethereally or looking mildly pained (the way women do when they have been in high heels for too long) even while Sarman is fending off two savage fighters in a do-or-die battle.
As for Hrithik Roshan, his hard work and effort are undeniable, whether in the songs, the fights or the hectic, almost Biblical climax.
What Gowariker lacks in story and SFX, he makes up for with scale and action. There’s an extravagantly mounted song and dance routine extolling the grandeur and fame of Mohenjo Daro and the creation of this legendary land is commendable and the fight scenes are well executed.
AR Rahman’s music adds a nice layer to a choppy film that is a victim of its own ambition. If anything keeps Mohenjo Daro afloat, it’s Hrithik Roshan’s energy and enthusiasm.