Here are several thoughts on Mohenjo Daro, which was a cheesy, terrible mess which I loved.
- The headgear. I will come back to this, but it’s a delight. Watching the trailer some months ago, I suggested that the prevalence of horns in the various headpieces on display were obviously the result of someone associated with the film having a vague memory (this is something I learnt in primary school) that animism of some sort was a big part of the Indus Valley civilisation. This was unfair; I’m sure researchers of some description were consulted. I’m not sure it matters though.
- I’m pretty sure these guys with the weird diya hats were in Tarsem Singh’s Immortals:
- Tarsem Singh is in many ways a good reference point for my feelings about this film. It’s not as beautiful, or as visually sumptuous (now that the brilliant Eiko Ishioka is dead, are Singh’s films that beautiful? I haven’t seen the most recent), but at times it feels like it’s working in a similar register, and with a similar visual language. (It’s also less beautiful because the cgi is not exactly great–the flying crocodile in the trailer is hilarious. On the other hand, the mystical unicorn looks, as the friend with whom I watched it pointed out, like a goat drawn by Lisa Frank, which is surely enough to make the whole film worthwhile.) This is also one of the reasons I find attempts to read it from a viewpoint of historical accuracy rather po-faced–surely it’s missing the point to try and map this onto a solid historical narrative. It occupies a space between history, myth and fantasy, and its job is not to Accurately Represent The Past. The film’s title is a good example of this–with the opening credits we get a disclaimer about how obviously the real name of this city wasn’t Mohenjo Daro, but rather than make up a name that its residents might have called it, we’re going with the one that is familiar and that we all acknowledge is wrong. Likewise, the use of language: the movie opens with Sarman and his friends speaking a completely unfamiliar tongue (though they’re mostly yelling each other’s names while trying to fight a crocodile) before zooming in on one character’s mouth, and zooming out again to have him speak a form of Hindi–comprehensible to the audience, but with enough differences to prevent immersion, to remind us that we’re at an extra remove from reality. Or at least, that appears to me to be the intent–how successful it is is another matter entirely.
- Having said all of which, the film’s gestures towards Real history, though obviously dubious af, are sometimes very satisfying. I genuinely enjoyed the sense of the city as a point of contact for multiple ancient cultures. The Sumerians (whose fault everything here is; also it’s capitalism’s fault), but also all the other names I half-recognised and have to look up. Various people have commented on the presence of horses in the film, but even there they’re presented as strange and foreign–the sort of exotic beast you might find if you travelled to a marketplace like this one, where strange things from strange lands that were previously unimaginable are suddenly here. In a recent conversation with Samira Nadkarni about another myth/fantasy film, I described a marketplace scene as something that might fit into Xena, Warrior Princess (this is not a bad thing, obviously) and I think that’s true here too, but we’re also presented with a vision of an interconnected ancient world, full of trade and travel and stories and material goods being exchanged across vast distances, rather than the rather isolationist view of the subcontinent that is about as far as a lot of school history goes.
- I’ve said that the film rests at the intersection of history, myth and fantasy. Particularly considering it’s directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who also made Lagaan, it’s worth thinking about its mythic aspects, and what story it’s trying to tell. There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that denies any sort of political agenda, and refuses to take a stance on the historical questions of the Aryan invasion theory or connections between the Indus Valley and what we know as Hinduism. Fair enough, that’s a lot to burden a film with (and can only end in riots). The problem is, that it then goes on to tell what is pretty straightforwardly a Hindu origin myth. The movie ends with Mohenjo Daro destroyed, and its survivors, led by our two heroes, wander
the earthNorth India until they find and settle on the banks of the Ganga, guided in this decision by Sarman’s vision of the unicorn that originally led him to Mohenjo Daro. There’s even religious continuity, if one wants it–our other hero is Chaani, blessed by the river goddess and destined to save her people. We’ve moved from Tarsem Singh to Cecil B. DeMille. Nationalist and religious-nationalist myths may have their place (though they’re always suspicious), but when that place is a 21st century India, where Hindutva has state sanction, they’re particularly alarming. It’s worth, also, looking again at the trailer which insists that we’re in a time “Before the British Raj / Before the Mughals / Before Christ / Before Buddha”– with the puzzling exception of Buddhism, all of these are routinely positioned as corrupting outside influences, and their invocation here feels like a pretty blatant sort of nativism.
- In a forthcoming review of A Flying Jatt (and what a joy to be able to type that phrase), Samira Nadkarni talks about a similar beleagured-natives-vs-invaders framing of national history in that film as well; and I suspect a wider survey would show these aren’t isolated instances.
- As alarming as it is, this origin myth is at least coherent (is that good, though?). One of the several problems with Mohenjo Daro is the muddled-ness of most of its plot. Nothing that is confusing in and of itself happens, but the whole is so trope-y that individual plot elements end up standing in for larger story structures, and those larger structures simply cannot co-exist together. So we have Sarman, the village boy of mysterious parentage, who comes to the city, feels a strong emotional connection to it, learns that he’s the son of the deposed ruler, and confronts the tyrant. And we also have Chaani, the Chosen One blessed by a goddess, who is destined to change the future of the city and save its people. And we also have the proud city whose citizens angered nature and which was lost underwater. Essentially, then, we have two saviours and a city that can’t be saved. To no one’s surprise Chaani’s story is the one that gets shortchanged–the big moment that will change the future of the city is taken out of her hands. What makes it the more glaring is that Sarman also very clearly (see next bullet) doesn’t know what he’s doing, most of the time. There’s a possible version of this story in which Chaani, knowing the city and its problems better because that is her job, steps into her father’s role of kingmaker, and uses Sarman’s parentage to get things done. It’s not the version this film gave us.
- There are moments in this film where Sarman’s bumbling, tongue-tied, dazed demeanour is clearly deliberate and meant to signify how out of his depth he is–most of these moments are when he’s interacting with Chaani (and Pooja Hegde is astonishingly pretty, I’d probably gawp awkwardly at her too). At other times, I’m genuinely unsure whether it’s Sarman’s bewilderment I’m looking at, or if Hrithik Roshan just has a really gormless resting face. It’s an important distinction, I feel, because if we’re really meant to view the hero of the film as lost and incompetent (as opposed to just smitten by the pretty girl), that’s … quite a bold narrative choice, and rather makes you wonder if Mohenjo Daro is deliberately undercutting some of its tropes.
- Because, as I’ve said, the film is multiple contradictory stories at once; it’s Return of the King and the Akallabeth and displaced people founding a new homeland. And I’m curious about the possibilities of juxtaposing those subgenres–what happens to the (for want of a better term) beats of the story? Twice in the film there are dramatic moments where characters (Maham and Jakhiro) are cut off mid-speech, and I find myself wondering if this narrative KLPD is something fundamental to the film; whether in refusing to let the comforting restoration-of-order story play out, cutting it off with Suddenly, the Flood!, that sense of interruption is enacted on a larger scale.
- (I mean, I know it probably isn’t, but “this is a shit film” is so boring, and this film was so interesting)
- The language thing has been much mocked, but I think if the film had been able to commit to that genuine sense of alterity throughout it might have worked. The not-quite-Hindi does frequently remind you that it’s not-quite-Hindi with some added vowels (and the frequency with which everyone says “कदाचित,” for some reason), but it doesn’t feel like enough. I enjoyed the choice not to translate when, frequently, travellers to the city spoke different languages, though it hits a low point when Sarman has to gladiatorially fight two cannibals from (as far as we can tell?) Tajikistan, who for some reason wear animal skins, and whose conversation to each other the subtitles rendered as “tribal language”.
- No, really. One of the moments of genuine weirdness about the film is this one, when we learn that two humans are just kept, and possibly starved, under the city, to be brought out when a dramatic fight scene is needed; suddenly we’re in this horrific Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas scenario and no one seems particularly bothered. Maham’s persecution of Sarman is clearly bad, but the fact that he has enslaved and unhumaned these two men, Bakar and Zokar, is just left there. Their attempts to fight Sarman (or die), their lack of (to the viewer) language mean that this casual unpersoning belongs to the film itself, not just Maham.
- It’s a pity because in its own way, and rather too blatantly, this is trying to be an ethical film in the way something like Jupiter Ascending tries. Informed that he’s the new rightful ruler of the city, Sarman denies the role and suggests trying democracy. In the earlier gladiatorial scene, he refuses to kill the second of his two victims because he has won and can’t bring himself to commit a murder. The film commits itself to evacuating all of the residents of the city, other than Jakhiro, who refuses to leave, and Maham. (Maham is tied to a stake and left to drown. He manages to almost work himself free, just as the deluge comes.) At surface-level this is a film that wants to insist that the lives of people not its heroes are important. It’s a pity that it forgets this whenever those lives cease to be sufficiently Indian.
- Those final scenes. when the dam breaks and the city is flooded, are some of the best in the film. Jakhiro’s dancing about and welcoming death, Maham has just begun to think he might get out alive; everyone else is lined up on a hill watching and waiting. I know I said above that the final scenes and the Hindu origin myth they suggest made the film coherent, but they also rob this scene of much of its power. Imagine if Gowariker had ended it here–had ended this story of heroes and chosen ones on Sarman’s traumatised, shivering face as he watches the city drown.
- And here, a final reminder of all that glorious headgear. Watching this with a friend was very rewarding–we couldn’t work out what Moonja’s hat reminded us of until she whispered “Jamiroquai!” Later, as Chaani had replaced her usual headdress for a gold one, she turned to me and asked, “is she wearing an artichoke?” Reader, I think she was. —>