Even without context, Mohenjo Daro isn’t a very good movie, but it’s especially disappointing when considered within the landscape of recent Indian films and with regard to director Ashutosh Gowariker’s past achievements.
Gowariker’s story takes place in the ancient Indus Valley city of Mohenjo Daro, around 2,000 years B.C. Hrithik Roshan plays Sarman, a nearby farmer with a mysterious connection to the city that he doesn’t understand.
Sarman’s uncle Durjan (Nitish Bharadwaj) caves to Sarman’s relentless begging and allows his nephew to go to the Mohenjo Daro, albeit with warnings about the city’s many dangers. At forty-two, Roshan is too old play a character so immature that he opens the “only in case of life or death” package that his uncle gives him as soon as Durjan is out of sight.
When Sarman arrives at the metropolis he finds a place governed by greedy politicians fearful of the merciless senate leader Maham (Kabir Bedi) and his bully of a son, Moonja (Arunoday Singh). Maham orders a tax increase, even as farmers struggle with diminishing yields due to Maham’s damming of the river.
Sarman is fed up and ready to head home when, wouldn’t you know it, he spots a beautiful woman who makes him change his mind. (Conveniently, everything of import in Mohenjo Daro happens at exactly the right moment.) The woman is Chaani (Pooja Hegde), daughter of the head priest (Manish Chaudhary) and The Chosen One of Mohenjo Daro.
Chaani presents all kinds of problems in the story (none of which are Hegde’s fault). Right after Sarman admonishes his buddy and traveling companion Hojo to stop ogling women, Chaani shows up in an outfit that demands ogling. Her backless, floor-length dress has slits all the way up both thighs, a cutout to expose her navel, and a pushup bra. So, it’s bad when other men leer at women, but not when Sarman does it?
Then there’s the part about Chaani being The Chosen One. A prophesy at the time of her birth decreed that she would make a decision that would usher in a new era for Mohenjo Daro, but she never makes such a decision. She’s just a bystander as the people forget about her divine destiny and declare Sarman the savior of Mohenjo Daro.
With very little written or archeological evidence to go by, Gowariker was free to style his version of Mohenjo Daro as he wished. The results are bizarre, not in a fanciful way but in an impractical one. In addition to feathers and several kilos of metal beads, Chaani’s elaborate headdress has slices of geodes that hang next to her face. One can only imagine how annoying it must have been for Hegde to have slabs of rock clanking against her cheek in nearly every scene. And don’t get me started on helpful city guard Lothar’s (Diganta Hizarika) 1980s side-ponytail.
There are weird visual nods to classic Christian stories from Hollywood, too. In flashbacks, Maham is styled like an evil Jesus. Narendra Jha as the crazy prophet Jakhiro looks like Charlton Heston’s Moses from The Ten Commandments.
The lack of historical data was an opportunity to create something visually stunning, but Mohenjo Daro just isn’t. Worse, it looks really bad when compared to last year’s historical epic, Baahubali: The Beginning. In every respect — costuming, CGI, fight scenes, musical numbers — Mohenjo Daro looks like a lackluster version of Baahubali, with a less compelling story.
The bland, obvious plot is perhaps the most shocking element of Mohenjo Daro. Gowariker has a great track record for writing and directing engrossing stories that subtly convey his political ideals. Lagaan had poor, rural Indians literally beating the British at their own game. Swades showed how innovation and dedication to community can circumvent the slow movement of government. Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey saw young Indians pushed to violence by oppressive British rule. In Jodhaa Akbar, Roshan played a progressive emperor who embraced multiculturalism.
Gowariker ditches the nuance and character motivations of his previous films for cliched populism. Sarman declares that The People are fed up paying the senate’s taxes, and The People cheer in unison, somehow instinctively knowing that this outsider is the savior who can lead them out of poverty, and causing them to forget about the crew of murderous hill goons Maham employs as bodyguards, a la Tyrion Lannister.
It’s too easy. The idea that all of India’s (or anywhere’s) problems could be solved if the masses would rise up as one behind a charismatic leader is lazy and unsatisfying, whether the action takes place in the modern day or thousands of years ago. It absolves the masses of having to do the hard work that was such an important part of Lagaan, Swades, and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey. Just wait around for a messiah — but not the woman we thought was The Chosen One. This other guy instead.
Even the manner in which the story is presented is ham-handed. A. R. Rahman provides a score full of uncharacteristically garish musical cues. The single corniest moment sees one character tell another, “something something something YOUR FATHER,” followed by a noisy instrumental blast and a zoom to closeup on the listener’s face.
There are also none of the culture-clash elements from Gowariker’s previous films present in Mohenjo Daro. Sarman is an outsider, but it’s not really a problem. He adapts to life in the city almost immediately, making friends and falling in love without a hitch. Then again, there’s not enough to Chaani’s character to make her a complicating factor. She’s there to look pretty, which Hegde does exceedingly well.
The actors aren’t to blame for Mohenjo Daro‘s shortcomings. No one is particularly good or bad, although I did enjoy Singh’s performance as the thwarted heir apparent more than I have some of his past work. This will be one of Roshan’s most forgettable roles.
There’s not enough substance here to tell if Mohenjo Daro could have been more than it is. It’s just the unfortunate product of a talented filmmaker who appears to have lost his way, sublimating his ideals for pandering that pleases no one.