Taj—Divided by Blood is hysterical look at history
History is just about the easiest thing to twist, manipulate, change, hide and more. Take Mughal history that has been bombarded upon us Indians from childhood and school and also through films. After all, we have had a surfeit of such movies that lay claim to being celluloid epics, even when most were not.
We have watched Anarkali, Mughal-E-Azam and Jodhaa Akbar and simultaneously read or learned that Jodhaa actually never existed when this romance between the half-Hindu Salim and courtesan Anarkali was promoted even before the films. A historical source, stated to be an authority, even terms this love story as rubbish and states that Anarkali was Emperor Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah in this show)’s daughter!
On this show, we are enlightened with the ‘fact’ that Anarkali (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) was actually Emperor Akbar’s concubine and mother to his son, Daniyal (Shubham Kumar Mehra). Forget the fact that Anarkali looks Daniyal’s age here! So Salim is shown hell-bent on a love affair with his stepmother! Not half-sister, not concubine. Anarkali—Divided by Chroniclers. See?
If your mind is not already befuddled, it will be if you are able to sit through the 10 long episodes of this historical yawn…Oops! I mean ‘yarn’…that Contiloe Pictures and a mixed crew of Indian and Western directors and writers thrust upon us as a depiction of the ‘human side of the Mughals’. To be politically correct, maybe I guess, most of the non-Muslims (Hindus, and a Christian) are shown as nice people and the Mughal men essentially as treacherous and bloodthirsty individuals!
We also have a token display of moral righteousness when Salim Chisti (Dharmendra), that wonderful real Sufi saint from Ajmer, is shown reprimanding Akbar for his treacherous killing of Hindu women and children and forecasting that his own blood will flow “whenever the waters turn red”. Dharmendra shines in this bit role as the Muslim saint.
The pivot of this story (wherein they openly promise another season as the end remains inconclusive) is the premise that Akbar makes two royal declarations: one, that capability, not age, will decide which of his three sons, Salim (Ashim Gulati), Murad (Taaha Shah Babussha) or Daniyal will succeed him, and two, that “Din-E-Ilahi” (equality of religion) will prevail in his kingdom.
The former leads to endless rivalry between the brothers, though Salim, more prone to pleasures of the flesh and drink, is indifferent and is protective towards Daniyal. The latter proclamation leads to treacherous politics, planned by Abul Fazl (Pankaj Saraswant), the vizier, and the religious head, Badayuni (Aayam Mehta).
The messy mélange of battles, conspiracies, enemies, sex scenes, queens that have differences as well as bonds with each other and much more conclude with the death of one heir and more, and the supreme revelation of Daniyal’s maternal origins. We are now re-educated about Anarkali, and she is also dealt with summarily.
The Hindus—Jodha Bai (Sandhya Mridul), Man Singh (Digamber Prasad), his sister Man Bai (Anushka Luhar), his son Durjan (Akshat Misra) and Birbal (Subodh Bhave) are essentially shown, as mentioned earlier, as noble souls, but we come to know that Birbal is a serious strategist who is even responsible for the blood of one of the emperor’s key loyalists in that capacity.
Aah!…Ooh!…Ouch! We forgot something very important: Daniyal’s sexual orientation is very 2020s web-ish: guess what? He is a gay and has a boyfriend, Vivaan (Pallav Singh). Now we know that Taj—Divided by Blood is a truly complete web series—it has too many scenes of sex, some abuses, unabashed gory violence, and fulfills the fourth vital requirement as well—an LBGTQ angle!
And by the way, a foreigner named Christopher Butera is credited with the “story”. Now, that is interesting when a show is claimed as a slice of history. ‘His story’? Of course! Not history!
The technical side is upbeat, would have to be with the resources at hand. The acting side, however, is markedly erratic though!
I rather liked Aashim Gulati as the charming rake that Salim is. His eyes speak volumes, and his performance is strong. He is particularly good when he is being protective towards Daniyal and showing his repeated indifference to occupy the throne. His character, however, is as ludicrous as Abhay Deol’s in that overrated 2009 misadventure, Dev D: here is a man who drinks like a fish and more, is in bed almost 24/7 and sires kids as if he has no other occupation, and still remains healthy and fit!
Naseeruddin Shah, on the other hand, is a total misfit as Akbar. Not only does he look too old for his queens, but he comes across as a harmless old man lacking the stature of an emperor or the innate persona of a former bloodthirsty despot.
In a show that has both cardboard, usually scheming, characters or wimpy ones, the talented Subodh Bhave as Birbal makes the dignified best of his ill-written role, and the others go about the motions, Taaha Shah Babussha occasionally impressing as the hot-tempered Murad, when he is not going over-the-top.
But the worst performance, not just on this show but in a long while on a Hindi screen, is of Aditi Rao Hydari as Anarkali. With her deliberately wide-open and gaping eyes, one-and-a-quarter expressions and all the lifelessly and listlessly spoken lines, she is an utter disaster.
The series is skip-worthy too.
ZEE5 presents Contiloe Pictures’ Taj—Divided by Blood Produced by: Abhimanyu Singh & Roopali Singh Directed by: Ron Scalpello, Ajay Singh, Vibhu Puri & Prashant Singh Written by: Christopher Butera, William Borthwick, Simon Fantauzzo & Ajay Singh Music: Ian Arber Starring: Dharmendra, Naseeruddin Shah, Aditi Rao Hydari, Sandhya Mridul, Rahul Bose, Zarina Wahab, Aashim Gulati, Taaha Shah Babussha, Shubham Kumar Mehra, Pallav Singh, Pankaj Saraswant, Anushka Luhar, Tanvi Negi, Jaanam Raaj, Subodh Bhave, Akshat Mishra, Pawan Chopra, Digamber Prasad, Padma Damodaran, Shivani Tanksale, Aayam Mehta, Deepraj Rana, Zachary Coffin & others