Who was the real Akbar? The one played by Hrithik Roshan or that described by Abu’l Fazl

Historic fiction.
Historic fiction.
Image: Film still
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Despite having ruled India for 300 years, leaving behind a tall and robust sociocultural legacy, the representation of the Mughals in mass media has been less than satisfactory. In the 70 years since independence, there have been only two noteworthy period films with Akbar as protagonist—K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008). And depending on what generation you belong to, the name Akbar would either throw up the image of Prithviraj Kapoor or Hrithik Roshan.

Jodhaa Akbar was a largely fictionalised take on Akbar and the legendary Jodha Bai, his queen consort. This was a unique movie for a reason. Perhaps for the first time, the filmmaker approached very eminent historians for help. They said what historians world over largely agree—that Akbar had no wife named Jodha Bai. Yet this had no impact on the filmmaker’s plans. Or, let’s just say that facts didn’t come in the way of a good Bollywood story.

There were inaccuracies galore right from the beginning. The opening narration by Amitabh Bachchan, which condensed the history of Babur and Humayun down to a few seconds, declared that the Mughals had come to India in 1450—a good 75 years before they had actually arrived and a good 50 years after their great ancestor, Amir Timur or Tamerlane, had seized Delhi.

There was another problem too—the narration said the “loot and plunder” of India started from 1011 AD, an obvious reference to the plundering raids of Mahmud of Ghazni. This was perfectly in sync with the assumption in India today of military invasions of South Asia being the handiwork of Islamic warriors alone. Every Indian child grows up hearing tales of the 17 invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni. In Assam, this tale assumes a new form and becomes 17 Mughal invasions of Assam. In this discourse, Achaemenid invasions or the conquest of Alexander of Macedon, which predate Islam, rarely register.

The easiest way to explain this would be to blame it on general amnesia in India about history. And amnesia isn’t a preserve of Indians; world over, we see such examples. For instance, in Britain, there is little or no awareness about 73 foreign invasions that happened on British soil since 1066. But the Indian amnesia has more to do with the majoritarian bias against medieval Muslim rulers, which is of colonial vintage, than anything else.

But it seems this wasn’t always so. Abu’l Fazl shows great understanding of India of his time and before him in his monumental work, Akbarnama, of which Ain-i-Akbari is a part. The third volume of Ain-i-Akbari has an entire chapter (number 10) dedicated to people who came to India from outside. Fazl’s guides in this seem to be the Shahnameh and the Zend Avesta, for many of those individuals mentioned belong to the Pishdadian dynasty, believed to be the first dynasty to rule over Persia, and whose stories are part of the Persian epic and the Zoroastrian holy book.

Yet Fazl also writes about Alexander of Macedon, Prophet Mani, and Sassanid kings like Bahram before coming to the first Islamic conqueror, Muhammad bin-Qasim. Fazl meticulously then goes on to list the names of Mahmud of Ghazni; Muhammad of Ghor; various Delhi sultans like Qutubuddin Aibak and Iltutmish; Mongol generals like Saldi, Qutlugh Khwaja and Targhi; Amir Timur; and finally ends it with the first two Mughal emperors—Babur and Humayun. What’s interesting here is that Fazl includes the first two emperors as foreigners who entered India, but not Akbar—an attestation of the Indian origin of this emperor. This important point was lost on Vincent Smith, and we see it getting lost on the nouveau Indian critics of Akbar who declare him a foreigner. Many of them appear on TV news panels—which double up as pulpits to preach nationalism to people—and insist that Akbar shouldn’t be remembered in India.

Jodhaa Akbar tried to favourably weigh in on Akbar’s Indian identity too. A particular scene had Akbar appreciating Jodha’s straightforward behaviour and courage and declaring that he too is a son of Rajputana’s soil. This was one of the high points of the film. But the film as such was a heavily fictionalised take on some real events to tell a compelling love story between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man.

Jodha was shown as the daughter of King Bharmal (or Biharimal) of Amber (or Amer) and the lone wife of Akbar. In reality, the princess of Amber, who may have been named Hira Kunwar or Harkha Bai, was the fourth wife of Akbar, the first three being Ruqaiyya Sultan Begum, a princess known only as ‘Abdullah Khan’s daughter, and Salima Sultan Begum. In Mughal records, she was known by her formal title, Wali Nyimat Maryam uz-Zamani (Mary of the age) Begum Sahiba.

We know that Akbar was the closest to his first wife. That was because Ruqaiyya was his childhood companion and first cousin. Ruqaiyya was also Akbar’s equal in both rank and stature as she didn’t become a Mughal woman by marriage but by birth. We know she wielded significant influence in the imperial harem and also in court. In modern fiction, Indu Sundaresan’s The Twentieth Wife talks about harem intrigues involving Ruqaiyya Begum, Jagat Gosain (officially called Taj Bibi Bilqis Makani), and Mehrunnisa, the future Noor Jahan.

At places, Jodhaa Akbar relied heavily on Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnama. For instance, the depiction of the treatment of Hemu after the Second Battle of Panipat on Nov. 5, 1556. Urged by his regent Bairam Khan to execute the captured man, the teenaged Akbar takes pity on him and refuses to do so, saying that Hemu is badly wounded and barely alive. Bairam Khan then asks the soldiers guarding Akbar to form a human screen around him as he strikes at Hemu with his sword and severs the head. Akbar is then proclaimed a ghazi or “slayer of infidels.”

Badaoni, who always has juicy titbits to offer, narrates the incident similarly but with a difference: Bairam Khan strikes at Hemu’s head first, but it’s Shaikh Gadai who actually follows it up with another cut that results in the severing of the head. Firishta, who declares early that he heard the versions from Abu’l Fazl, says that Akbar drew his sword and touched the head of Hemu with it, thereby entitling himself to the title of ghazi while Bairam Khan severed Hemu’s head in a single blow.

There are many possibilities going by the different versions available. It’s possible that the boy king tried to do the act himself but failed to strike a fatal blow, requiring the helping hand of Bairam Khan to cover up what would have been a royal embarrassment. The touching of the head with the sword was perhaps a symbolic act too like that of the practice of knighting someone in medieval Europe, though without a parallel in Indian and Timurid cultures. It’s also possible that Akbar’s refusal was an afterthought by Abu’l Fazl to project a more benign image of the emperor. But one cannot fault the filmmaker for this, for he still used the most popular version of the event handed down to posterity by Akbar’s official biographer.

Excerpted from Manimugdha S Sharma’s Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India with the permission from Bloomsbury. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.