Cast: Dharmendra, Naseeruddin Shah, Aditi Rao Hydari, Aashim Gulati
Director: Ronald Scalpello
Rating: 2.5 (out of 5)
Freewheeling historical fiction meets twisted family drama in Taj: Divided by Blood, a Zee5 series produced by Mumbai-based Contiloe Pictures. The canvas of the India-UK co-production is vast and the sweep of the narrative covers several decades of Emperor Akbar's nearly 50-year reign. But The series is not quite the epic that it aspires to be.
The 10-episode show is about war, bloodshed, palace intrigue, conspiracies hatched in the shadows, internecine feuds and forbidden love that turns father against son. The plot has no dearth of genuine dramatic potential - to be fair, a significant proportion of it is realised - but the overall impact of the series is undermined by a preponderance of passages that deliver far less than they promise.
Taj: Divided by Love never sinks into tedium, but it could have done with a little more heft. It portrays Emperor Akbar as a man and a ruler navigating the pulls and pressures of his onerous royal duties, shouldering his paternal responsibilities and dealing with his consorts.
The screenplay by William Borthwick and Simon Fantauzzo gives the emperor's three sons full play but does not do full justice to the women in his life. The begums are played by Zarina Wahab, Sandhya Mridul and Padma Damodaran.
All three make the most of the limited opportunities that they have to make their presence felt. Wahab is especially underutilised. The focus is any case not on them as much as it is on Aditi Rao Hydari in the role of the ill-fated Anarkali - a tragic, melancholic, caged woman. Hydari is up to the challenge. She is luminous although she, too, could have done with a little more play.
Given the fate that the female characters suffer in this series, it would seem that this is no kingdom for women. One of them is held captive against her will, a host of others are forced into marriages of convenience and are doomed to pine for love in silence, and the emperor's begums are hard-pressed to have their voices heard. In the male-dominated universe that Taj: Divided by Blood is located in, a degree of monotony and predictability is inevitable.
Fleshed out with poise and empathy by Naseeruddin Shah, Emperor Akbar is a man who responds to contradictory impulses - he often sways from acts of wisdom and benevolence to streaks of despotism. He is a figure prone to actions and decisions that make matters worse than they already are.
The emperor is a guardian of justice, a defender of secularism, a much-married man and a father to three young men who share nothing in common temperamentally. The sons test his patience - and acumen - the most. Advisers like Birbal (Subodh Bhave), Man Singh (Digambar Prasad) and Abul Fazl (Pankaj Saraswat) stepping in to show him the way forward with varying degrees of success.
The emperor has a secret tucked away in a prison that nobody else has access to. When the cat is out of the bag, it sets him on a collision course with his eldest son, Prince Salim (Aashim Gulati), a young man addicted to wine and women. His concubines keep him way too occupied for him to worry about what the future holds for the kingdom. Salim isn't the only son that the emperor struggles to tame.
The series, too, grapples with inconsistent pace and protracted stretches that appear to beat about the bush a bit too much. Taj: Divided by Blood is of course more fiction than history, a fact acknowledged by a 'story' credit to Anand Neelakantan and Christopher Butera. The show works best when the action is confined to the interiors of the palace and the family dynamics.
Akbar's harem is occupied by three begums - Salima (Zarina Wahab), Ruqaiya (Padma Damodaran) and Jodha (Sandhya Mridul), who is understandably keen to see her son, Akbar's first-born Salim, as the next Mughal badshah. The impediments in the way generate the conflicts that Salim and the rest of the palace faces.
Taj: Divided by Blood centres on the tussle among the brothers and their cohorts over who will succeed the emperor, who, on his part, antagonises conservative elements in his kingdom and outside it by introducing the Din-i-Ilahi, a religion that recognises every faith and is aimed at annihilating sectarian hatred and promoting humanity and harmony.
Episode 2 of Taj: Divided by Blood is devoted almost entirely to a skirmish in Kabul between the Mughal Army and a band of rebels led by Emperor Akbar's half-brother Mirza Hakim (Rahul Bose). The battle scenes, mounted on an epic scale and designed to present war at its most gruesome, come off as rather mechanical and unexciting.
The decision upsets the already fragile balance in the kingdom. The situation is aggravated by the fact that none of Akbar's sons is ready to be emperor yet. The self-absorbed Salim is busy with his concubines. The middle son, Murad (Taha Shah Badusshah), is overly hot-headed and impulsive. The youngest, Daniyal (Shubham Kumar Mehra), is a devout soul who is too soft and sensitive to be in with a genuine chance to step into his father's shoes.
Salim is smitten at first sight by Anarkali. The liaison spells trouble. Murad, always on a short fuse, is prone to acts of defiance that keep the emperor on his toes. And Daniyal, who advised by the head of the ulema, stumbles upon a truth about himself and a mother he has never seen that pushes him down a slippery slope.
Several of the principal technicians of the series are English - director Ron Scalpello, director of photography Simon Temple and music composer Ian Arber.
Taj: Divided by Blood is crafted with diligence. Parts of the show are informed with enough drama and intrigue to perk things up. It, however, frequently feels a touch strained and repetitive. It is neither Mughal-e-Azam nor Game of Thrones.
That is not to say that the show does not have its moments. It is reasonably gripping especially when it explores the simmering fraternal tensions after the emperor decides that the successor to the Mughal throne will not be his first-born, but the son with the greatest merit.
While the onus of holding the show together inevitably falls on Naseeruddin Shah, the three actors in the roles of the sons - Aashim Gulati, Taha Shah Badussha and Shubham Kumar Mehra - bring enough ti the table not to be overshadowed by a thespian at his best.
Its ambitions are grand and the execution is competent but Taj: Divided by Blood low on genuine lustre.