Naseeruddin Shah, Aditi Rao Hydari, Aashim Gulati,Taha Shah Badussha and Shubham Kumar Mehta’s period-drama series Taj: Divided By Blood is perhaps the most ambitious attempt by a streaming platform as it brings forth the stories from the tattered pages of history which encapsulates an era mired in the ruthless struggle to gain power through hook and crook, spiteful treachery, unforgiving bloodshed, the never-ending greed to wield authority over others, the brutal politics that doesn’t even spare brothers related by blood, and of course, love which holds the power to vanquish a blatantly corrupted dynasty rotting at the periphery of ego and connivance.
Ron Scalpello attempts to depict the rise and fall of the Mughal empire under the aegis of Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar through twisted and warped tales of defiance and ravaged gluttony and he does it with justice to the characters that are nuanced and hoists them against a vivid backdrop of opulent times.
The story kickstarts with young Akbar’s conquest of Fort of Chittor and the ruthless massacre of men, women and children. Perturbed by the ghastly act of war, he visits Shaikh Salim Chisti (played by Dharmendra) to express his concern about being childless despite getting married three times. Sheikh Salim tells him a prophecy that he’ll birth three children and that no enemy will hold the power to harm him except his own kin. And that whenever the water of the river will run red, royal blood will be spilled. Fast forward a few decades later and now Akbar is an emperor of a thriving kingdom of Agra. And as told by Salim Chisti, he has three sons Shah Salim, Shah Murad and Daniyal Mirza. But each one of them different from one another. Salim (played by Aashim Gulati) derives pleasure in the company of beautiful women and liquor. But he is the most skilled and level-headed of the lot. Murad (played by Taha Shah Badussha) is stubborn, impulsive and haughty but schooled enough in the art of swordmanship. Daniyal (played by Shubham Kumar Mehra) is a devout Muslim, meek, emasculated and the most virtuous among the three.
An old but deft Akbar (played by Naseeruddin Shah) is keen about choosing the rightful successor to his throne and is willfully guided by his trustworthy counsel Abul Fazal (played by Pankaj Saraswat), Birbal (played by Subodh Bhave), Badayuni (played by Aayam Mehta) and others. But with the rule of Hindustan at stake and the supreme power that position holds, there are cracks in the ranks of the emperor including his subjects and even among the royal harem. There are factions backing their favorite bet and opportunistic individuals vouching for power by proxy. Just then an ominous danger looms when Akbar’s brother Mirza Muhammad Hakim (played by Rahul Bose) revolts in Kabul. For Akbar, he views this as a chance to test the mettle of all his sons as he dispatches all of them to take the siege back. But that is just the beginning of a clamorous story waiting to peel itself like the skin of a bulbous onion.
For starters, Taj-Divided By Blood takes you on a journey that is not modern and doesn’t rely on a cat and mouse chase between a cop and a criminal. It came across as a much-needed breather in the space that is currently permeated with crime thrillers or slice-of-life content. The collective screenplay by Christopher Butera, William Borthwick and Simon Fantauzzo takes cognizance of all the tiny details needed to tackle a tricky genre like this. Right from the individual character arcs of Salim, Murad and Daniyal to their individual storylines that blend with the main plot, their personality traits and character development, there is an ease by which one gets immersed in the debauched politics of the Mughal Empire. Even the supporting characters have been given ample seriousness and dimensions to them.
Despite juggling between so many characters and sub-plots one episode at a time, one wouldn’t feel befuddled or confused about the tone and tenure of the story. Coupled with the fact that it explores themes sanctified in the ethos of an ancient empire, it also subtly highlights the innate misogyny and patriarchal mindset that prevailed so normally without anyone batting an eye. In extension, it gives agency to certain characters like Anarkali (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) and Man Bai (played by Anushka Luhar) who become victims of the same, owing to their gender. It also barely touches upon homosexuality but couldn’t deliver an impact in that direction. Regardless, Taj-Divided By Blood has all the riveting quirks of a contemporary thriller but weaved differently in accordance with the times portrayed on the screen. One is bound to make comparisons with Game Of Thrones and quite rightly so since it has the potential to attain that virality.
Furthermore, Taj keeps you hooked to its story through some shocking progressions in the narrative that one might deem unexpected and unpredictable. The shock and gore and intimate scenes are yet another set of qualities reminiscent of the critically-acclaimed HBO series. The love track between Salim and Anarkali is poignant and has been dealt with vulnerability. The Urdu dialogues are brilliantly written. The sets are grand and the costumes and get-ups of the character are brilliantly curated by the makers. It makes the period-drama series even more authentic and beautiful. The cinematography is aesthetically appealing and matches that with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films. The background score by Ian Arber furnishes an international soundscape to the series but still could have incorporated some good songs to add more flavour to its universe.
On the acting front, Naseeruddin Shah makes a convincing Akbar. His dialogue delivery and expressions pack a heavy punch in the story. Aashim Gulati as Salim is outstanding. He pulled off his role with conviction. Taha Shah Badussha chimes in with his intense and intimidating energy. Shubham Kumar Mehra as Daniyal aptly exudes calmness and placidity in his demeanor and how he embraces the change in his personality in the penultimate episodes is outstanding. Aditi Rao Hydari brings passion and life to Anarkali through her honest portrayal and on-screen grace and charm. Her chemistry with Aashim Gulati is palpable and one could easily observe that from passion-filled glances they throw at each other.
Dharmendra plays a small part but rightly proves why he is hailed as a legendary actor. Rahul Bose was another revelation as he breaks away from his urbane image and gets into the skin of a periodical character. Subodh Bhave as Birbal looks uncanny and perfect. Sandhya Mridul as Jodha Bai, Zarina Wahab as Salima Sultan Begum, Padma Damodaran as Ruqaiya Sultan Begum and Shivani Tanksale as Bakht-un-Nissa Begum have collectively infused life. On the other hand, Akshat Mishra as Durjan, Anushka Luhar as Man Bai, Aayam Mehta as Badayuni and Pankaj Saraswant as Abul Fazal fit seamlessly with the story with all the other actors.
In totality, Taj-Divided By Blood holds a lot of potential granted to how the makers navigate the story in the upcoming seasons and yes it does deserve more seasons considering the fact that it is packaged with drama, chaos, romance, treachery, politics and a whole lot of ingenuity. There is always room for improvement in terms of introducing more variants and situations but overall the series is unique to India’s OTT landscape and if the consistency in regards to the storytelling and characters is maintained, it can attain a status similar to the likes of Game Of Thrones, Vikings, The Crown etc.
Taj: Divided By Blood is now streaming on Zee5.
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