At one point in Mohenjo Daro, its protagonist, Sarman (Hrithik Roshan), finds out his real identity, understands his connection with Mohenjo-daro, and the reason it feels so familiar and intimate. Sarman looks outside the window, as if trying to find an answer, and, at that moment, the camera tracks back, receding rapidly from him, showing us the panoramic view of Mohenjo-daro in one unbroken shot. This shot, from the bird-eye’s view, favouring the macro over micro, is, in fact, symbolic of the film itself, which seems reluctant to engage with the minutiae, explore its characters’ feelings and inner-lives. Here, nearly everything is dealt with in a cursory, superficial manner, as if making a historical period drama is only about the setting, not the people.
When Mohenjo Daro’s trailer went online, it left a lot of people confused and amused, made them wonder about its historical accuracy, and for a good reason, for the factual leaps were way too many to be ignored. And yet, when the film begins, you want to put all that behind, and see it as a director, Ashutosh Gowariker, trying to reinterpret history—because that’s the only way to engage with this film.
But even after giving this massive leeway, Mohenjo Daro fails to leave an impression. The film, to begin with, has an extremely ordinary story to tell, a story that has been told so many time before that, in the hands of an uninspired filmmaker, it becomes an exercise in monotony. It’s the story of an ordinary man destined to be extraordinary, of finding secrets and oneself in a foreign land, of good defeating the evil on its own turf. But you can’t tell this story as it is, accepting it at its face value. Take Baahubali, for instance, a film with a similar story. What separates Baahubali from Mohenjo Daro is the filmmaker’s imagination, his willingness and ability to transcend the obvious, so that the audience primarily cares about how a story is being told, as opposed to what is being told. It’s strange how one-note and jaded Mohenjo Daro seems, as if Gowariker is simply going through the motions, customarily and cursorily checking scenes off his list—the kinds we’ve seen in numerous films before.
Gowariker, as a filmmaker, has mostly played it safe throughout his career. His films are straightforward dramas, where what you see is what you get: the ones that don’t demand a lot from their audience. And yet, two of the finest films of Gowariker, Lagaan and Swades, still hold today, because they had moments of truth, asking us a rather simple question: What does it feel to be human? What does it mean to do the right thing, to hold your ground and not run away when circled by adversity? But none of that is visible in Mohenjo Daro, which is so fixated on its setting that it ignores everything else. The film would have been still worth some consideration had it given us something to mull over, talked about how we’ve evolved (or regressed).
For example, have the definitions of human avarice, love, and lust remained unchanged over several millennia? In a rare quasi-heartfelt scene, Sarman says he doesn’t understand murder; he’s heard of humans killing animals, but that barbarity towards one’s own doesn’t make sense to him. That scene, right there, is a small window of opportunity, and you feel Gowariker will do something with it, but he doesn’t, and that scene, like many others, disappears without saying anything substantial. Mohenjo Daro is so devoid of a voice and gaze that it could’ve been set anywhere. Setting it in Mohenjo-daro, then, seems nothing more than a gimmick, a desperate ploy to peg this film as ‘different’.
But, more importantly, the film is sometimes so silly—several of its plot points make no sense at all (in fact, so many of them that they don’t even deserve a mention)—that it’s immensely and instantly forgettable. What is also at display is Gowariker’s indulgence. The film quickly begins to drag (around the first 30-minutes mark), and never regains its vitality and purpose, but Gowariker is not the one to stop, for he believes every small preoccupation of his has to be dressed and presented to the audience (be it in the form of superfluous plot points or songs or scenes). In fact, the last fifteen minutes of the film have no reason to exist; the story’s well over by then, but Gowariker insists that we stick around, maybe because he isn’t quite convinced that he’s embarrassed himself enough.
Watching Mohenjo Daro feels like reading a longform piece written by a cub reporter. There’s nothing in it that warrants its length and indulgence, the quality of art is suspect, and it’s trying way too hard to impress. You really have to wonder why it even exists.