Set in a very distant past but actually about the present and immediate future, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro weaves lessons on climate change, good governance, the importance of dissent, and peace between nations into a yarn about Sarman’s love for Chaani.

He (Hrithik Roshan) is a hazel-eyed hunk from a farming village who slays a crocodile for lunch in the opening sequence. She (Pooja Hegde) is the daughter of the priest (Manish Chaudhuri) at Mohenjo Daro and the wearer of some of the best clothes, jewellery and headgear seen in a Hindi movie in years. Their passion is the trigger for Sarman’s involvement with Mohenjo Daro’s politics, which is steered by the malevolent Maham (Kabir Bedi) and his son Moonja (Arunoday Singh).

Chaani is betrothed to Moonja, but she melts like butter upon seeing Sarman. In this, she is not alone. Pooja Hedge is the latest in a long line of Ashutosh Gowariker heroines, all comely and good-hearted women who possess the good fortune of being paired with idealised and attractive male specimens. Hegde’s pearly whites take precedence over her basic acting skills, but she crackles in her scenes with her co-star, and it’s not hard to see why. Hrithik Roshan has undeniably aged, but he remains easy on the eye and still moves like a dream. Even AR Rahman’s cacophonous soundtrack cannot dampen their mutual interest. When Chaani asks Sarman in wonderment, “Who are you?”, it’s a sign that whatever his limitations as an actor, Roshan is one of the few Hindi movie stars who can make his heroine feel special without flubbing it.

‘Mohenjo Daro’.

The romance gives way to palace intrigue when Maham plots to wage war on the neighbouring Harappa to avenge a personal slight. Maham has been secretly giving away Mohenjo Daro’s gold in exchange for the cutting edge technology of the day – weapons made from metal. He has also built a dam on the Sindhu river that looks precarious not because its foundation is weak, but because somebody in this production didn’t set aside enough money for visual effects. The opening battle between man and beast foreshadows Sarman’s future as well as the strengths and failings of the production: it is convincingly shot and directed but let down by poorly executed computer-generated imagery. Well-written sequences, including the climax featuring a great flood that threatens Mohenjo Daro, are similarly undermined by chintzy computer work. The rest of the production spares no expense in bringing the Indus Valley Civilisation to life and represents a major achievement for the production design and costume teams, but the tacky visual effects are an eyesore.

(L-R) Kabir Bedi, Pooja Hegde and Arunoday Singh in ‘Mohenjo Daro’.

The sword-and-dhotis epic includes familiar features of the historical genre – the evocation of a key period through a handful of individuals, the role of predestination in guiding the narrative, a romance that challenges the ruling powers, and a larger-than-life hero – as well as elements from Gowariker’s back catalogue. Sarman’s ardour for Chaani echoes Roshan’s longing for Aishwarya Rai in Jodhaa Akbar, while the resistance he cobbles together against Maham is not unlike the unity displayed by the ragtag villagers against the British in Lagaan.

Some of the fustiness and stodginess that has marred Gowariker’s recent films, especially the freedom struggle drama Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (2010), have been reined in, and the fluid camerawork and fast cutting places this period movie firmly in the present. Gowariker’s tendency towards capitalised sincerity and simplistic characterisations are both firmly present in Mohenjo Daro, and most of the acting is strictly serviceable, especially by Kabir Bedi, whose mysteriously altered facial muscles have robbed his visage of its previous vitality. Yet, the movie’s running length (155 minutes) is more manageable than his previous films, and there is enough meat on the table at this costume party.

Gowariker retains an eye for spectacle, even though his ear for dialogue isn’t as sharp as the masters of the historical genre in Indian cinema. The movie has been shot by CK Muraleedharan in shades of yellow, brown and gold with dashes of bold colours. The stunning threads and props transport us to over 4,000 years ago, and while there will be dissections of the accuracy of the period setting, there is no doubt about Gowariker’s commitment to bringing to life a vital chapter of early subcontinental history. In his telling, once upon a time long long ago, there was a city whose ruling elite turned against its people with disastrous results for the economy and the ecology. By yoking this history lesson to the present, Gowariker brings an under-reported and heavily debated period of history into our troubled times. Mohenjo Daro is far from perfect, but it’s also far more than the sum of its memes.