This is #CriticalMargin, where Ishita Sengupta gets contemplative over new Hindi films and shows. Here: ZEE5's Taj — Reign Of Revenge.
Last Updated: 05.13 AM, May 15, 2023
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I WILL JUST SAY IT: I am yet to be taken by Taj, the expansive, campy new ZEE5 show which has designed Mughal history, rife with politics and scandal, as a Game Of Thrones-meets-Succession drama, and scored it to an escalating background music. The first season comprised 10 episodes and laid the origin story for the impending fight for the throne as the Mughal ruler Akbar looked on. That the emperor was essayed by veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah lent some watchability to a series that was otherwise caught in the trappings of miscasting and misdirected unhingedness. A substantial chunk of the season unfolded as validation of one item of gossip after another on Mughal history, while the plot points were caught in the crossfire of excess and boredom.
Not much has changed in season two, of which the first four episodes, from the total eight, have dropped. Thematically, it follows from where things had ended in the first: Akbar’s three sons Salim, Murad and Daniyal (Taaha Shah, Aashim Gulati and Shubham Kumar Mehra respectively) fought amongst themselves, resulting in the death of one and transforming the relationship between the surviving two as arch-enemies. The death of Anarkali, the woman Salim was in love with, has rendered him a grief-stricken lover, and a rebel. Daniyal is worried that his brother will come at him for revenge. Meanwhile, the Mughal empire has expanded geographically, stretching from Bengal to Kabul and Kashmir to the Deccan.
On the surface, the problems plaguing season one continue rearing their heads. The young crop of actors still feel like they’re out of their depths. Aashim Gulati, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Gulshan Devaiah in his kookiness, always looks one step away from breaking into “dude, bro” lingo. If you were to watch Salim’s scenes with Akbar on mute and find Shah shaking his head, you can almost hear Gulati say, “Dad, it isn’t cool to be this unwoke”. Then there is the problem of time. The second season apparently opens 15 years later but there is no way to tell. Shah looks the same and so do the other characters. This underlying intent of telling more than showing encapsulates much of the series’ drawback.
More specifically though, the premise of Taj is imbued with a stillness despite the plot moving ahead. Season two introduces Mehr-un-Nissa (Sauraseni Maitra), the daughter of Persian aristocrat Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who will eventually be wedded to Jahangir aka Salim and be known as Nur Jahan. All the four episodes unravel like more of the same. There are more conspiracies by the royal advisors to spur on hatred between the two heirs, Salim is still turning up drunk before his father, and Akbar is still worried about his successor. I am ready to see this as a narrative design, a smokescreen perhaps for something else to emerge by the time the season culminates. But after having dedicated 14 hours of my life to watching heads being slashed and poor VFX tigers jumping at me from the screen, I am a tad skeptical.
Levity aside, they point to a broader problem. Taj fundamentally falters as a compelling adaptation of history, having translated all instances of conflict and turmoil in an unimaginative, uniformed manner. It is not just difficult but impossible to tell apart moments from both seasons. The setting looks the same, the problem feels incidental. And this is because the characters are stunted in their appeal. They evoke no curiosity, compassion or even apathy as they senselessly march towards getting at each other.
This season, the directing responsibilities have been handed over to Vibhu Puri from Ron Scalpelo. The shift might be deliberate to offset the perceptible white gaze of the previous one. Given that the characters are gradually coming to their own, I am hopeful that there will be more bloodshed and chaos, but with firmer commitment. Having said that, it is never a good sign for a series when one of its pivotal characters dies and the viewer lets out a sigh of relief. I am not saying this has happened. All I am saying is I am hopeful for Taj to be less of a narrative mimicry of shows it cannot match up to in weight and more of a formidable archive of the times it is choosing to depict. And I am feeling a little hopeless about it.