In order to understand a country’s present, it is very important to know its past. For a country like India, which is a young postcolonial state, the patterns and divisions of historical epochs are a bit different from those of the Europeans. Unfortunately, the colonial rule of the subcontinent demarcated the Mughal Empire as the Medieval Ages in India. The British tried to prove that India was suffering through its Dark Ages during the Mughal era and that it was the British who ushered in the Renaissance in this country. Just like the British, the Mughals were settlers too. They were a warrior clan from Turkey and Central Asia who ventured into India with the dream of building an empire. Unlike the British, they were not a colonial power that was extracting riches from India and exporting them to their mother country.
The Mughal dynasty was established in India after Babur won the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. Akbar, the third ruler of the Mughal dynasty, expanded his Empire from the Sindh province in the west to Bengal in the east. The borders of his Empire stretched to the Vindhyas in the south. As much as the British wanted to read the Mughal era as the era of darkness in Indian history, in truth, it was a time of great harmony. Although Western modernity had not reached Indian shores, the country was still prosperous and excelled in fields such as art, architecture, and music. Unfortunately, our history textbooks in school only inform us about the highlights of our history and fail to add layers and nuances to the dry chronology of events. But when history is fictionalized, and multiple perspectives are presented to the reader or viewer, the topic becomes interesting. “Taj: Divided by Blood” is a successful attempt at fictionalizing history.
“Taj: Divided by Blood” is Zee5’s magnum opus. It has been adapted for the screen from a story by Christopher Butera and Anand Neelkanthan by William Bothwick and Simon Fantauzzo. The vision of creator Abhimanyu Singh and the direction of British director Ron Scalpello have resulted in the manufacturing of a grand narrative with high production value, exquisite cinematography, and a smooth-sailing plotline that doesn’t have to just depend on the gimmicks of opulence and spectacle. The web series, with its ten episodes, presents a juicy potboiler for the viewer that has all the mass appeal of a love story, an action film, a political drama, a historical saga, and of course, a television soap opera. “Taj: Divided by Blood,” with its international crew, has finally been able to make the Indians crack the formula of telling the story in historical fiction. The web series manages to hold our attention and excite us enough to, if not empathize, at least sympathize with the characters we see on screen. With beautifully crafted dialogues and majestic grandeur interspersed with gore, blood, and murder, “Taj: Divided by Blood” is a must-watch for a film enthusiast.
This web series focuses on Akbar’s reign, giving special attention to his struggles balancing domestic upheaval and political coups plotted to remove the aging monarch from the throne. The show begins in 1568, after the Battle of Haldighati. This was the time when Akbar emerged as the supreme leader of northern India. We see a young Akbar visiting a prophet, Shaikh Salim Chisti (played by Dharmendra), who prophesied that Akbar would have three sons but that his own children would also be responsible for causing him discomfort in his old age. The prophet added that the moment the water in the nearby bodies of water turned red, there would be a loss of Mughal blood. The show quickly leaps a few decades forward, and we meet three sons of Akbar: Salim (played by Aashim Gulati), the son of Jodha and Akbar, Murad (acted by Taha Shah Badusa), and Daniyal (played by Subham Kumar Mehra) (the information about their mothers is not initially revealed, but they were probably the sons of prized concubines).
At this point, Akbar (played by a brilliant Naseeruddin Shah) has aged and finds himself caught amidst rebellions to overthrow him from his own relatives as well as his courtiers. His rule with an iron fist no longer seems to intimidate his subordinates. At this point, there are reports incoming from the western frontier in Kabul, where his step brother Mirza Hakim (played by Rahul Bose) has been terrorizing the local Hindu population. He launches a rebellion against Akbar, saying that he is not a true Muslim because he is lenient with the Hindus. Hakim claimed that Akbar gained succession to the throne, not on the basis of his capabilities but only because he was the eldest. This, in turn, leaves a deep scar in Akbar’s mind, and he decides that the line of succession will no longer be decided on the basis of age. The successor would have to prove his worth to ascend the throne. This pitted the three princes in an unwanted race against each other. We are introduced to Akbar’s harem, which consisted of his three queens—Jodha Bai (played by Sandhya Mridul), Begum Salima Sultana (played by Zarina Wahab), and Begum Ruqaiya Sultana (played by Padma Damodaran)—and numerous concubines. Daniyal Mirza, the youngest contender for the throne, was a pious man with a compassionate heart. But he lacked aggression, which made him an unfit ruler. On the opposite side of the spectrum was Akbar’s middle child, Murad, who doesn’t have a bone of compassion in his body. Salim is the perfect combination of aggression and compassion and Akbar’s secret choice for the throne. But the only catch here is that he has no interest in the Empire. All he cares about are music, poetry, and women. He would rather spend his days drenched in alcohol and intoxicated by hashish than take responsibility of any kind.
In order to teach Salima a lesson, Akbar made Murad the leader of the campaign against his step brother Mirza Hakim, and all three brothers were sent to fight the rebellion in Kabul. Though they regain power over the jagir in Kabul, Daniyal Mirza, who sees Mirza Hakim as a man of God spreading the right message, allows him to escape with his two sons. Akbar gets annoyed by his son’s incompetency and takes away all the land they own; he believes that this will force his sons to prove themselves. But nothing of that sort happens. Murad tries his level best to prove himself to be an adept ruler, but his aggressive attitude makes him little more than an animal. In order to give Salim a sense of purpose in life, he is married off to Man Bai, Man Singh’s sister. But unfortunately, by this time, Salim had already encountered and was now enamored by the beauty of Anarkali (played by Aditi Rao Hydari). He was in love with her. Man Bai was just a political settlement for Salim. Just after his marriage, he is sent off to fight another rebellious uprising in Lahore along with Daniyal. Salim, being a skilled soldier, gains victory over the rebels and invites Giyas Beg, the subedar of Lahore, to join Akbar’s courtiers. This is a prelude to a possible slow-brewing romance between Salim and Beg’s daughter, Meherunissa. Earlier, Jodha had warned Salim about the importance of him being the next Mughal Emperor. In fact, the Rajput blood flowing through his veins would have been the perfect vehicle for establishing a harmonious relationship between the Hindus and the Muslims in the country. In the Aravallis, Akbar was again facing a challenge from his long-term enemy, the ruler of Chittor, Maharana Pratap. In a subplot, Murad, who was sent to nip the Rajputana crisis in the bud, comes across his uncle Hakim Mirza, who was on the run. He captures the man and kills one of his sons; he presents Hakim to Akbar, believing that his father would finally be proud of him and hand him over the ‘Taj.’
Akbar tried to integrate the Hindus and Muslims and launched a new religion called Din-i-illahi, which does not demand the followers of any religion do away with their rituals but just not identify themselves with a specific tag of Hindu or Muslim. This was a rather radical and modern idea, which obviously faced a lot of backlash from everyone, even from Akbar’s own courtiers. They began to believe that Akbar had declared himself to be God. Akbar’s historian and minister, Abul Fazl, even plotted to kill the Emperor by poisoning him. On the other hand, Murad kept going with his pointless military campaign against Maharana Pratap, trying to keep him at bay so that Pratap did not attack Delhi. Akbar’s religious minister, Imam Badayuni, wanted the religious Daniyal to ascend the throne after Akbar. In the course of the series, we find him raising an army for rebellion that would ultimately put Daniyal Mirza on the throne. During Salim’s Lahore Campaign, Man Bai gives birth to a son (a fruit of the first night they spent together).
Everyone believed that Khusrau’s birth would be reason enough to streamline Salim’s sense of authority and responsibility. But his indifference toward his wife only drove her insane. There are scenes with violent outbursts in Man Bai that are heart-wrenching, haunting, and painful to watch. Akbar decides to get Salim married to two other women, as he thinks that more wives would surely divert his attention from Akbar’s favorite concubine, Anarkali. Daniyal was also set to marry a princess at the same time. But Daniyal was queer, and his lover Vivaan could not bear the fact that his lover was getting married to a woman. He decided to steal the picture that Daniyal kept to himself and believed to be his lucky charm—a portrait of his dead mother, who was rumored to have died in childbirth. When the portrait landed in the hands of Abul Fazl, he thought it was a grand opportunity to remove Salim from the line of successors. As soon as the portrait was planted in Salim’s room and he discovered that Anarkali was, in reality, Daniyal’s mother and Akbar’s most possessed concubine, he rushed with his best friend, Durjan Singh (the son of Man Singh), to break off his relationship with Anarkali. Just at this moment, Abul Fazl directed Akbar and Daniyal to Anarkali’s confinement. All three individuals were arrested for neglecting Akbar’s command by not meeting each other. Durjan received the death sentence, while Anarkali was to be entombed alive in a wall of the Fatehpur palace. Salim, on the other hand, was exiled.
Birbal, Akbar’s most trusted confidant, talked him out of giving such a harsh punishment to Anarkali, and she ultimately escaped through a trapdoor. But by this time, the sweet, compassionate Daniyal had already been brainwashed about how sinful his mother and Salim were. He launched a search party for Anarkali in order to kill her off. Salim wanted to save the love of life. Both the brothers have a life-threatening encounter, and both of them are injured while Anarkali is murdered by her own son. Murad, who seemed to be on a different trip of his own in the western part of the Empire, was growing up to be a problem for the supporters of Daniyal. Murad’s inability to think and Salim’s lack of interest in the throne made Daniyal the best choice. Murad was poisoned by Abul Fazl himself. The show crescendos in the eighth and ninth episodes, but the finale feels very tedious and hard to watch. The tenth episode could have been a mere epilogue where Salim finally recovers from his wounds and swears revenge on his father’s politics that pitted the brothers against each other. The show becomes a testimonial to the fact that a race for power only produces losers, making the race a winner in itself.
“Taj: Divided by Blood” is a treat for Indian audiences. It is now streaming on Zee5.