The year is 2016 BCE, and Sarman, a young indigo farmer from Amri, is filled with wanderlust. In particular, he wants to follow his community’s trading caravan to the big city of Mohenjo Daro. His aunt and uncle can no longer restrain this yearning of his, and, regretfully, they allow him to go this time. But Sarman has mixed feelings about Mohenjo Daro once he arrives. There is plenty to amaze this country bumpkin, and gosh, that daughter of the chief priest sure is beautiful. But evil has taken root in this city. The current chief of the senate, a former merchant named Maham, rules by fear. More than that, he has built a dam to divert the Sindhu River from its course, thus depriving all the honest farmers downstream of their livelihood, so that he can mine for gold in the old riverbed. Like Moses, Sarman cannot stand idly by in the presence of iniquity. Moreover, Sarman feels in his bones some deeper connection to Mohenjo Daro—and what is the meaning of this copper seal that his uncle gave him, the one with the unicorn that appears in his dreams, the one that grants him access to the upper city where the aristocracy lives?
“Mohenjo Daro” is the latest Bollywood offering featured at The Rave, landing in cinemas just in time for India’s Independence Day (August 15). Hrithik Roshan (perhaps best known for the “Krrish” trilogy and the second installment of the “Dhoom” franchise) plays Sarman with a wide-eyed innocence that turns quickly into a steely resolve, while Pooja Hegde is Chaani, the daughter of the priest whose birth foretold the coming of a New Order. The grim embodiment of the Old Order is Maham, played by Kabir Bedi, whose career as a film villain stretches back to his role as Gobinda in the 1983 James Bond movie “Octopussy.” Arunoday Singh is Moonja, son of Maham and as evil as his father, if more impetuous.
“Mohenjo Daro” is chock full of all the tropes we have come to expect of historic epics. Dreams that portend the future? Check. A crazy person who issues prophetic pronouncements? Check. An evil villain who dresses in black and glowers menacingly? Check. Fight scenes in which muscled heroes dismiss as flesh wounds injuries that would be mortal in real life? Check. The good guy getting the girl in the end? Check. And there is even a physics-defying crocodile thrown in for good measure.
But this movie is more than the sum of its tropes. Mohenjo-daro is the name of an actual archaeological site, located in present-day Pakistan, that was one of the major settlements of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. Little is known about the site, which was only rediscovered in the 1920s, but director Ashutosh Gowariker consulted with several archaeologists in an attempt to create a realistic representation of the Indus Valley culture on the screen. Of course, stories revisiting the roots of our cultures tend to be exercises in collective self-reflection, and “Mohenjo Daro” is no different—its tale of a simple farmer turned savior in his fight against the forces of greed and mercantilism offers a not-so-subtle critique of present-day India, which has launched itself onto the world stage as an economic powerhouse, but whose people, in the words of Arundhati Roy, “live side by side with the spirits of the netherworld, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains, and denuded forests.”
This is the quintessential summer popcorn flick, complete with a penchant for violence and regrettable gender politics. But “Mohenjo Daro” also constitutes an exquisite use of myth to critique our current place in—and treatment of—this world.