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Magic peek into ‘tear on the face of eternity’

Cannes, May 16: Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal, said to be the most expensive film made in India, will receive its first public screening when it is shown in Cannes tomorrow night.

With the waves crashing on the beach in front of the famous Croisette, Khan told The Telegraph in an exclusive interview: “My film is absolutely historically accurate.”

The screening will begin at 8.30 pm at Palais D before a specially-invited audience. Word of mouth afterwards will be of crucial importance not only for its director but also for the Indian film industry.

If Taj Mahal turns out to be a success ' and it is hard to see how it can fail given it revolves around what Rabindranath Tagore memorably described as “a tear on the face of eternity” ' it could take the increasing popularity of Bollywood across much of Europe to unprecedented heights.

It is always a risk exposing a big movie to Cannes where many of those who come know the difference between Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman (the former was a lot prettier).

Khan, who is making his first visit to Cannes (although he has already decided to come again next year), said he was sure he had taken the right decision.

“I felt that Cannes is definitely a great showcase for a film of this calibre,” he said. “Cannes is magical, it’s beautiful and it’s great to have interaction with a lot of personalities from different parts of the world.”

Khan’s Taj Mahal is, no doubt, a love story. But, he added, “it is not a silky love story. It is also a human drama of treachery, patricidal killings, father-and-son conflicts. It involves a specific time in Shah Jahan’s life when he is turned into a prisoner at the hands of his son, Aurangzeb, and, ironically, not allowed to visit the monument, which has become a part of his life. This period of history is stranger than fiction. As a filmmaker, I did not have to add or imagine anything but just stick to the actual situation.”

He pointed out one factor in his favour: “More than 50,000 (tourists) from different parts of the world visit the Taj Mahal every day.”

The filmmaker delicately avoided disclosing the budget (though one source put it at close to Rs 60 crore). What he did say was: “I don’t want to sound pompous but, yes, it’s the biggest film in terms of budget ever produced in the history of Indian motion pictures.”

He went on: “We are planning a worldwide release at the end of July.”

Khan did not want his film, which he had shot only in Urdu or Hindustani, to be taken as one aimed only at Indians or NRIs, since foreigners, too, were familiar with “one of the greatest wonders of the world”.

In London, there would be a premiere, with stars present, at the Odeon in Leicester Square, normally the venue for Hollywood movies.

He ran through his cast list. Kabir Bedi plays the older Shah Jahan who tells his story in flashback, while Arbaaz Khan (whom he did not want to define as Salman Khan’s brother) portrays his son, Aurangzeb. Manisha Koirala had been more than happy to take on the role of Jahanara, “the fellow prisoner of her great father, Shah Jahan”.

Khan had cast the legendary Noor Jahan’s granddaughter, Sonya Jahan, as Arjuman Bano (who later became the empress Mumtaz).

“I felt she had the genes,” he explained.

He risked the possible wrath of academics by insisting that his film was historically sound and that Shah Jahan, who had employed 22,000 artisans for over 20 years, completed the Taj in 1658.

“Not a single moment of any historical event can be challenged by any historian,” he declared, possibly offering himself as a hostage to fortune.

“I almost became a historian in the process of making this project. I studied it, I imbibed it, I have analysed it. I have gone through all the historians, whether it is of the British time or Shah Jahan nama or Aurangzeb nama.”

Khan confirmed that the Mughals, sticklers for symmetry, placed Mumtaz’s body in a central position but Shah Jahan’s is off centre. The actual graves are below the mock ones.

He has an interesting take on what happened after the death of Mumtaz: “The body of Arjuman Bano was first buried 350 km away from Agra.” Then Shah Jahan was given the site he wanted by the Jamuna by a Rajput maharaja, who received a palace in return. “That is when the original grave of Arjuman Bano was dug up, her body exhumed and then carried 350 km, with a royal escort of thousands, including pirs and other holy men, for the final burial in Agra.”

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