If history was your favorite subject in school, then Zee5’s latest historical drama series should definitely be the next thing on your watchlist. But if you were intimidated by those history lessons or you could not manage to remember those important dates, then Zee5’s “Taj: Divided by Blood” should be the next web series for you to pick up. Moreover, if you are a fan of family dramas or soap operas, you know which show to watch next. The most unfortunate thing about history lessons in school is that they were written by people who decided it would be best to move from highlight to highlight. In their radical decision to create the narrative, they often missed out on the subtler nuances and created certain archetypes for us, who more often only felt like inhuman fictional characters created to efficiently fit in a story. We usually missed out on the real nature of a flesh-and-blood person in the dry pages of our history books. They are often painted as either black or white, positive or negative figures. A web series like “Taj: Divided by Blood” allows you to attach layers to the characters of these historical entities. Moreover, these web series are deliberate attempts to fictionalize history, and therefore, in one way or another, they pose questions for historiographers, opening various avenues for research by scholars and enthusiasts about the study of writing a history of a particular time in a particular context.
We have a nominal historical knowledge about the Mughal Empire in India and Ashutosh Gowarikar’s “Jodha Akbar” taught us that the third Empire of the Mughal dynasty in India, which was established in the 15th century on Indian soil by Babur, Akbar, was the greatest medieval ruler the country had ever seen. The historical narrative about Akbar, his treatment of the Hindus, and his introduction of the improved feudal system has always cast the man in a positive light. But “Taj: Divided by Blood” leaves room for the viewers to analyze Akbar’s failings as a father. An avid watcher and fan of Indian cinema can never forget Prithviraj Kapoor’s portrayal of a tyrannical Akbar who went to his wit’s end to separate his son Salim from his favorite concubine Anarkali in the 1960 saga “Mughal-e-Azam,” directed by K. Asif. “Taj: Divided by Blood” gives us glimpses of that Akbar. Moreover, it focuses on a juicy and controversial segment of history, basking in the warmth of young blood, love, and the gore of murder. Even if the hollow opulence of the recently made Mughal drama “The Empire” (available on Disney+ Hotstar) that recorded the story of Babur’s glory in India bothered you, “Taj: Divided by Blood” will surely excite you with its enticing interplay of human emotions, politics, and the rat race of winning the throne. At one point, the viewer might feel that they’ve been thrown into the whirlwind of an Indianized “Game of Thrones.” The extended medium of cinematic storytelling that is achieved in this web series allows a magnum opus to unfold quite succinctly, but towards the end of the series, you begin to feel that the show has overstayed its welcome. What could have been an epilogue gets the treatment of an episode, and we lose interest. Having said that, there are certain aspects that deserve to be mentioned when we are talking about a show like “Taj: Divided by Blood.” Its treatment of history would be the principal subheading. While history records Akbar’s reign as the beginning of a more or less stable epoch of Indian history, “Taj: Divided by Blood” highlights the numerous rebellions that Akbar had to encounter from various parts of his Empire and the battles that he had to fight within his own family. The crisis arose when Akbar decided to scrap the rule of succession on the basis of age and declared that the decision of who would succeed him on the Mughal throne would take place only on the basis of merit. This pits his three sons, the three princes Salim, Murad, and Daniyal, against each other. Emperor Akbar deliberately sets his sons difficult exams, trying to test their sense of responsibility, ability to deliver justice, and ability to rule with compassion. The youngest son, Daniyal, is filled with compassion and fulfills his religious duty, but his lack of aggression makes him unfit to rule an empire. Murad, the middle child, on the other hand, is the personification of evil—he doesn’t give a second thought before swinging his axe to behead anyone. Obviously, he lacks the compassion and temperament of a good ruler. Salim is the right concoction for an adept ruler, but the only catch is that he has no interest in the throne. The second thing that has to be kept in mind while discussing this show is how well it portrays the plight of women in the Mughal harem: how the princesses whom the Mughal men marry are just political deals, and the concubines are just meant for satisfying their sexual desire.
Created by Abhimanyu Singh for Zee5, “Taj: Divided by Rule” is the platform’s most expensive show to date. It is based on a story by Christopher Butera and Anand Neelkanthan and has been adapted by William Borthwick and Simon Fantauzzo. British director Ron Scalpello has delivered a marvelous show in 10 pitch-perfect episodes that have their opulence matched in cinematography, production design, and brilliant acting performances. Now without further ado, let’s roll out the list of important characters and find out who plays what in this historical drama:
Naseeruddin Shah As Akbar
Akbar was the third Mughal Emperor of India. He believed in the welfare of his subjects. Akbar was responsible for fortifying the Mughal rule in India. His military conquests during the early years of his career built the initial map of Mughal India, which extended from the Sindh province in the west to Bengal in the east and extended up to the Vindhyas in the south. Akbar’s greatest enemy, Maharana Pratap, however, resided in the west, in Chittoor. “Taj: Divided by Blood” has given ample importance to this rivalry, as well. But this series focuses on Akbar’s domestic life. After his step brother Mirza Hakim went into open rebellion against Akbar because Hakim believed that Akbar succeeded Humayun on the throne only because he (Akbar) was the oldest, Akbar decided to scrap the rule of succession based on age and pitted his three children, Salim, Murad, and Daniyal against each other. We meet Akbar in his old age, and by this time, he is at his wit’s end and losing the touch of a benevolent ruler. His ministers are seen conspiring against him. His tyrannical image comes to the foreground when his son Salim falls in love with his favorite concubine, Anarkali. Akbar becomes the biggest villain in their love story. His decision to test his children makes him take such terrible steps that eventually, we find Salim bent on taking revenge against his father, Akbar.
Naseeruddin Shah steals the show as Akbar. The angst of an aging ruler whom everybody wants to defy has been beautifully portrayed by Shah. Shah is a Hindi cinema veteran who is known for his roles in films like “Mandi,” “Sparsh,” “Masoom,” “Trikal,” “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro,” and many more.
Dharmendra As Shaikh Salim Chisti
Shaikh Salim Chisti was a prophet and a very important figure in Akbar’s life. Akbar built a ‘mazhar’ at Sikri in his honor. The show began in 1568 when a childless Akbar asked Chisti if he would ever have a son. Chisti assured him that he would have three sons but that his sons would also be responsible for his discomfort in old age. Moreover, he prophesied that whenever the water in the nearby water bodies turns red, there will be a bloodbath among the Mughals. This idea resides deep in Akbar’s mind and makes him afraid of the future too.
This is Dharmendra’s web debut. The Superstar of Hindi Cinema is known for his roles in films like “Sholay,” “Phool aur Patthar,” “Mamta,” “Apne,” and “Johnny Gaddar.”
Aditi Rao Hydari As Anarkali
Anarkali was Akbar’s favorite concubine. She was also the mother of Akbar’s youngest son, Daniyal. But for unknown reasons, Anarkali was kept confined in the harem. She was like a bird in a cage whose thoughts were not allowed to loiter and breathe in the open air. Unfortunately, Salim, who did not know that Anarkali was Daniyal’s mother, fell in love with her. Since Salim went against Akbar’s commands, Akbar decided to entomb Anarkali alive in the walls of Fatehpur Sikri. Anarkali is ultimately killed by Shah Daniyal.
Aditi Rao Hydari had to fill the big shoes of Madhubala, who had earlier portrayed the role of Anarkali in “Mughal-e-Azam.” Hydari is well known for her performances in films like “Rockstar,” “Murder 3”, “Wazir,” “Kaatru Veliyidai,” and “Padmavat.”
Aashim Gulati As Salim
Salim is Akbar’s eldest son. He is supposed to be his successor. But Salim is not interested in the throne; he would rather emerge himself in poetry, music, and women. He was not interested in undertaking any responsibility and spent his days intoxicated in alcohol or hashish until he lost all his purposes in life in Anarkali. His father gets him married to three princesses to get him back on track. Although he was efficient on the battlefield and was a compassionate man, a diligent lover, and a loyal friend, his love for Anarkali made him an exile in his father’s eyes. We leave Salim swearing revenge against his father at the end of the 10th episode, leaving room for a second season.
Aashim Gulati is excellent as Salim. He made his television debut with “Gulmohar Grand” and was also seen in “Tum Bin II”.
Taha Shah Badusha As Murad
Murad, the second child of Akbar, wants to descend his father to the throne. But his personality lacks kindness. He does not think twice before swinging his axe. He is a very competent army commander who believes that strength is the only thing that can make him an emperor. Murad grows up to be a problem for the Empire and is killed off by Abul Fazl in the end.
Taha Shah Badusha does a fantastic job as an obsessive despot. He seems to be on a different trip throughout the film, and his performance is thoroughly enjoyable. Taha Shah Badusha is best known for his work in films like “Luv Ka The End” and “Gippi.”
Subham Kumar Mehra As Daniyal Mirza
Daniyal Mirza is the youngest son of Akbar. We get to know later that Anarkali is his mother. Daniyal is a man of religion. He is effeminate and therefore believed to be unfit for the ruling. In fact, by the end of the series, he garners enough support from the courtiers to descend the throne, but through our history textbooks, we know that it was Salim who descended the Mughal throne after Akbar’s demise.
“Taj: Divided by Blood” is Mehra’s big debut, and he delivers a good performance as the vulnerable Daniyal Mirza, who ultimately emerges as the ‘man’ his father demanded him to be.
Aside from this, the show stars Rahul Bose as the rebellious Hakim Mirza. This is probably the biggest miscast. Bose, who is a natural fit for any urban drama, has difficulty rolling the Urdu lines off his tongue. But Sandhya Mridul as Jodha Bai, Zarina Wahab as Salima Begum Sultana, and Padma Damodaran as Ruqaiya Begum Sultana deliver seamless performances as Akbar’s wives. Akbar’s courtiers Birbal (played by Subodh Bhave), Badayuni (Aayam Mehta), and Abul Fazl (played by Pankaj Saraswat) deserve a special mention too.
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