When Ashutosh Gowariker was clocking late hours at an editing studio in Mumbai, readying the final mixed master of his new Rs40-crore film, Jodhaa Akbar, his scriptwriter and old friend Haidar Ali was preparing to write the memoirs of his departed mother Pramila, a vamp of yesteryears’ Hindi cinema. Gowariker has known Ali since his days as an actor in Aziz Mirza’s late 1980s TV serial Circus.

Around the same time, Gowariker also made an appearance at the Jaipur high court after the Rajput Sabha sued him for misrepresenting history—they said Jodha Bai, who has been portrayed as Mughal emperor Akbar’s wife in the film, was, in fact, the wife of emperor Jehangir, Akbar’s son. They demanded that the film (by UTV Motion Pictures and Ashutosh Gowariker Productions) be banned in Rajasthan.

f07a16ea-dada-11dc-a801-000b5dabf636.flvAli, though, is a content man. The credit in the Hrithik Roshan-Aishwarya Rai Bachchan starrer is the pinnacle of his career as an actor and writer. Gowariker says that Ali discussed the idea of the film soon after Lagaan (2001). Not immediately convinced, he trusted Ali’s instinct and asked him to write the story anyway. In 2005, they started writing the screenplay together.

But before that—sensing that this film was risky territory—Gowariker visited the Aligarh Muslim University, where he was told that there were no historical references to Jodha Bai, but historians such as K.L. Khurana, A.L. Srivastav and Munni Lal—all former professors at the university—mentioned Jodha Bai. “What we knew for sure was that Akbar married the daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber and Jehangir was born out of this union," Gowariker said. If we go by Wikipedia, Jodha Bai, daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber, was married to emperor Akbar in 1562. One of the greatest validations for the writer-director duo’s screenplay came from Maharani Padmini Devi of Jaipur, a direct descendant of Jodha Bai, who read the entire story and expressed her satisfaction and approval. She even flew down to Mumbai to release the music album of the film on 19 January.

Yet, it is now established that Jodha Bai isn’t the wife of Akbar in most authentic chronicles of early Mughal history. Abul Fazal’s Ain-e-Akbari and Akbarnama have no reference to Jodha Bai. Jehangir’s memoir doesn’t mention her, and neither do most seminal works of history on this era or school history textbooks. In fact, some historians say that Jodha Bai was the name of Jehangir’s wife, and she was not even born when Akbar was in his prime.

Who, then, was Jodha Bai? Are Ali and Gowariker simply reiterating a myth that has passed on as history from K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960), based on Rajasthani oral history? Doesn’t such a portrayal falsify the life and times of one of the greatest figures of Indian history?

Clearly, the only purpose of Gowariker—director of Lagaan and Swades (2004)—was to fictionalize the romance between Akbar and Jodha Bai; the film is meant to be “an epic romance" and nothing much beyond that. No history book has offered any material in that respect to Ali, who developed the relationship with his imagination. “How does a beautiful Rajput princess with military skills and a mind of her own accept a Muslim ruler as her husband when the marriage was purely for a political alliance between her father and the emperor? Being married to a Hindu myself, and having read about Akbar’s secular and humanitarian ideas since my childhood, I could develop the nuances of this relationship. That is the heart and soul of this film," Ali says.

Reluctant bride: Jodha Bai (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) resists conjugal relations with Akbar (Hrithik Roshan) in the film.

Says Prof. Irfan Habib, historian and former chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, unequivocally: “There was no historical character in Akbar’s times named Jodha Bai."

Based on all the information that has surfaced after the promos of Gowariker’s films began to air, historically, Jodha Bai is merely a representative figure. Says Abraham Eraly, author of The Last Spring (1997), a study of the lives and times of the Mughals: “One of Jehangir’s Rajput wives was named Jodh Bai, the mother of Shah Jahan. Akbar was a sexual predator in his youth, but he became quite austere later in life. But I still don’t know why the Rajput Sabha is worked up about the film. Rajput rajas were usually proud to give their daughters or sisters in marriage to Mughal emperors to establish a familial connection with the dominant power of India. It was politics as usual—religion subserved politics, one way or other, then as now."

There is only one definitive answer to the disputed question: Jodha Bai does exist in public memory, hers is perhaps an honorific name that has been passed down through folklore. Tourist guides in Agra describe Jodha Bai as Akbar’s favourite wife before they take you to Jodha Bai ka Rauza in Fatehpur Sikri—a palace immortalized in the name of Jodha Bai; a fine specimen of the fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture, complete with stone latticework and a garden.

Eventually, though, the most convincing answer will come from the film itself. Fiction is often more true than fact when its creators make the best of what they take for granted: creative licence.

(Jodhaa Akbar released in theatres on 15 February.)