The Romance of Jodhaa-Akbar and Gowariker’s Quest…

(this piece first appeared on NG..and I have also included segments from an ensuing discussion)

Jodhaa-Akbar is a reasonably compelling though often frustrating example of missed opportunities. It is a film in which Ashutosh Gowariker once again after Swades combines sincerity with less than stellar helmsmanship. But where Swades ultimately generated a degree of emotional momentum to tide over the movie’s abstractions Jodhaa-Akbar largely forsakes the former and creates a patchwork of episodic segments that mostly engage but do not cohere into a sustained narrative arc. The director combines an unusual number of genres from historical romance to epic to fairy tale fantasia to even bourgeois Bollywood tropes of the recent past and perhaps attempts an upmarket Manmohan Desai effort without any of that master masala director’s ability to stitch together the most disparate narrative strands across his movie’s space and time. If Jodhaa-Akbar is an uneasy mix of genres Gowariker as the quester is somewhat unaware of the full dimensions of his journey. Both Swades and Jodhaa-Akbar suggest a director who is interesting but who has in both instances attempted ‘loose, baggy’ films that are far from the heights of his Lagaan.

At the heart of the film there is an intimate drama, a kind of chamber-piece that is as often a charming tale of courtship as it is a more dramatic one of inner palace intrigue. This is the ‘genre’ Gowariker should have focused on. Instead he errs by trying to do too much. This is also a history of the young Akbar except that the history is greatly falsified. Events pertaining to Akbar’s later life and really coming after a radical transformation in his thought are transposed to the Emperor’s youthful period. This is a ‘message film’ as well holding up a mirror to contemporary Indian intolerance and to an extent this ‘artifice’ allows the director the opportunity to present Akbar as always being a secular paragon and in general a rather benign ruler. This approach becomes problematic for a film that strives to be taken seriously as ‘history’ at many levels. Leaving this aside the rest of the historical narration in the film sometimes struggles to find a balance between history as an empirical matter and the mythologized past.

On another level the fairy tale leanings of the film where an emperor battles his opponent on the battlefield in the manner of ancient gladiators (assuredly owing something to Hollywood efforts like Gladiator and Troy), where he disguises himself as a commoner and mingles with his subjects to determine the true state of his subjects, alluding to an important Arabian Nights trope, or interrupts the courts he convenes when stirred by devotional music liltingly sung by his royal consort, or even whirls with his dervishes to a different kind of mystical melody, all of this and more really points to another strand of the work that is again at odds with the rest of the parts.

And if the film is an epic it’s a very loosely ordered one, a rather chaotic one even where concentrated action that is the lifeblood of the genre is often diluted by way of the film’s other voices. Almost as importantly the director does not have adequate technical resources at his disposal and at key ’spectacle’ points a sense of the ‘fake’ pervades the proceedings. A good example would be the battle-scenes that are neither ‘choregraphed’ imaginatively nor handled with special effects finesse. From a distance the troops become the kind of blur in which poorly done CGI can instantly be spotted. The same holds for canon balls that offer unlikely projectile speeds and paths. The famed Mughal elephants are rather lethargic creatures that seem to be picked out of the local underfunded zoo. The elephant Akbar fights looks especially old and uninterested in the contest. There is almost no blood in the battle sequences with the rare exception of these elephants sometimes stomping on someone’s head and a flash of red being very briefly visible on the screen. The manner in which the troups entangle is also very amateurishly handled. The troup formations sometimes look impressive in the wide angle shot. This is especially true towards the end when the armies march in a white desert vastness. But as the camera moves into the action the promise of those shots is quickly lost.

The same is also true for the East Asian-inspired sword-fights in the film that are again rather poorly executed with the participants often appearing ungainly (Hrithik’s natural athleticism saves him greatly). Only the climactic one on one combat presents itself with a degree of conviction and is interesting to follow in terms of the action.

It is necessary to highlight here what seems to be a truly strange decision on Gowariker’s part to punctuate his film at various points with the use of wipes. As a cinematic device the wipe at the present time always suggests an anachronistic element in the film and when directors use it on occasion they always do so in very self-conscious ways that serve the purpose of the film. But no such goal is evident in Jodhaa-Akbar. Gowariker is simply using the device as it was being used some decades ago.

It is particularly strange to see events transpire in Akbar’s life that seem to be out of the Bhansali playbook. In effect the emperor confronts the Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam ethos and before long he is being treated to vegetarian thalis (Jodhaa having taken over the kitchen), forced to identify his empress among a group of similarly clad and similarly veiled women, even suffering the ultimate indignity of not being able to consummate his marriage for the longest time in an effort to truly win his empress’s heart before he can treat himself to her body. This is an old Hindi film opposition. That it is as old as Akbar one might not have surmised.

Gowariker might have avoided many of these problems ranging from the implausible to the faintly ridiculous by simply sticking to the title of his film and bringing about a work along the lines of an Anne of the Thousand Days. The latter is not a history of Henry VIII. It simply concerns his relations with Anne Boleyn and whatever ‘history’ is available in the film is handled in a very tangential manner as backdrop. To a great extent this is also the ‘method’ in Becket where friendship, betrayal and responsibility are principal themes and these are set forth by way of a more personal story that expands into a larger than life history. There is even the example of Lawrence of Arabia where the ‘biopic’ offers possibilities of guiding an audience through a history without ever risking the impersonal. All these and a few more options could have been used profitably by the Gowariker. But the latter takes up the smorgasbord approach and loses the plot.

The point that should be stressed here is that the viewer often suspends judgment watching the film and many of the episodes criticized above are almost always entertaining in their own right. But as the film progresses the moments do not add up, do not always connect to what has preceded them in very immediate ways. This is not a bad film by any stretch, just one that misses its calling. An intimate drama would have given Gowariker the best opportunities to build on the innate charisma of his leads. The director could have had his ‘fabled’ romance and more. This mode is in any case what his film is really about. It is not about Akbar’s history, even the secular message though otherwise useful in these troubled times is nonetheless a bit tame and certainly not explored enough. There are very few examples of Akbar’s policies in the film. For the most part it is ‘about’ just a heart-warming emperor called Akbar who’s basically ‘nice’ and therefore is drawn to ‘nice’ measures. An Akbar who more or less finds ‘empire’ to be a distraction that needs to be taken care of as events arise before him, who is always more fascinated with wooing Jodha. All of this would have been acceptable if Gowariker had found the appropriate bearings for his tale.

In some ways this is Hrithik Roshan’s most endearing role. He gets the rare chance to play a character where he can use his physical gifts and inherent likability as a screen presence across a range of emotions. He is more real as a character here than in just about any other film of his. The problem however is that this character is not Akbar. It is not a question of historical verisimilitude. It is not even about Hrithik conforming to the image of the ‘received’ Akbar (even if this itself in undoubtedly a failing as well) but a question of the actor being wholly unable to suggest the essence and enigma of the regal. Akbar (or any comparable sovereign) is not only about charisma on screen or rather an emperor as gifted as Akbar or one whose historical impact is as permanent as Akbar’s is a challenge for any actor and only a truly gifted one could even begin confronting the challenge. Gowariker by his own admission used the Amar Chitra Katha series on Akbar as inspiration and it is therefore not surprising to find an Akbar in his film who is really the matinee idol of his empire. In the film’s equation, whatever Hrithik represents in his Krrish or Dhoom 2 outings to most cinema goers is what Akbar must have been about in his day. As long as one can admire Hrithik the star one might also understand Akbar as a young man. This conceit is not an invalid one as long as the film in question is a fairy tale of even a historical romance of sorts. A world where kings and queens often represent folklore and Bardic traditions and the thrills of quest romance more than objective or verifiable history. But Jodhaa Akbar is only very intermittently that film. As the work stands Hrithik is really playing a character which does not even remotely approach the possible representation of Akbar or for that matter any such royal figure. He just lacks the essential gravitas for the part and ultimately the role far exceeds his capabilities as an actor. One ventures this judgment with some trepidation before an audience and critical culture that is very often unable to separate the effective star signature on screen from notions of good acting. In the final analysis it is great fun to watch Hrithik in the film but a king he is not.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan fares much better in her part mostly because she does not have the same historical burden to deal with. At the same time this is just a tad unfair to her because she has in recent years developed a surprising ability to complement her star signature with just the right reticence as a performer to produce interesting quieter effects. The latter might not rank very highly on a scale of pure performance but the impact is often potent on screen and especially so when she works opposite strong male costars. She is right for the part of Jodhaa and in many ways is the soul of the film far more than Akbar precisely because she gets the audience closer to a sense of a her historical character than does Hrithik.

The rest of the cast has in almost all instances been well selected and Gowariker has specifically done a good job getting actors who seem to be comfortable with his pristine Urdu and Hindi dialog even if one wishes that the director had really stuck to the ‘Hindustani’ lingua franca throughout the work and enhanced the film’s appeal. Special mention must be made of Ila Arun who is magnetic in her brief role and is also one of the most convincing actors in terms of her diction (barring of course the narrator, Amitabh Bachchan!). It should also be highlighted here that Hrithik has definitely worked hard on his diction and does a fair job though he still does not speak the language like a ‘native’, a feature that stands out in a film where many other actors do. Again Aishwarya has the easier job in this regard as the Rajput princess who speaks more ‘Hindustani’ than Hrithik.

The music complements the film without ever becoming a major attraction. It is a subdued Rahman effort for that most part, quite in sync with the film but unwisely Gowariker breaks up the songs more often than not basically blurring the distinction between the songs and the background score. This works in some ways for the narrative but dilutes the impact of the songs. The background score itself is surprisingly not a great effort by Rahman though to the extent he uses cues a la Guru from the actual songs he offers effective transitions at various points. It must be noted here (and this is more to the credit of the director) that for all the relative implausibility of the sequence the moment where the reprise of the bhajan wafts through Akbar’s court proceedings completely distracting the emperor is a charming one.

No discussion of Jodhaa-Akbar would be complete without commenting on the gorgeous sets. This is easily the film’s strongest feature, the one that most rewards viewing on the big screen. The sets look like labors of love and suggest great authenticity. It is just unfortunate that barring stray shots here and there these are rarely supported by the right kind of cinematographic imagination. One thinks however of certain moments in the song Azeem-o-shaan where there are some very nice visual cues even if not consistently so.

When all is said and done it could be argued that Gowariker’s single greatest achievement lies in his imagining of an India where there is a relative fluidity across Muslim and Hindu boundaries. The secular message in its didactic form is relatively bland but the implied one in Gowariker’s larger mosaic is much more inspiring and even sincere. This is not a world where the Hindu-Muslim divide dominates even if it is clearly an important fault-line. It is an ethos where other tensions and divides are as crucial. The director does not necessarily spell out the latter but the film’s world is populated richly enough to provide more than a hint of that culture’s syncretism. Conversely his greatest failure is his inability to create a more emotionally resonant film and rescue a story that often gets tedious given the length of the film.

Jodhaa-Akbar is authentically realized in many ways. The preceding discussion is not meant to be criticism in a negative sense. The length of the piece in fact suggests that there is a great deal in the work to engage with. The disappointment expressed here at many levels is borne out of the sense that the director could have created a film for the ages here. Nonetheless this is a rare genuine film and one everyone should engage with.

[as an aside I remember not being completely satisfied with Mangal Pandey when that film released. However I did see it twice and I am quite sure I could not see JA again. MP offered an uneasy balance of meaningful cinema and the demands of commercial parameters. Nonetheless it is a richer film than JA on many levels and moreover one where the lead star, Aamir Khan, is more successfully able to weather the film’s somewhat uncertain narrative compared to Hrithik Roshan in JA. Reviewings of Mangal Pandey are always rewarding. I suspect this is not true of JA. I should say finally that to my mind Gowariker’s relative failures in Swades and JA confirm more than ever the strong ‘authorial’ presence of Aamir Khan in Lagaan, a film which is deceptive in many ways]

[On the question of hrithik’s performance I would not necessarily disagree that this is the best performance I’ve seen from him. But I don’t find it his best performance relative to the part. This is not to be unfair to him. He is better in some moments compared to others on that ‘royalty’ index I’ve been referring to. But when I see a Prithviraj Kapoor in MeA I am persuaded at that representation of Akbar (of course it’s the old Akbar there). Hrithik is still too ‘contemporary’ to suggest a character from a totally different era.]

Discussion
Satyam

[I also found issues with MP as I mentioned but the split to my mind is this. Knowing a bit about the history of the period in each instance I find MP interesting to revisit for some of the political insights offered. In JA there is nothing that surprises me in a similar sense. There are a few good moves by Gowariker for sure but his liberalism though welcome is still mostly tame and not especially thought-provoking. MP offers a more complex tapestry and it doesn’t get all of it right. But it’s more suggestive. Just take the very simple example of a kotha reserved for British officers. It wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that this was ever true. But it was. It gives the film a kind of edge to have a famed Indian actress dancing for white officers and Mangal Pandey seething outside for a thematically related reason. There are other such moments in the film. For example the indictment of corporations by way of the East India company. It’s not just an indictment of the British here but one of capitalist logic. One could multiply these examples. I just didn’t find anything comparably interesting in JA.]

[If I were making this film I would have made Akbar the more complex character that he was. The period that is being represented in the film is one where Akbar was really a ‘holy warrior’ and quite happy making war as in the name of Islam. He had a radical change of heart later. But it would have made for a more interesting arc to start out by showing Akbar as a kind of ‘marauder’ and then his subsequent conversion and so forth. The Jodhaa story could have operated alongside this. I think it would have made for a richer film, would certainly have allowed more of the politics to be incorporated, but also would have give the film a very focused storyline.]

[This is what I’ve been trying to suggest:

1)To the extent that there is an ‘image’ of Akbar in Indian memory that is minimally informed by the history (which is not to get into the scholarly apparatus dealing with his achievements) Hrithik does not conjure up this figure.

2)But Hrithik’s own performance would be acceptable in a different kind of film, one that was only an Errol flynn or Douglas Fairbanks version of Akbar. Perhaps it would also have been fine if the film had only been the Private Life of Akbar.

3)But to the extent that Hrithik is playing a character I find him more ‘real’ than in any of his other films where he’s been very much a ’surface’ actor. Doing everything ‘right’ but never suggesting any depth. He has some real impact moment in JA for sure but the performance could have fit into a number of films rather easily. It’s not really ‘Akbar-specific’. Now I will say this, I think that the challenge of playing this character allows Hrithik to get outside his comfort zone to some degree. In other words I saw more sincerity from him here than I have ever before, certainly not since the earlier portions of KNPH. So I do see a glimmer here that I hadn’t before and perhaps Hrithik should do these kinds of challenging roles more often (not just period pieces of course).

I will ultimately say this. I found Hrithik charismatic on screen in an authentic sense here, something that wasn’t true for me in any of his earlier efforts. Here Gowariker also deserves credit for handling Hrithik in appropriate fashion. There are scenes where Hrithik could have preened quite a bit but he always manages to be human enough and dare I say vulnerable enough. In an odd sense it is precisely his failure to come up with an authentic portrayal of Akbar (something that would correlate with the image of Akbar as I keep terming it) that makes for a very endearing persona, and a successful outing as actor for Hrithik. I doubt whether he’d be able to hold on to this balance for any of his more regular films.

I find it appalling that some people have suggested that we must not ask whether Hrithik is like Akbar but whether Akbar could have been like Hrithik! There are miserable depths to such a framing that I cannot even begin to plumb but in any case Hrithik certainly had greater humility than to imagine this. and to this degree I must say I was pleasantly surprised.]

[The specific point NY Times refers to in terms of the intercutting is probably fair too even if I found nothing too out of the ordinary here. My favorite moment in this regard is still towards the end. But more than this I am surprised that the Times did not mention the use of wipes. Rohan Sippy did something very smart in BM where he wanted to use a wipe but didn’t and had a double decker run across the screen. This looks exactly like a wipe but isn’t. One of the film’s many clever moves. But getting back to JA I will say this. I think barring the sets the film is really quite overrated in all technical departments but especially cinematography. With Deohans at the helm here it is a little surprising but then he hasn’t quite lived up to the promise of Aks in any case. I think most Indian reviewers tend to confuse a large scale film or impressive visuals with good camerawork. What we see on screen is more often than not impressive. The detail in terms of set design, the authenticity in this sense, and so forth are all very commendable. This is really the film’s strongest suit. But you don’t get Lagaan-like camerawork here. And again I’m not trying to suggest Lagaan is any kind of summa in these terms but it is often very good.]

Qalandar
I see your point that perhaps in certain situations one should attempt the more “personal” sort of historical (Anne of the Thousand Days; Beckett; etc.). However, note that this also results in the problem of peddling a naive and dangerous sort of politics: that x or y happens solely because A or B was a good guy. Thus, using your e.g., on this view Beckett is largely about a friendship that turns sour, rather than what I would see as a better Beckett film: the strained relationship between Henry II and Thomas Beckett symbolizing the Church’s attempts to shake off royal control (or, perhaps more interestingly, the monarchy’s attempts to create a “national” church, one more locally accountable than a centralized one tied to Rome? i.e. a precursor of Henry VIII’s split?).* And Lawrence of Arabia becomes “about” not the Arab revolt against the waning Ottoman Empire, but what a cool guy T.E. Lawrence was. To a certain extent — based purely on your review — it seems that Gowariker is too smart to go this route (even if he hasn’t completely gone the opposite route).

My reference to Beckett above was purely for illustrative purposes. This is in fact a very good film, in the way that British historicals tended to be — often stagey, dialogue-intensive, and utterly lacking in visual verve, and superbly acted. However, it is hard to imagine better examples of the craft of dialogue writing than something like Beckett, where the dialogs are utterly accessible to the modern ear and never implausible in the mouth of a Henry II or a Beckett, both memorably played, by Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, respectively. Few historicals strike the balance between “personal” and “political” as well as this, and Mukherjee’s Namak Haraam has always seemed to me to be a remake of this.

Satyam
[Your entire point on Beckett and Lawrence is well taken. It’s certainly one I’m in agreement with. The reason I suggested these examples is because it seems to me that given the sort of film Gowariker was attempting a more successful (on my terms) JA would have been closer to a Beckett or an Anne of the Thousand Days. I also believe that this ‘genre’ (if you will) makes for a successful film more easily than the historical that tries to do both. Mangal Pandey is in fact a film that tries to have it both ways (there is no mixing of genres here like JA) and is not able to close the gap or better still successfully build on the tension implied by doing both at once.

Historical events might be dramatic ones without necessarily corresponding to the dramatic story of an individual. So Mangal pandey lives through exciting times but how he gets to that climactic point is another matter. Leaving aside the issue of how legendary the story has become doing the biopic in MP is considerably trickier than doing the history as such. Because when the director is focusing on the tribulations of MP he’s moving away from the larger historical strands and when he’s doing the latter Mangal Pandey doesn’t seem to be part of the proceedings.

To be fair I am unsure whether such a film is completely possible. I would be hard pressed to think of too many Western examples that do this successfully. Cromwell is perhaps not a bad example. But here the director has the advantage of a good historical narrative but also interesting characters in Charles and Cromwell who can be juxtaposed. It’s easier to do this with politically significant characters if the history is dramatic enough since the key players are then closely tied to such a history. The same goes for Lawrence. This is harder to do with an MP.]

21 Responses to “The Romance of Jodhaa-Akbar and Gowariker’s Quest…”

  1. A note I made on JA some time back on NG:

    “I did finally see this last night. A bit late in the game here but once one gets past the first half hour or so this film really moves and gets quite involving. There’s so much unnecessary (or at least poorly executed) setup and Gowariker continues to have problems with developing a storytelling style that has any real economy. But as the story pushes forward these issues become less problematic. Overall, I believe this is a far better film than Swades.

    Hrithik’s best work, needless to say. Nothing new for Aishwarya, really, she does what she does best. Buried inside a lot of the plot’s bloat is a really noble (if idealistic) story of inter-religious understanding (not just romance) that is perhaps the most resonant and admirable aspect of the film. Moments where Jodha learns Urdu script or where Akbar watches a Hindu prayer or tries a different kind of cuisine speak to more than just solid attempts at matrimonial harmony. Historical accuracy becomes almost secondary in the face of such good intentions, even if it comes from a somewhat “bloodless” fable.”

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    • Fine set of thoughts here GF. Don’t believe I saw these earlier. I would take Swades over this though. JA is possibly the better film and more compelling as pure narrative. Certainly it trumps Swades in terms of aesthetics. But Swades remains the truer and more affecting film to my mind. But again your concise thoughts on this are nonetheless super!

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  2. Speaking of Hrithik there’s a rumor that he might be doing Imtiaz ali’s film after the director gets done with his current Saif starrer (which incidentally looks promising for that genre.. Saif plays a Sikh character).

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  3. I’ve been meaning to revisit Swades, though to be honest I’d really need to find the stamina (and time) to do this. I’m curious about the film at this point because I don’t think I found it nearly as moving as many people I know have. There are some fine moments for sure, but I think whatever emotional connect I could have formed with the characters was severed under the weight of narrative bloat. Perhaps a second viewing will offer a corrective.

    JA gets the storytelling down better, even if I didn’t care much for the characters barring Hrithik’s Akbar. I think the actor does a fine job of looking the part without suggesting the part, if that makes sense. And I think his scenes of rage showed a little more authenticity than similar attempts in the past. JA gets done in a bit by the technique, by the way – I agree with Satyam here that it’s overrated on this count. There was almost no sense of gusto and epic energy in some of the crucial scenes of action, (both dramatic and literal) which really worked against how good the film could have been.

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  4. But the whole “Hrithik’s best performance” thing I’d revise at this point after having seen Luck By Chance. JA remains perhaps his best lead work, but LBC had him in a role, where, for the first time, I didn’t think another actor could have done better.

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    • I could possibly agree but would qualify it this way (and this is part of a longer comment on LBC):

      “The contemporary stars appear in self-parodying representations though even here there are inconsistencies. Karan Johar and SRK for example are quite ‘normal’. Hrithik of course because of his role is the best illustration of the self-parodying formula and I would agree that his role works (even if I think this is for reasons less than flattering to the star.. in other words there is not much that separates this ostensible parody from his ’straight’ representations in earlier films”

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      • I see where you’re coming from, and there is a certain amusing truth to this, even though I’ll give Hrithik more credit…he felt looser, more believable in this film, which had him pitched very well between parody and some level of authenticity.

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  5. HR did a fab job here in my opinion.
    Loved JA. But agree with GF.Worked more as a love story and a little less so as an epic.

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  6. Can we ban people from Satyamshot for not having seen JA ? One name immediately comes to mind.

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    • LOL! I do agree that the gentleman in question has stretched things beyond the ridiculous at this point! Even the DVD has been out for months!

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  7. Hi Satyam,
    I used to read a lot of your posts on naachgaana and enjoyed it. Now it seems you have a site of your own.Congratulations on your site, I hope it does well.

    I have not visited naachgaana for quite some time and I am not up to date with recent developments.

    So, what happened why did you leave and start your own site.

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    • Thanks much for your wishes and your interest..

      I have not left NG as such.. I just felt that some of my interests could be better served this way.. but all of this doesn’t preclude my appearing on NG..

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  8. jayshah Says:

    I prefer Swades too. Jodha akbar had its moments but it was also a bit tepid in places. Also prefer the songs in Swades.

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  9. JA soundtrack is far better IMO. Dunno what Jay and Satyam are smokin……..

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  10. ideaunique Says:

    JA’s ST is fantastic – man mohana, khwaja, jashn-e-bahara,in lamho ke……all too good. Swades? – ? – ? 🙂

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  11. omrocky786 Says:

    I am in the market to buy JA blue Ray ?? any one !!

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  12. BTW, I especially appreciated your discussion of the wipes. They were used so frequently it produced quite an odd effect: I didn’t know whether to admire Gowariker’s chutzpah (imagine using them “straight” at this late date) or throw my hand up in bewilderment…

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