Mughal-e-Azam: K Asif’s Film Reaches On-Screen Perfection Despite Off-Screen Drama | Bollywood rewind
In this weekly column, we revisit the nuggets of the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week we revisit the 1960 Mughal-e-Azam version.
It is difficult to achieve perfection in any field, let alone the cinema. There are always harsh critics who will be unhappy with certain aspects of a movie. It is, however, the universally recognized truth that K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam – if not perfect – is very close to this pinnacle of perfection. Speaking of the 1960 film starring Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Prithviraj Kapoor, Lata Mangeshkar once said to PTI: are you doing Mughal-E-Azam? ‘”
Presented as one of the most tragic love stories to take place in the cinema, the story here follows the son of Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) Salim (Dilip Kumar) who fell in love with a commoner named Nadira, who was renamed Anarkali (Madhubala) by his father. The class conflict tears them apart since he is the heir to the throne. Akbar is fiercely opposed to this game but Salim is just as stubborn. As they wage war on each other, Mughal-e-Azam becomes a story of love and duty, and how sacrificing one over the other can overturn the social structure. It is Akbar’s duty for his country on his love for his son that leads him to incarcerate Anarkali, and it is Salim’s love for her that leads him to commit treason against the throne.
It is essential to point out that Mughal-e-Azam is in fact a fictional film set in the midst of real characters. The film is based on a 1922 play named Anarkali by Imtiaz Ali Taj. The existence of Anarkali has been much debated among historians, with many pointing out that in real life she was one of Akbar’s wives and not a courtesan. Nonetheless, the story that has been immortalized on screen here is fictional, but the legend and popularity of Mughal-e-Azam has led many to believe it as a story.
While Mughal-e-Azam is remembered as a love story, one can discover by revisiting that it is, in fact, a father-son story. The father holds his head high and considers duty to his country his greatest karma, but the son believes that there is nothing more sacred than love. Looking at him in 2021, it’s obvious that Salim can’t protect Anarkali but Akbar can just execute him whenever he wants. It makes you think that if Salim is just a rich, spoiled and stubborn son of the ruler who is just upset that his father won’t let him have the wife he wants.
Mughal-e-Azam takes place in a world ruled by a powerful man and although he celebrates the aesthetic culture and beauty of this world, he also points out his flaws every step of the way. The sculptor, who sets off the events here, exists in the film to express the unjust nature of the system where the word of a sovereign is the last word of the state. At first, in one of the scenes, he tells another courtesan that no one in this society can tell the truth, because the consequences are too brutal. He explicitly says that just because two men decide to go to war, thousands of civilians die for their cause. If someone says something the king doesn’t like, ‘saza-e-maut’ is for sure. The inclusion of this character by K Asif suggests that the director was not trapped by the greatness of the Mughals but was very aware of the flaws in their society.
The film is also a constant reminder of the place of women in this society, especially someone who comes from a lower class. After the revelation of Salim and Anarkali’s love affair, she is often referred to as “Monday” over and over again, as if to remind her that she is nothing but a pretty woman who could be replaced by anybody. Of course, love is not seen with respected eyes in this world, but love with someone who is not from the same class is considered a sin.
The story of Mughal-e-Azam is a classic tale that has been reinvented in cinema at different times. The opposition of love by an authority figure has been a staple of Hindi cinema, but it is the technical genius of Mughal-e-Azam that pushes him far above the rest. The writing of the poetic dialogues of Kamal Amrohi’s film (who would later direct the star of Meena Kumari Pakeezah) is a pillar on which the film rests. The labyrinth of its lyrical dialogues draws you in and leaves you in awe of the purity of the language which operates its magic here.
Another element that elevates this cinematic extravaganza a few notches higher is the music of Mughal-e-Azam by Naushad. With lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni, the soundtrack has inspired generations and is still timeless. Based on Indian ragas and folk music, songs like “Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya”, “Mohe Panghat Pe”, “Teri Mehfil Mein”, “Ae Mohabbat Zindabad”, among others, are still considered the pinnacle of Hindi film music.
Mughal-e-Azam was originally released in black and white, with only a few full color reels, including the song “Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya” which became one of the highlights for audiences. The Sheesh Mahal taking place here left the audience in awe as the visual of Madhubala’s reflection dancing in the many mirrors of Akbar’s darbar was unheard of. The sets for the film were done with such precision that they resembled a museum and were one of the reasons for the film’s exorbitant cost and numerous production delays.
The film is known and celebrated for the stellar performances of its actors. The haunting beauty of Madhubala, the authority of Prithviraj Kapoor and the majestic arrogance of Dilip Kumar made this film a masterclass for the actors. The film was also riddled with behind-the-scenes drama. Dilip Kumar and Madhubala broke up during filming. Dilip Kumar and K Asif fell out in the end as the latter married the elder’s sister. So much so that Dilip Kumar did not even attend the very famous premiere of the film.
Mughal-e-Azam was the first film to release its digitally colored version in 2004 and decades after its original release it has still managed to woo audiences. K Asif has been an influential figure for filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali and many others who attempt to make historical era dramas.
Mughal-e-Azam may be over six decades old, but it still represents the hard work and resilience of a team that created an on-screen perfection that cannot be disputed until now.
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Mughal-e-Azam is streaming on ZEE5.
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