Mainstream Indian cinema has developed a genre that is perhaps unique in the world. Now called the ‘Bollywood’ film, it is marked by musical interludes in the narrative, theatrical acting, dramatic dialogue, plots with impossible coincidences, and an almost religious adoration of romantic love. To truly understand Bollywood, we must know that it is a genre, with its particular elements, just like the film noir, or the action film, or the romantic comedy, all of which have their own specific elements, each film of the genre being a unique constellation of these elements.

In 1944, a 22-year old man called Asif Karim (or K. Asif, as he is now best known), having made one film, set out to make his next project. It would not be a film meant solely for the purpose of telling a story or of moving its audience – it would be a film meant for the glorification of the Bollywood genre. It aimed to state, once and for all, the highest possibilities of all the elements of this genre, and hence become the best film in this category the world had ever seen, and perhaps, as Asif dreamed, remains the best after half a century of its release. The film is Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal).

K. Asif on the sets of Mughal-e-Azam

Stories about the enormous pains taken to make Mughal-e-Azam abound. The first lead actor died and when the country was partitioned, the film’s financier migrated from Bombay to Pakistan, forcing Asif to look new sources of funding. The film took 16 years to make, being by far the most expensive film ever made in India at the time, and ran to full houses for three years. Great masters of Indian classical music and dance, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Lachhu Maharaj respectively, worked for the film at a time when the world of classical artists looked down upon cinema as unsophisticated and indecent.

Asif got a story well-suited for his ends. In the mid-fifteenth century, the Mughal crown prince Saleem (an implosive Dilip Kumar), the only son of Emperor Akbar (the great Prithviraj Kapoor, in one of the best remembered roles in Indian film history), falls in love with a court-dancer called Anarkali (Madhubala, her face glowing with both beauty and sorrow). The emperor and empress cannot see a mere court-dancer as the future Empress of India. Tremendous clashes between father and son follow, both in words and in battle, ending in a tragic victory of power and duty over love and youth.

This simple story-line provides ample potential to showcase grand – and indeed, grandiose – architecture, dialogue that borders on highly refined poetry, extreme melodrama, philosophical ruminations over love, power and destiny, and absolutely beautiful song and dance, all ensconced in the Urdu speaking culture of North India. To showcase reality was never Asif’s project, and what he succeeds in doing is to make a film that glorifies film itself, a film that is the quintessential Bollywood film, celebrating all the elements that constitute this genre.

One of the most memorable aspects of the film is its music. The scholar Philip Lutgendorf writes that the penultimate song, pyaar kiya to darna kya, unfolds as a ‘mind-blowing epiphany’, and that is as apt a description as one can have for this song and its enactment. The voice of Lata Mangeshkar, at her very best, echoes through the spaces of Akbar’s palace as Anarkali fearlessly expresses her love for Saleem, declaring to the emperor that for one who fears God, there is no fear of mere men (parda nahi jab koi khuda se, bando se parda karna kya..’). The song ends with Akbar ordering Anarkali’s arrest, and she leaves for prison accompanied by the emperor’s guard. But as Anarkali passes by Akbar, the court-dancer turns to the emperor, bows down, and raises her hand to her forehead three times in the traditional salaam gesture. The first lines of the song – pyaar kiya to darna kya – resound in the background. While the gesture is one of deference to the emperor, anyone who has watched this scene knows that the one whose persona emanates enormous dignity and self-respect in this scene is Anarkali.

Much has been said about the melodramatic ambience of Mughal-e-Azam, but the finely subtle undercurrent of the film is often ignored. Perhaps the best example of this is the almost five minute long sequence where Saleem romances Anarkali, and in the background plays a classical raga (in the voice of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan), with the words ‘prem jogan ban ke..’. For the entire five minute sequence, there is no dialogue. We see Anarkali and Saleem in one of the beautiful spaces of the palace, as Saleem strokes Anarkali’s face with a large feather and then the two embrace each other, while Anarkali’s rival watches secretly from a distance. The beautiful classical raga in the background and the gentle romance in the foreground come together seamlessly, creating a fine blend of high art and subtle eroticism, all without a single word spoken.

I have not seen any film sequences where Hindustani classical music is employed so naturally, yet creatively, on film. Andrei Tarkovsky directed sequences in his films to Western classical music in a similar manner, and in these moments of Mughal-e-Azam, Asif would find himself at home in the company of some of the greats of world cinema like Tarkovsky and Kubrick. At least at a handful of other places in the film, Asif displays a similar capacity for subtle brilliance that expresses itself in a manner that is truly cinematic – that is, not merely as a filmed version of theatre, or a moving painting, but true cinema that captures the passage of precious moments without feeling the need to introduce a gimmick to keep the audience hooked.

Perhaps something must be said about Mughal-e-Azam’s vision of an India where Hindus and Muslims live together in friendship, as is clearly evident in the charming mix of characters who constitute its world. The Muslim emperor Akbar, when going to war, receives blessings and rituals for success from both a Muslim and a Hindu priest. He is married to a Hindu princess, Jodha Bai, whose devotion to Krishna is amply celebrated in the film and whose pure but simple Hindi is a delightful change from rest of the dialogue, which is in highly sophisticated Urdu. The commander of Akbar’s armies is the Hindu  Man Singh, whose son Durjan is the trusted aide of prince Saleem, and eventually lays down his life for him.

Seeping with dramatic excess, Mughal-e-Azam relates to little, if anything in the ordinary, personal lives of most of us. Yet, it moves us, touches us, and most of all, holds us awe-struck with its brilliant vision. It is one of those few films that you love if you love cinema itself.

Mughal-e-Azam was released in 1960 and K. Asif died 11 years later at the relatively young age of 49, not having completed another film after this. Looking at the enormity of his accomplishment, some have poetically remarked that Asif was born for the sole purpose of making Mughal-e-Azam. One may not enter such speculations, but I do truly believe that when Asif directed the song ‘pyaar kiya to darna kya’, he meant much more than just romantic love. I believe that he meant love as a passionate commitment to any purpose and that fear must not keep us from searching for commitment, wherever we are. Mughal-e-Azam is an expression of Asif’s own passion for cinema as he saw it, which was the cinema of the Bollywood genre.

~ by tdcatss on July 18, 2012.

2 Responses to “Mughal-e-Azam”

  1. Kaif: Another awesome piece about one of the greatest movies of all time. Loved reading it; just a thought: do you think Lagaan matched it in the same genre or came a close second? :-)

  2. thanks abhilash!

    i really liked lagaan but i liked mughal-e-azam more. i think lagaan is different in the sense that it is not so consciously concerned about glorifying the genre, like mughal-e-azam is, or even films like pakeezah, or veer zaara, are, which seem to celebrate a certain kind of filmmaking.

    but you’re right, lagaan is a wonderful film :)

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