I’ve lost count how many times I have seen Mughal-e-Azam (1960, completes 50 years of its release this year.). If you ask me to make a list of my favourite films, K Asif’s classic may not feature there; this film, and Pakeezah too, is something else. It’s so familiar, a familiarity born out of love and respect, it’s like visiting an old friend. I have seen it in VCD, DVD, in B&W, in colour; and I am partial to the B&W print, with dash of colour towards the end, and in the Pyar Kya... song.
Film legend says after the technology of colour prints came to India while he was halfway through the film, K Asif wanted to make the movie in colour, but it was not possible due to the escalating cost. Asif’s dream turned Technicolor in 2004 when the film was colourised and re-released in theatres. I personally don’t think, colourisation changed anything; see for example, the first conversation between Salim and Anarkali, Madhubala holding the candle, which illuminates her ethereal face, when she requests the prince, please don't steal the dream from this servant girl, — in the colour version, the scene looks brighter than it should be, I guess.
Barring perhaps ‘Sholey,’ Mughal-e-Azam is the most talked-about film the Hindi film Industry has ever produced (the word Bollywood sounds so trite in this context.). So, what’s the allure of the film. In a recent newspaper article, film writer Nasreen Munni Kabir discusses the poetry of the Urdu dialogues of the film, and how four different writers came together to create an epic screenplay on which the epic film was mounted. Each line in the film resonates with poetry. For some other film, this poetic quality would have marred its appeal.
Consider this, the plot of the film is melodramatic enough, it’s a costume drama, retelling a story that everyone knows, and now, if you start sprouting poetry, it’s the perfect way to alienate your audience. But not Mughal-e-Azam. Asif’s blockbuster becomes a genre in itself. This is largely due to the acting calibre of the cast, and the earnest seriousness of the way the story is told.
For Asif, the Mughal period, and his characters, are not a vehicle to tell a love story, they are the very reason why he chose to tell the tale. Hence, when you hear the film myths like Madhubala had to wear real chains in the prison, Dilip Kumar had to wear shoes made of gold, the amount of money spent on creating the Sheesh mahal and so on, you believe in them. For Asif, it’s not storytelling, but creating the grandeur of an age gone by. And, he did not do it for historic accuracy, but to feed the mass imagination, and how he succeeds. (For example, compare the costume of B R Chopra’s Mahabharata and Shyam Benegal’s Bhatat Ek Khoj).
And the poetry: I can start the film at any moment and just listen to them: How they speak in flowery images, and with such pride. Legend says Madhubala and Dilip Kumar had an affair during the filming, hence the love scenes between them has such fire, such intensity. But, how about Prithviraj Kapoor, and Durga Khote, and Ajit.
At one level, each major characters in the film are types: proud father, loving mother, headstrong son, loyal friend, and so on, yet how the actors embody the roles, and how the screenplay foregrounds them, their types become characters themselves.
Writing about the film, on the occasion of its 50 years of release, filmmaker Imtiaz Ali (of Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal) explains in detail how the film set the benchmark for romance in Hindi films. This is true: The types fleshed out in Mughal-e-Azam becomes archetypes, something to be replicated tirelessly. For example, the oppressive father, the final hurdle in the romance, and so on.
Another prominent archetype that the film creates is the role played by Ajit (who later become popular as “Sara Shehar mujhe Lion ke naam se janta hai”), Durjan Singh. He is a loyal friend, who may not agree with the prince’s choice of consort, but will protect her for his prince, even at the risk of his life. Ajit gets the chance to boast about the Rajput blood, another motif used endlessly in Hindi films. It was thanks to the charm, strength and contrast that Ajit’s character provided, we made the role of the hero’s friend a permanent fixture. Here are the ground rules: He has to be from a different religion from the hero. He must have his faith and convictions, but also should have unflinchingly loyal. Finally, before the film ends, he must die. The best example comes to mind is the Chunkey Pandey character in ‘Tezaab’; he gets the best song, and all the sympathies.
And the dialogues. Oh, the dialogues. The candle scene I mentioned earlier. The conversation after the qawwali, when Salim offers the twig of the flower to Anarkali, and she says, my luck, the thorn does not fear of withering away (katon ko murhjane ki khauf nahi hota). The showdown between father and son: “Tumhe Anarkali ko bhulna hoga.” And finally, Anarkali’s final sacrifice. She wants to be the malikah of Hindustan for a day, because the prince wanted so. She faces Akbar like an equal, she’s no longer scared: She says: “Ab janaze ko rukshat ki ijazat de,” and says: “And for all the goodwill, this servant girl forgives the emperor for her murder.” The emperor had found his match.
And the dramatic setpieces. The balance of justice. The human statue. The Pyar kya to darna kya song and Madhubala’s reflection on the glass pieces. The war. And my favourite scene: Akbar is informed that Salim is spending time with a servant girl. He enters the palace. As his name is announced, Anarkali is scared. She tries to run and hide. As Anarkali tries to run, she comes face to face with the emperor. She turns and runs towards Salim. She flings herself into Salim, as if she would enter into his heart and hide there forever. But the shock is too much, and she loses consciousness. As she falls, the pearl string breaks and the pearls the prince was wearing scatter all over. Someone’s heart breaks at that precise moment. Whose heart? Whose heart?
And, Jab raat hai itni matwali...to subah ka alam kya hoga// When the night is so intoxicating, what will the morning bring...//