Remembering the Grand Passion of K. Asif

Fifty-five years after Mughal-e-Azam was made, India still loves this great film about forbidden love.

Hindi cinema of the 1950s was quite heavily influenced by left-of-centre ideas and Nehruvian socialism. Themes like migration, the rural-urban divide, caste and gender discrimination were often preferred over the mythological or historical storylines of the previous decades. Of course, crime, comedy and romance were important subjects too, but these were invariably situated in urban-centric films that were, by definition, modern. Thus, the decade saw a range of films such as Shree 420, Jagte Raho, Awara, Do Bigha Zameen, Sujata, Chalti ka Naam Gadi, Mr and Mrs 55, Nau Do Gyarah and Baazi to mention a few. Sohrab Modi who had made highly successful ‘historical’ films like Pukar and Sikandar in the 1930s and 1940s tried during the 1950s to revive the stream with Jhaansi ki Rani in 1954 but failed miserably. Yet it was just when the decade had come to a close – in 1960, actually — that K. Asif’s epic historical film Mughal-e-Azam became one of the biggest box-office successes in India of all times.

K. Asif. From the publicity booklet of Mughal-e-Azam

K. Asif. From the publicity booklet of Mughal-e-Azam

“Mughal-e-Azam is a tribute to the imagination, hard work and lavishness of its maker,” Filmfare wrote in its review of the film soon after its release. “For its grandeur, its beauty and the performances of the artistes it should be a landmark in Indian films.” If that was the popular perception, film scholars like Eric Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy dismissed the movie as an absurd and gaudy spectacle quite undeserving of awards or recognition. Barnouw and Krishnaswamy’s book, Indian Film, remains one of the earliest attempts to write the history of Indian cinema. But theirs is an extraordinary view, one that betrays a limited understanding of Indian popular cinema and of Mughal-e-Azam itself.

The powerful performances of Madhubala, Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote, the grandeur of the sets, the lavish outdoor battle scenes, and the rich variety of Naushad’s tunes are obvious factors that are talked about repeatedly. Dilip Kumar’s acting style, thought, was a little inconsistent with the high-voltage, rhetorical style of the film. Quite often one gets the impression that he is a mere spectator in the head-on conflict between Anarkali and Akbar. His ‘underplaying’ remains awkward in some places.

What really makes Mughal-e-Azam unique is that despite its lavish mounting, the film is really just a love-story, involving the conflicts that most Indians would identify with. Romantic love is freely born amongst young people. But love-marriage is  taboo for the elders as it threatens traditional institutions, faith and practices. Romantic love invariably faces the censure of elders but it has always given the young emotional space and an uncommon energy to rebel. Given the feudal thinking on the part of even highly educated Indians, this is an ever-present theme in Indian life and therefore in Indian cinema too. This is the conflict that lies at the core of Mughal-e-Azam and this is what strikes a chord even today.

Mughal-e-Azam has been termed a historical film. The fact that it has characters like Akbar, Salim and Jodhabai who are known to history and visible on the screen in their regal ambience has constantly underlined this perception. But it is not really a historical film in the sense that Shataranj ke Khiladi and Junoon are. K. Asif was not interested in historical accuracy.

Kabhi khushi, kabhi gham

The script-structure has two outstanding features. One is the way the plot proceeds in the film. We find an alternation of happy and sad events that is brilliantly dramatic. There is a saying that sorrow follows great joy and vice versa. Indian traditional theatre understood this principle and accorded a place for it in its aesthetics as can be seen from the idea of ‘sukh-dukhkha-samanvay ‘ discussed by Bharata in his Natyashastra. If we follow the narrative right at the beginning of the film, the sequence of events illustrates this point.

The narrator – a great nation called India – introduces Akbar as the emperor with the world at his feet. However the visual that follows shortly is of a man called Akbar who is walking barefoot at high-noon in the desert all by himself. Akbar is dressed like a common pilgrim, leaving behind all of his royal paraphernalia to pray at the dargah at Ajmer sharif. This sequence is followed by a joyous one in the palace, where Jodhabai delivers a son much to the delight of everyone. Vibrant fast-paced string music expresses this feeling. Soon the joy turns to anxiety as the growing prince begins to indulge in merry-making that is unbecoming of his age as well as princely status. The emperor sends him away to a place where he would receive rigorous training and would practice a Spartan way of life far removed from the palatial life-style. Eventually he returns to his rightful place in the palace, and to his parents, as a victorious prince having won a battle. And there is joy and celebration all around. Asif keeps this rhythm going, especially during the Salim-Anarkali romance with greater and greater intensity, especially after Akbar has learnt and disapproved of it.

The second outstanding feature of the script is the characterisation. For all its grandeur and spectacle, the film is essentially a chamber drama involving only a handful of principal characters. Each of these characters is given multiple dimensions. Anarkali refers to herself as a kaneez, or slave girl, while with Salim and her near ones. But in an act of sarcastic defiance at the end, she ‘pardons’ Akbar even though he is going to be her executioner. For her mother, however, she remains Nadira. Similarly Akbar is Shahenshah, Mahabali and ‘baap’ in different situations in the film. Jodhabai is torn between being a mother, a dutiful empress and a wife hailing from Rajput lineage. Salim is perhaps the only weak link in the film. He is caught in brooding ambiguity most of the time, both as a lover and a rebellious prince and son.

While watching the conflict of the principal characters one is reminded of the Mahabharata. None of the characters are ideal, they all betray at times ordinary human feelings and failings. Different facets of each character are brought out during interactions with different individuals.

As film buffs know, the film was in the making for over ten years. The original cast of Sapru, Nargis and Chandramohan was replaced by Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Prithviraj Kapoor. Only Durga Khote continued as Jodhabai. She recalls in her autobiography that about ten truck-loads of waste film were removed after about 25 per cent of the shooting was done because of the change in actors. She recalls the sheer effort that went into the production – tailors were brought from Delhi to stitch the costumes, Hyderabadi goldsmiths made the jewellery, Kolhapuri craftsmen the crowns, Rajasthani ironsmiths fabricated the shields, swords, spears, dagger and armour, specialists from Surat-Khambayat were employed for the exquisite zardozi embroidery on the costumes while the elaborate footwear was ordered from Agra. Some of the scenes took three days to light up and up to three weeks to shoot! The filming itself took 500 working days. The estimated cost of the film was Rs.1.5 crore, an astronomical sum at the time. It was released in 150 theatres simultaneously and was, and has been, a great success ever since.

Cameraman R.D. Mathur’s greatest achievement was to maintain the consistency of lighting style throughout the film. The grim prison scenes, the bright darbar sequences, the battles, the intimate scenes between Salim and Anarkali have all been treated with equal attention to detail. The quiet intimacy of Salim and Anarkali, lit up by a candle, as well as the famous scene of their union in the garden at night have a totally different appeal.

Mathur’s work contributed a lot to the emotional tone of Asif’s cinematic canvas. The last two reels – including the famous sheesh-mahal scene — were shot in colour. The scene turned out to be unforgettable due to the song, ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya‘, Madhubala’s performance as well as the myriad images of her dancing in front of Akbar’s eyes.

No assessment of the film can be complete without acknowledging its superb music. Naushad as composer fully utilises the opportunity offered by different situations. The soulful intensity of ‘Bekas pe karam keejiye‘, the cheerful audacity of ‘Teri mehfil mein kismat aazama kar hum bhi dekhenge‘, the ecstatic ‘Prem Jogan ke‘, the melodious defiance of ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya‘ and all the other songs have become a part of every Indian’s emotional experience. In Mughal-e-Azam, a variety of voices like Lata Mangeshkar, Muhammad Rafi, Shamshad Begum and most of all, the great Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, rendered a variety of Indian musical forms like the song, qawwali and khayal.

Mughal-e-Azam was the fourth filmed version of the play Anarkali, written by Imtiyaz Ali ‘Taj’ in 1930 who set it in Lahore. ‘Taj’ himself writes that there is no historical basis to the story. K Asif and his team of writers raised the legend to the status of an epic and even history by incorporating many narrative and artistic traditions existing in Indian culture.

Anil Zankar  teaches cinema at the Film and Television Institute of India