Prithviraj Kapoor’s towering personality and his dominating presence on the silver screen was enigmatic and left a strong impact on the audience. The veteran theatre actor was very choosy about his film roles and this resulted in him appearing in memorable roles where he gave his all. One of the most famous roles of his career was that of Emperor Akbar in K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam and for that, Kapoor immersed himself in the character.
In a 2010 interview with The Indian Express, Shammi Kapoor shared that his father Prithviraj Kapoor’s “powerful presence” and “thundering performance” made him perfect for Akbar. Shammi shared that he was often present on the set of K Asif’s magnum opus while his father was shooting the film.
Shammi Kapoor recalled, “My father got into the skin of the character by relying completely on the script and the director. He would be on the sets, sipping chai and smoking, normally attired, and Asif saab would affectionately tell him to get ready for his shot. He would enter the make-up room saying, ‘Prithviraj Kapoor ab jaa rahaa hai’ (Prithviraj Kapoor is leaving now). When ready, he would come out saying, ‘Akbar ab aa rahaa hai’ (Akbar is arriving now).”
He then proceeded to share that for the battle sequences, Prithviraj Kapoor wore real iron armour in the sweltering heat of Rajasthan. The opening scene of the film, which showed Emperor Akbar walking barefoot as he prayed for an heir was shot in a desert under the scorching sun and Kapoor ended up with blisters on his feet, but he did not compromise on the authenticity of the shot. “In the war scenes, he uncomplainingly wore the real iron armour that was so heavy. During the sequence when Akbar walks to Ajmer Sharif to pray for a son, my father actually walked barefoot in the desert sun, and his soles were full of blisters,” he said.
While Mughal-e-Azam is often remembered for its love story between Salim and Anarkali, Shammi believed that the film’s protagonist was Akbar and thus, the title of the film was Mughal-e-Azam. “Contrary to the popular perception that the film was the love story of Salim and Anarkali, Mughal-e-Azam, was about this incident in Emperor Akbar’s life, and that’s why K Asif did not title the film as Salim-Anarkali. My father Prithvirajji was the Mughal-E-Azam, the hero of the film,” he said.
Sharing another anecdote from the iconic “Jab Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya”, Shammi Kapoor said that in the sequence, Emperor Akbar was supposed to be enraged with anger reflecting in his eyes and director Asif gave him his time to get there. He said, “During Madhubala’s defiant song Jab Pyaar Kiya, the emperor’s eyes turn red with rage. My father did that sequence without glycerine. I recall Asif saab telling him to take his time and watched my father grow into that mood and his eyes turning red.”
Prithviraj Kapoor’s performance as Akbar created a benchmark for period film performances in Hindi cinema and is still considered as one of the best iterations of an emperor that we have since seen on celluloid.