K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam is a film like no other. The mural-sized masterpiece routinely tops the ‘Greatest Bollywood Films’ list, so much so that we sometimes take it for granted – just like a wise elder in the family who suddenly finds himself out-youthed. Thankfully, Mughal-E-Azam, as old, well-adulated and admirably relevant as it is, has not been banished to the ‘old age home’ yet, a fate inevitable to many classics. But then, K Asif’s magnum opus, released in 1960 after much delay and losses, is no ordinary classic. It’s a classic of classics. The film, a fictional history depicting the star-crossed love story between Mughal prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) and the enigmatic court dancer Anarkali (Madhubala), is an epitome of historical opulence, romantic lyricism and big-scale megalomania that makes it an epic of the kind that Hindi cinema had never seen before – or since.
Based on a 1920s play by Urdu dramatist Imtiaz Ali Taj, Mughal-E-Azam’s greatest legacy lies in its dramatic plot, poetic dialogue, memorable acting and grand vision of its makers. Undoubtedly, music has also helped its legacy in a significant way. Diehard fans agree that it’s a near-perfect film, but so is Naushad’s score and the soundtrack which is equally flawless and divine, an album of Mozartian power and scale. If the screen line-up of Prithviraj Kapoor (as the upstanding and just emperor Akbar), Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, Durga Khote and Ajit gives you goosebumps wait till you hear the legends fronting the music credits. There’s Naushad as composer, Shakeel Badayuni on lyrics and Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Shamshad Begum on playback. Not to mention the small but significant contribution from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. It is rumoured that the maestro had, at first, declined the Mughal-E-Azam offer because those days (perhaps, as true today as then) classical doyens looked down upon films. But K Asif was persistent. Apparently, just to get rid of the single-mindedly obsessed filmmaker, Khan had demanded an absurdly astronomical fee for the assignment (no less than Rs 25,000 at a time when Rafi and Lata’s price was about Rs 400 per song). Unfazed, Asif readily agreed. Their collaboration resulted in two songs, both sung by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. “Prem jogan ban ke” in raga Sohini captures the heady romance between Anarkali and Salim while the raga Rageshree-inspired “Shubh din aayo” hums in the background as the prodigal son returns, instantly spreading cheer and happiness in the Mughal kingdom.
Anarkali as agent of dissent
However, going purely by the audience choice, “Pyaar kiya toh darna kya” remains the film’s best-loved song. More than five decades on, it reminds you that there cannot be a better metaphor for the Anarkali legend. The only ‘colour’ song in an otherwise B&W film, it was shot at the exquisite Sheesh Mahal, a replica of the Lahore Fort built on a set at Mohan Studio, Bombay. As the rebel Anarkali humbles the might of emperor Akbar, perhaps the most powerful man in India of the time, her reflection giving further depth to Shakeel Badayuni’s powerful lines (‘Chhup na sakega ishq hamara/ Charo taraf hai unka nazara’), the song is a Mughal-level mausoleum to Madhubala’s memory and is still associated with the Golden Era enchantress. With her open defiance of Akbar, her irreverence to authority and declaration of love for the princeling, Anarkali challenges the Mughal court and the iconic “Pyaar kiya toh darna kya” testifies to her courage and pure love. “Mohabbat ki jhoothi kahani pe roye”, another Mughal-E-Azam gem featuring Madhubala, expresses an imprisoned Anarkali’s helplessness and uncertain future while Rafi’s “Aye mohabbat zindabad” is a protest anthem that flies in the face of emperor Akbar’s objection to son Salim’s romance with Anarkali. She is a woman of humble stock. He’s the heir-in-waiting. More importantly, she’s up against the much-feared emperor himself. It’s a David-Goliath of the worst kind.
As popular as “Pyaar kiya toh darna kya” is, one song that turns out to be the most central to the film’s narrative is “Teri mehfil mein qismat”. The qawwali, a duet or baitbazi (poetic contest) between Madhubala’s Anarkali (Lata Mangeshkar) and Nigar Sultana’s conniving Bahar (Shamshad Begum), is disconcertingly prescient and holds several clues to Mughal-E-Azam’s evolving and unfolding narrative. It goes some way in sealing Anarkali’s doomed fate. The song depicts Salim sitting on judgement as the two women, clearly vying for his love and attention, try to outclass each other employing the sharpest ripostes in their arsenal. The qawwali (a form of Sufi music with strong emphasis on spiritual union with God and mystical love) represents Anarkali as an agent of dissent, someone who’s willing to defend her love at all cost and face the consequences with her head held high rather than bow down to the tyrannical royal commands that seek to stop her budding romance in its track. Bahar is the closest that Mughal-E-Azam comes to having a villain. Played by Nigar Sultana, who later married director K Asif, Bahar is one of the many dancers in the Mughal court who live and thrive by the generosity of their masters. The beguiling Bahar is jealous of Anarkali and her growing bond with Salim. She wilfully creates obstacles in Anarkali’s path at the opportune intervals, trying her best either to instigate a misunderstanding between the new lovers or provoke the powerful emperor himself about the ‘original sin’ that the lowly Anarkali has committed. As “Teri mehfil mein qismat” unfolds, with dozens of chorus dancers giving her company, Bahar does her best to put Anarkali down. At one point, she appears to shockingly articulate what would indeed turn out to be Anarkali’s fate. She warns Anarkali by saying that the story of those who love is sad and short-lived. Someday, she promises, she will be there to witness Anarkali’s downfall with a smug smile. The cheeky Anarkali picks up the gauntlet, replying that indeed, she knows that love destroys lives and comes at a cost. But the passionate lover that she is, she dares Bahar by having the last word: “For the sake of someone’s love, I’ll sacrifice the world and see what happens.” Anarkali’s belief is that love is immortal and if need be, she’s prepared for posthumous fame.
Much of the prophecy from “Teri mehfil mein qismat” comes true, to the utter dismay of those rooting for Anarkali – which is to say, almost everyone in the audience. Bahar, the eternally jilted lover, precipitates Anarkali’s decline. Anarkali sacrifices everything she has and stood for, as Akbar prepares to entomb her alive in the climax. But before it’s all over, if only for a brief moment, the dauntless Anarkali manages to find moments that she will carry with her to the grave. She gets to spend one last night with Salim before being condemned to a life of obscurity. In the prison, Akbar visits an ailing Anarkali and asks her if she has any last wish. Anarkali replies that she wants to be the princess of Hindustan for one night before she dies, just as Salim had envisaged it. Though the proclamation (“sunehre khwaab,” in Akbar’s words) merely confirms Akbar’s misgivings about Anarkali’s true intention Anarkali argues that he may be misunderstanding her. She simply doesn’t want the wish of India’s future king to go unfulfilled. As she puts it dramatically, “Kaneez ki majboori ko arzoo na samjhiye, zill-e-ilahi.”
Grudgingly, Akbar agrees to place the crown on her head. Bahar (meaning: bloom or spring) and her companions dance in honour of the couple. And then, Anarkali offers Salim the intoxicating rose that will put him to sleep and this paves the way to the film’s extraordinary climax. Anarkali, in fact, is the human embodiment of that rose. She is the flower whose life span is short but till she’s alive and in bloom, she gives out an intoxicating fragrance. In the end, as most Hindi film fans know, the lovers are cruelly separated. But as the film tells us, despite the Mughal’s court’s best efforts to exile her and hush it all up, Anarkali’s life becomes anything but forgettable. For Anarkali, especially, the story does not end on a happy note. As a character, she suffers the most and makes the film’s biggest sacrifice, a fact acknowledged by Hindustan, the narrator of Mughal-E-Azam. Akbar whose interactions (or face-off) with Anarkali produces some of the film’s greatest moments, is genuinely sorry for Anarkali in the end. He is not opposed to love, “merely a prisoner of principles,” as he explains in one of the film’s many applause-worthy lines, begging Anarkali to forgive him. With her surreal beauty and a long-suffering personal life, Madhubala was born to play the tragic Anarkali. Imtiaz Ali Taj’s play, on which the film is based, was aptly titled Anarkali. Call it Anarkali, Mughal-E-Azam or whatever else you want, Madhubala remains the film’s heart and soul.
Rumour has it that much was happening on the screen as off it. The actress’ brief relationship with Dilip Kumar during the film’s shooting forms an integral part of the Madhubala lore. It is said that K Asif had a tough time shooting the love scenes between the couple. The problem was his leading lady’s overbearing father! To distract him, Asif asked his publicist to lure Madhubala’s dad away and engage him in a game of rummy. Handing the PR man a wad of notes, Asif ordered, “Lose!” Kumar and Madhubala’s relationship, however, deteriorated over time, to the point that the much-publicised feather scene in Mughal-E-Azam, dipping in sensuality, was shot more or less on the estranged couple who were not even on talking terms. The Kumar-Madhubala affair has always intrigued the press and public. Many hoped that Kumar would clear the air in his memoir. But Dilip Kumar: The Substance and The Shadow was far from the tell-all that fans were expecting. In it, all the thespian was willing to reveal was, “I must admit that I was attracted to her (Madhubala) both as a fine co-star and as a person who had some of the attributes I hoped to find in a woman at that age and time. She, as I said earlier, was very sprightly and vivacious and, as such, she could draw me out of my shyness and reticence effortlessly.”
In 1960, Madhubala had two back to back hits, in the form of Mughal-E-Azam and Barsaat Ki Raat. Nine years later, the iconic screen legend was gone. She was only 36, suffering prolonged heart ailments. After the breakup with the Tragedy King, Madhubala married her Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi co-star, singer Kishore Kumar. Stories abound of how her health was already falling during the shooting of Mughal-E-Azam. The film, her worsening relationship with Kumar and bouts of depression taking a personal toll on her. For all you know, some of the pain and trauma that Anarkali projects may have been real. Besides the ailment of its heroine, the jinxed Mughal-E-Azam had several problems of its own. The story behind its making is as eventful as the film, a “saga in itself,” writes author Anil Zankar in 2013’s ‘Mughal-E-Azam: Legend As Epic.’ “The film possibly holds a world records of sorts,” Zankar insists, noting, “when one considers that the shooting began in 1944 and the film was completed and released in 1960.” Recently, Anil Kapoor tweeted, “I must have heard my father talk about the making of #MughalEAzam endlessly. It was an unforgettable premier. Every person who worked on and in the film was a part of the best Indian historical ever made!” Remarkably, five top writers worked on the film, namely Amanullah Khan, Kamal Amrohi, K Asif, Wajahat Mirza and Ehsan Rizvi. According to Zankar, they made a handful of “alterations” to Imtiaz Ali Taj’s original play including the decision to have Hindustan, the nation of India, as the narrator.
Today, it may be hard to imagine anyone else in the iconic role but there are many anecdotes suggesting Nargis being the first choice for Anarkali. It would have surely been an inspired piece of casting at the time. Finally, Madhubala made Anarkali her own – a character that has divided historians over the decades. While Mughal-E-Azam succeeds in balancing intimacy with fantasy its historical inaccuracies is a well-documented fact, nobody is sure if the figure of Anarkali did actually exist but some point to her existence by referring to her tomb in Lahore.
The madness of K Asif’s ambition
Mughal-E-Azam’s success is the result of one man’s relentless faith in his labour of love. That man is K Asif. The ambitious project faced many difficulties. Among the several challenges was to find another Asif-like maverick who would agree to bankroll what must have sounded like a futile exercise in self-indulgence to anyone hearing the story of Anarkali and Salim and the expensive period backdrop for the first time. It is reported that the owner of Famous Cine Studio was the initial backer but after he moved to Pakistan in the aftermath of Partition the film was nearly shelved. Only to be rescued in time by millionaire Shapoorji Pallonji, the most unlikely messiah who had no visible interest in cinema, before or after. The reclusive business magnate never produced another film. At the cost of Rs 1.5 crore, Mughal-E-Azam was by far the most expensive production of its time. Despite their different temperaments, Pallonji and K Asif became good friends. Anil Zankar writes that Pallonji offered Asif the ownership of Mohan Studio and a Mercedes after Mughal-E-Azam’s success but he refused. “Once,” Zankar discloses in his book, “Sanjeev Kumar, his close friend, asked him to buy a plot of land and build a bungalow for himself. Asif replied, “I am here to make films, not bungalows.”
In Mughal-E-Azam, Asif pulled out all the stops to give wings to his all-consuming passion. He built lavish sets and spent a fortune on the battle sequences (though they look austere by today’s technologically advanced standards). He filled every frame with rich and ornate details, with great care and attention. In his memoir, Rishi Kapoor recalls a visit to the historic set along with his grandfather, the great Prithviraj Kapoor. His strongest memory, he jokes in Khullam Khulla, is not of the “breathtakingly beautiful” Madhubala or Dilip Kumar, but the “plaster of Paris swords, sabres and spears.” Asif later sent the young Rishi Kapoor smiling away by gifting him a dagger from the props section. Asif was a regular visitor to the Kapoor family home, writes Rishi Kapoor. One evening, he had landed at the Kapoor residence for dinner and was greeted with a sumptuous spread of Punjabi delicacies. But the director was shocked to discover that Prithviraj’s wife had put her husband, a self-confessed foodie, on a strict diet to prepare him for the role of Akbar. “Papaji,” Asif reportedly quipped, “main Mughal-E-Azam bana raha hun, Jodha Akbar nahin.”