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Mughal-e-Azam review: Grand tale of doomed love that stands the test of time

Release Date: 05 Aug 1960 / Rated: U / 03hr 17min


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Suyog Zore

K Asif's magnum opus, starring Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Prithviraj Kapoor, completes 60 years today but still feels fresh.

Heer-Ranjha, Laila-Majnu, Salim-Anarkali are among the most famous tragic love stories of the East. All explore the theme of star-crossed lovers whose relationship is doomed from the very beginning.

Like the other love stories, the one of Salim and Anarkali has also undergone many iterations over the past century from plays to musicals to films, but none so epic and extravagant as K Asif's Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

Based on the play Anarkali by Imtiaz Ali Taj, Salim and Anarkali's tragic love story was forever immortalized by Asif's magnum opus. There must be hardly anyone in India who hasn't watched Mughal-e-Azam or is unfamiliar with the plot. It tells the story of the 16th-century lovers, prince Salim (Dilip Kumar), only son of the Mughal emperor Akbar and heir to the throne of Hindustan, and Anarkali (Madhubala), a court dancer.

When Akbar the Great (Prithviraj Kapoor) finds out about the affair, all hell breaks loose and the emperor sends Anarkali to prison, provoking the crown prince to raise the banner of revolt.

While it is unfair to view a film made more than half a century ago from today's perspective, Mughal-e-Azam, surprisingly, holds up quite well from both the technical and artistic standpoints.

The many tales of how K Asif overcame many hurdles to bring his dream to celluloid are almost as legendary as the film itself. Asif, a tailor by training who turned to filmmaking, had only one film, Phool (1944), under his belt when he decided to make Mughal-e-Azam.

The film is a visual feast in all aspects, including art direction, costumes and cinematography. The sets by MK Syed, which showcased the richness of an empire that was still ascending to its zenith, were not simply grand; they also helped to create the mood. From the start, you are transported to the sixteenth century and the sets play a huge role in that.

Each frame of the film was meticulously and painstakingly created by K Asif with attention to the minutest detail and captures the enormous and opulent Mughal palaces and the era.

Despite such technical brilliance, the film's strength lies in its emotional story and the immaculate performances of all the members of the cast. Dilip Kumar, who played prince Salim, was a rising star of Hindi cinema when filming began, but by the time the film was released on 5 August 1960, he was easily the industry's biggest star (the term 'superstar' had not yet made its way to Indian film lexicon). He portrayed the rebellious, love-lorn prince with gravitas.

There is a certain poise in Dilip Kumar's body language and dialogue delivery in the film. Whenever Salim is shown losing his cool, which he rarely does, he expresses his anger without going overboard. He commands respect with just his aura. After all, he is the crown prince of Hindustan and he never lets you forget that even for a second. But when he is with his lady love, we see a different side of Salim.

Madhubala was enigmatic as Anarkali. From timid servant and dancer in Akbar's durbar to a woman fearlessly professing her love for the prince in front of the entire court in the evergreen song 'Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya', Madhubala portrays beautifully all the shades of Anarkali.

The picturization of the song itself was nothing short of a technical marvel. The song was set in a Sheesh Mahal, or palace of mirrors, and it was considered well nigh impossible to shoot in that setting without revealing the cameras in the shots, but Asif and his cinematographer RD Mathur pulled off the miracle.

It is said that Prithviraj Kapoor, who was at the height of his acting prowess and popularity when he was signed on for Mughal-e-Azam, was so sold on Asif's vision that he chose to do only one another film in the 10 years it took to complete the project. He makes Akbar, the emperor of Hindustan, a relatable person even though his performance strikes one as theatrical. Throughout the film, there is a struggle between Akbar the father and Akbar the ruler, and each time the ruler in him comes out the winner.

Kapoor brought forth Akbar's inner conflict with conviction. The emperor is not your archetypical villainous father, a trope we saw in later decades in Hindi films. In fact, there is a softer side to him that he reveals before the battle with his son.

The supporting cast, from the cunning and manipulative Bahar (Nigar Sultana) who dreams of marrying Salim, and Durjan Singh (Ajit), the loyal friend and honest adviser of the crown prince who won't hesitate to lay down his life to keep his word, to Anarkali's sister Suraiya (Sheela Delaya), all played their parts with absolute conviction. Though none of them has much screentime in the epic, all these characters leave their marks with their performances.

K Asif had co-written the film's screenplay with Amanullah Khan and it is as compact and excellent as the other technical departments. Each scene, each dialogue takes the story forward. Despite the three-hour runtime, there is not a single scene that does not serve the story in some way.

Naushad's evergreen soundtrack consisting of 10 songs flows well with the film's story. In fact, the songs are woven so well into the screenplay that if the viewer were to skip a song it would break the narrative flow.

The songs were sung by legendary singers such as Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and the great classical vocalist Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. It was no easy task for Asif and his music director to persuade the ustad to lend his voice for the film, because Khan saheb used to consider cinema a lesser art.

To ensure that the legendary singer made his cinema debut, Asif offered him an unheard-of Rs25,000 as remuneration for each of the two songs he was to sing in the film. This at a time when top playback singers like Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi were paid no more than Rs500 a song!

The eloquent dialogues of the film also have a poetic rhythm to them. On occasions, it almost feels as if the characters are reciting shayari (Urdu poetry). There is heavy use of Urdu in the dialogues to make them more authentic to the era. But there is also a lot of thought that has gone into their writing.

Take, for example, Jodhabai (Durga Khote). While all the other characters speak in chaste Urdu, Jodhabai hardly uses Urdu words. These little touches add to the sense of the film's authenticity.

If there is one thing that feels a little outdated in this extravaganza, it is the way Salim and Anarkali fall in love, at first glance. Other than that, it's a perfect film.

The perfection in technical execution that brought to life the fantastic visuals and historic spectacle, the flawless choreography, mellifluous vocals, unimpeachable soundtrack and unforgettable performances continues to reverberate in pop culture even after 60 years, making Mughal-e-Azam an epic extravaganza that has stood the test of time.

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