Whenever Hindi cinema is discussed, one name is bound to come up, and that would be the 1960 movie Mughal-e-Azam. Directed by Karimuddin Asif - better known as K Asif, Mughal-E-Azam is considered the magnum opus of Hindi cinema; and till this date it remains one of the most intriguing works of cinema in terms of story, direction, set design musical score and dialogues. August 5 marked the 60th anniversary of its original release.
Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal) is an epic historical drama, set in during the Mughal rule in India under Emperor Akbar the Great. It follows the love affair between Mughal Crown-Prince Salim - who later went on to become Emperor Jahangir, and a court dancer by the name of Anarkali. Prince Salim's father, the Emperor Akbar, disapproves of the relationship, which leads to a war between the father and son.
Albeit, set in the backdrop of a historical period, the movie is a perennial story of a father and a son, a family and the passionate love of young hearts in the transition of time and changing roles. The movie depicts the might, majesty and the strict rules of the Mughals, with a relentless and passionate love between Salim and Anarkali juxtaposing them. The movie highlights the differences between a father and a son, duty to the public over family, and the trials and tribulations of women, particularly of courtesans.
In ways, the film highlights religious tolerance between Hindus and Muslims: The scenes of Hindu Queen Jodha Bai's presence in the court of the Muslim Akbar, the singing of a Hindu devotional song by Anarkali, and Akbar's participation in the Janmashtami celebrations, during which he is shown pulling a string to rock a swing with an idol of Krishna on it, are one of the many examples that could be drawn. The film is described as a tableau vivant of "Islamic Culture", evidenced in its ornate sets, musical sequences such as the Qawwali scene, and chaste Urdu dialogues.
A Mughal Tale
In 1944, director K Asif planned to make Mughal-e-Azam based on Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj's 1922 Urdu novel "Anarkali"; with Chandramohan in the male lead and the then upcoming actress Nargis in the female lead. However, in 1946, before the production of the film could begin, the male lead, Chandramohan, died and the movie's financier Sairaz Ali had moved to Pakistan following the partition of India. At that time, Asif temporarily shelved the film; after twelve years in production, Mughal-e-Azam was released in 1960 and became a huge hit at packed cinema houses.
Casting: Making Mughals
Some of the greatest actors in the history of Hindi cinema history came together in Mughal-e-Azam. The character of Emperor Akbar was played by the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor. His portrayal of the Great Mughal has since become a timeless one in the minds. The regality of Emperor Akbar echoed through as Kapoor delivered his lines, with certain accent and tone of command. Berating a young and drunk Salim, Akbar is a concerned and caring father, he is also the Emperor of vast land and the head of a family. The plights of patriarchy, of being a father, a leader - and the myriads that makes Akbar a part of history - Prithviraj Kapoor's portrayal was a verisimilitude of what Akbar-e-Azam truly been like.
The role of Crown Prince Salim was played by Tragedy Kind Dilip Kumar. Kumar gave the character the fiery temperament that one would expect from a young and spoiled yet battle hardened Mughal prince, intoxicated by love. Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain had initially been considered for the part of the young Prince Salim.
Actress Madhubala played the character of Kaneez Anarkali, with all the enchantment and allure of a Mughal courtesan. Her acting, the movement of brows, the dance - they all made Anarkali what she was to Salim.
Durga Khote played the role of Maharani Jodha Bai, a once Rajput princess who is wife to Akbar and the empress of India; and Salim's mother. The titular burden of being an empress, a wife and a mother - with hints of matriarchy, is visible through Khote's masterful acting and dialogue delivery.
The ensemble supporting cast of Ajit Khan as Drujan Singh, Murad as Rajput Raja Man Singh, actor Surendra playing virtuso Tansen, a young Tabassum as a courtesan and the director's wife Nigar Sultana playing Bahar - Anarkali's rival for Salim's heart - all relived than just acted the roles.
Music to match the Mughal majesty
Revered Bollywood music director Naushad composed the soundtrack of Mughal-e-Azam; the lyrics were written by poet Shakeel Badayuni. It is said that after conceiving the idea of the film, Asif visited Naushad and handed him a briefcase containing money, telling him to make "memorable music" for Mughal-e-Azam. Offended by the explicit notion of money as a means of gaining quality, Naushad threw the notes out of the window, to the surprise of his wife. She subsequently made peace between the two men, and Asif apologised. With this, Naushad accepted the offer to direct the film's soundtrack.
As with most of Naushad's soundtracks, the songs of Mughal-e-Azam were heavily inspired by Indian classical music and folk music, particularly ragas such as Darbari, Durga, used in the composition of "Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya".
Naushad also made extensive use of symphony orchestras and choruses to add grandeur to the music. The soundtrack contained a total of 12 songs, which were rendered by playback singers and classical music artists. These songs account for nearly one third of the film's running time.
A total of 20 songs were composed for the film, at an average cost of Rs3,000 (valued at about $629 in 1960) per song; albeit, many were left out of the final cut owing to the film's length.
Both K Asif and Naushad approached Hindustani classical vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and invited him to participate in the film's soundtrack, but he refused - explaining that he disliked working in films. Asif, adamant about the presence of Khan, asked him to name his fee. Khan quoted a fee of Rs25,000 per song, at a time when Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar - the best paid playback singers of the time, charged Rs300–400 per song, thinking that Asif would send him away.
Instead, Asif agreed, and even gave Khan a 50 per cent advance. Surprised and left with no excuse to turn down the offer, Khan finally accepted. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sang two songs, "Prem Jogan Ban Ke" and "Shubh Din Aayo"; both were included in the final version of the film and demonstrated the artist's vocal virtuosity.
The composition of "Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya" was especially time-consuming – on the day of the song's scheduled recording, Naushad rejected two sets of lyrics by Badayuni. Subsequently, a "brainstorming session" was held on Naushad's terrace, beginning in early evening and lasting until next day.
Late in the night, Naushad remembered a folk song from eastern Uttar Pradesh with the lyrics - "Prem Kiya, Kya Chori Kari Hai...?" ("I have loved, does it mean that I have stolen?"). The song was converted into a Ghazal and subsequently recorded. At that time, since there was no technology to provide for the reverberation of sound heard in the song, Naushad had Mangeshkar sing the song in a studio bathroom. It is said that a chorus of a thousand singers supported singer Mohammed Rafi for the song "Ae Mohabbat Zindabad".
The song "Mohe Panghat Pe" was objected to by veteran director Vijay Bhatt. Although he was not directly involved with the project, he thought that it would raise adverse reaction from the masses - since it showed the Mughal emperor celebrating the Hindu festival Janmashtami. Though Naushad argued that the presence of Jodha Bai made the situation logical, he met with the film's screenwriters and subsequently added dialogue that explained the sequence.
Recreating the Mughal era
Led by art director MK Syed, the production design of the film was extravagant, and some sets took six weeks to erect. The film, mostly shot in studio sets designed to represent the interior of a Mughal palace, featured opulent furnishings and water features such as fountains and pools, generating the feel of a Hollywood historical epic of the period.
The song "Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya" was filmed in Mohan Studios on a set built as a replica of the Sheesh Mahal in the Lahore Fort. The set was noted for its size, measuring 150 feet in length, 80 feet in breadth and 35 feet in height.
A much-discussed aspect was the presence of numerous small mirrors made of Belgian glass, which were crafted and designed by workers from Firozabad. The set took two years to build and cost more than ₹1.5 million (valued at about $314,000 in 1960), more than the budget of an entire Bollywood film at the time. The film's financiers feared bankruptcy as a result of the high cost of production.
Artisans from across India were recruited to craft the props. The costumes were designed by Makhanlal and Company,and Delhi-based tailors skilled in Zardozi embroidery stitched the Mughal costume. The Zardozi on costumes were also stitched by designers from Surat. The footwear was ordered from Agra, the jewelry was made by goldsmiths in Hyderabad, the crowns were designed in Kolhapur, and blacksmiths from Rajasthan manufactured the armoury - the shields, swords, spears, daggers, and armour.
A statue of Krishna, to which Jodha Bai prayed, was made of gold. In the scenes involving an imprisoned Anarkali, real chains were placed on Madhubala.
The battle sequence between Akbar and Salim reportedly featured 2,000 camels, 400 horses, and 8,000 troops, mainly from the Indian Army's Jaipur cavalry, 56th Regiment.
Dilip Kumar has spoken of the intense heat during filming of the sequence in the desert of Rajasthan, wearing full armour.
Colourising the silver era gem
Mughal-e-Azam became the first full-length feature film colourised for a theatrical re-release; although some Hollywood films had been colourised earlier, they were only available for home media. It was the first black-and-white Hindi film to be digitally coloured and the first to be given a theatrical re-release. The first step towards colourisation was the restoration of the original negatives, which were in poor condition owing to extensive printing of the negative during the original theatrical release. The process of colourisation was preceded by extensive research. The art departments visited museums and studied the literature for background on the typical colours of clothing worn at that time.
The team in-charge also approached a number of experts for guidance and suggestions, including Dilip Kumar, production designer Nitin Chandrakant Desai, many historians and one of the finest artists of the time - Maqbool Fida Husain. The colourisation team spent 18 months developing software for colouring the frames.
The film's colourised version was released theatrically on November 12, 2004 and premiered at the Eros Cinema in Mumbai. The new release also included a digitally reworked soundtrack, produced with the assistance of Naushad, the original composer. In 2006, Mughal-e-Azam became only the fourth Indian film certified for showing in Pakistan since the 1965 ban on Indian cinema, and was released with a premiere in Lahore; at the request of the movie's director K Asif's son, Akbar Asif.
A timeless tale
Mughal-e-Azam has been posited as a national allegory for the Indian subcontinent, a stylistic way of appropriating history and heritage to emphasise the national identity.
The theme of romantic love defeating social class difference and power hierarchy, as well as the grandeur of the filming, contribute to the film's attractiveness. The characters of Mughal-e-Azam do not just speak – they refine communication and distil it, they crystallize it into many faceted glittering gems, they make poetry of ordinary language.
K Asif's excessive elaboration of the themes in Mughal-e-Azam remains in a class by itself.