Mughal-E-Azam (1960) is the greatest film that the Hindi cinema has ever produced. Massive in its size and scope, it is the life’s work of its meticulous producer/director, K. Asif, and it took ten years and millions of rupees to bring to life. Everything about the film is epic, from the themes it explores to the archetypal relationships it portrays, and it has left an indelible mark on Bollywood. Most period films are influenced by it, and some, like the recent Devdas, draw directly from it.
In late 2004, this story of the Mughals was re-released in India, the UK and North America, this time in a colorized version. Asif, whose wish was to shoot the film in color, could only afford three dance numbers in color and had to do the rest in black and white. The expensive colorization procedure is undoubtedly the best one ever done – both in its detail and its quality. The result is a striking image quality that is very reminiscent of the Powell-Pressburger Technicolor films of the late 1940’s like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Audiences flocked to discover the new version of the film, and the reissue confirmed the film’s mythic quality and preeminence in Hindi cinema.
Everything in the film is larger than life. It is as though no compromise has ever been made, no expense spared. We sense this not only in the lavish costumes and opulent palace sets, but also in the number of people involved. In simple palace scenes, tens of background players scurry in and out of frame. And in the major palace scenes, there are hundreds of extras. The same goes for the battle scenes and processions, where we also see hundreds of horses and even several elephants (I counted seven in Saleem’s return from the war). The production was on a par that has never been equaled in Hindi cinema.
Asif’s film also brilliantly portrays many of the classic themes of Hindi cinema. Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) is left with a difficult dilemma when his son, Prince Saleem (Dilip Kumar) decides to marry a commoner, Anarkali (Madhubala). The massive canvas of Mughal-E-Azam allows for common Hindi film story points to be taken to their extreme. The film beautiful elaborates on familiar themes like duty versus family, a mother’s devotion for her son, father-son conflict, and most poignantly, the notion of impossible love. Setting the film in the palaces of the royal Mughals, with the inherent theatricality of a costume film, actually heightens the emotional expression of this classic Hindi cinema storytelling .
One can point to so many key ingredients to the film’s timelessness, but the most compelling one is Madhubala as Anarkali. Her performance is astonishing. In Pyar Kya To Darna Kya (In Love, What is to Fear), she embodies willful courage with every gesture of hand and feet, coy and tempting in her looks to Prince Saleem, subtle in her girlish defiance of Akbar. Asif has Madhubala in the prime of her beauty and talent, and he uses that, prolonging our discovery of her face throughout her first scene, then dramatically exposing it to us in the following scene with the bow and arrow. She brings so much grace and sensuality to her dances as well as to scenes like when she extinguishes a candle with her hand or with wet hair and face, begging for Akbar’s mercy. In the incredible love scene between Saleem and Anarkali, not a word is spoken, everything happens with a few looks exchanged or with eyes closed, behind the veil of a feather. The mysterious beauty of Madhubala captivates us throughout.
A brilliantly turned early scene spawned one of the classic lines from the film. Anarkali is vying for the love of Saleem and formally competes with another woman in a song competition. At the end of the song, Saleem has judged the performances. He approaches the other woman and presents her with a rose in sign of victory. Then he hands the thorns of the same rose to Anarkali. Anarkali looks at him and says, “Jahe naseeb. Kaanton ko murjhane ka khauf nahin. (I am fortunate to receive thorns because thorns never wither).” This of course meant that her love will never wither. But the same can be said for this film. Our love shall also not wither for this monument of world cinema.