On 'Mughal-e-Azam' - The Grand Indian Film That Continues To Inspire Awe Even Today!

By Srikanth Kanchinadham. Posted on February 10, 2016

We recently got our hands on the book 50 Indian film classics by noted film critic & writer M.K. Raghavendra (published by Harper Collins Publishers India) and fell in love with it. From Prem Sanyas (1925) to Rang De Basanti (2006), the book covers 50 Indian films from across time & geography that have made Indians fall in love with them. While you might be disappointed to see a few of your favourites missing, the list is truly awesome.

We will be carrying a series of excerpts from the book, the first of which is on one of the grandest Hindi films ever, K. Asif's period drama Mughal-e-Azam. You can purchase your own copy of the book at Amazon & Flipkart.

The relationship between history and Indian popular cinema has evidently been a tenous one but the film often cited as an Indian ‘historical film’ is K. Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam. The historicity of Asif’s film, is however, so doubtful that it is more pertinent to look at its actual thrust instead of dwelling on the liberties it takes with Mughal history.

The story of conflict between Akbar and Salim over Anarkali, which has inspired Indian cinema time and again, has no basis in history but was (according to Javed Akhtar) the invention of one Imtiaz Ali Taj, an Urdu playwright of the 1920s. The story makes no concessions to history except with the regard to naming of its characters – Akbar, Salim, Jodha Bai and Man Singh. There is occasional talk of war but no enemies are named. The reason for conflict between Akbar and Salim also echoes one of the eternal plot devices of the ‘social’ genre – the rich father refusing to allow his son to marry beneath him – and the film tells essentially the same story in period costume.

If these aspects of the film point to its indifference to history, there is also a narrative framing device that shows us the relief map of ‘Hindustan’ narrating the entire story to us through a voice over. This was perhaps a gesture directed towards the spirit of nationalism prevailing in the late 1950s. If the film is unable to take a view on the history of the Mughal period, it can still be read as an optimistic response to post-Independence India. Akbar and Jodha Bai are also reassuring reminders of the secular aspect of India’s past.

These ‘historical’ aspects of Mughal-e-Azam are, however, not really responsible for its importance in Indian cinema. The film is in Urdu and it stands testimony to an ‘aestheticized’ sensibility that is synonymous with the Urdu culture of a certain era. The characters of the film cannot be said to be preoccupied with the business of living, and for all its thunder, Mughal-e-Azam is really taken up with neither love nor death.

The portrayal of Salim and Anarkali’s love for each other is as stylized as a dance. The prince falls in love with Anarkali when he sees her as a statue and there is a curious immobility in their love scenes as well. Salim is conceived as the essence of nobility and princeliness rather than as an individual capable of physical love. The normally mercurial Dilip Kumar’s countenance is therefore frozen in a series of looks or gestures that seek to capture their essence. Anarkali is a woman whose life is perpetually in danger but the horror of her position is never allowed to sink into us. The music is also emphatic in its grandiosity and never strives for effects that are intimate or personal.

If a comparison is to be made with the similar historical extravaganzas coming from the West, films like Anne of a Thousand Days attempt to convince us of the ordinaries of kings and queens, of how they were essentially as ‘we are’. Mughal-e-Azam, in contrast, does precisely the opposite. It impresses upon us that Akbar, Salim and Anarkali were not creatures of our world. It convinces us that what Salim and Anarkali felt towards each other bore no resemblance to the attractions or attachments we are likely to experience in our own lives.

The space of the narrative in popular cinema is an exalted one because films deal with heroic and not with the ordinary. The events in a film are meant to be instructive, and the evidence of Mughal-e-Azam supports this.

M.K. Raghavendra is a film researcher, scholar and critic. He has written extensively on world cinema for Indian and international periodicals. He received the National Award for Best Film Critic in 1997, which cited his 'provocative and iconoclastic writing, which inspires debate and discussion, so rare in film criticism today'. His book Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2008) was acknowledged by India Today as among the best book on movies.


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