Movie lore has it that when reluctant theater owners refused to exhibit Asif’s would-be masterpiece, Asif—ever the legendary showman—had sample reels delivered to some theater owners not by foot or courier, but by opulently decorated elephants in full medieval battle regalia. Ten years in the making and featuring a cast of thousands, Mughal-E-Azam perennially ranks in the top tiers of the greatest Indian films ever made. Restored and fully colorized, the mega-budget spectacular still commands power to impress and break records.
At the heart of one the finest scripts ever written is the tug between two acting giants of 20th century Hindi cinema—Prithviraj Kapoor as Emperor Akbar, the 16th century Mughal emperor of India, and Dilip Kumar as Prince Saleem, Akbar’s rebellious progeny and sole heir. The most exquisite palace intrigue sets in when Saleem bypasses his betrothed Bahaar (Sultan, as a smooth noble temptress) and sets eyes on the lowly maid Anarkali (an exceptionally restrained Madhubala finally shed her sex-kitten image to become a real actor). The impasse between the ferociously secular and yet tradition-bound Akbar (Mughals were strictly forbidden from “tainting” the royal bloodline) and the free-thinking Saleem eventually results in Saleem commanding an armed rebellion against Akbar’s larger, overwhelming legions.
Consider the firsts. Since only about a sixth of the 1960 version was in color and colorized Hollywood classics go straight to home video, Mughal-E-Azam became the first fully colorized theatrical re-release anywhere in the world. In adjusted dollars, it also remains the costliest film in Indian history, clicking in at roughly the equivalent of $10 million today, a stratospheric Indian film budget that outdoes even 2002’s Devdas. The 8,000 soldiers (the most ever for an Indian film), 4,000 horses, and 2,000 camels (all borrowed from the Indian army) were well-used for the battle sequences.
Then there is the music. Maestro Naushad demanded 105 re-writes from lyricist Shakeel Badayuni to perfect Mangeshkar’s “pyaar kiya to darna kya,” the musical monument to defiance where Anarkali announces her love for Saleem in the presence of both Akbar and Saleem. Filmed inside Jaipur’s famed Palace of Mirrors, the multitude of mirrors rise to a crescendo of split images, each reflecting Anarkali frolicking away as a helpless Akbar fumes in his inability to make Anarkali denounce her love. After that greatest ever feat in song picturization in a Hindi film, the fact that a chorus of over 100 accompanied Mohd. Rafi in “ae mohabbat zindabad” is a mere footnote.
Mahesh Bhatt once commented that the moment when Saleem romances Anarkali in the royal perfumed garden, a lighter-than-air moment involving a close-up of two faces and one lucky white feather amounts to perhaps the most understated—and hence most erotic—metaphor for sexual foreplay ever framed for the Hindi screen. Asif’s stunning visuals are all the more remarkable since his primary photographic tool is the extended single-cam frame that the actors move in and out of rather than having a moving camera follow them.
In my personal collection of cinematic testimonials, this is the favorite: Mughal-E-Azam premiered at Bombay’s majestic Maratha Mandir Talkies on a balmy tropical evening in September 1960. Spotlights flared and cameras flashed. Director Asif arrived in an open jeep and was received warmly by both an adoring public and paparazzi alike. And that rarity of rarities, I witnessed it all, albeit as a one-year-old tot carried by my parents. The film was screened to a stunned audience that cheered the beaming filmmaker. History was made that night.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.