Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Mughal love story (no, it's not Mumtaz of Taj Mahal fame!)

I was born in 1968. At the beginning of that decade, an epic film of sweeping proportions aired in Indian cinemas: Mughal-e-azam. The Urdu word azam means "great", so I guess this would translate as The Great Mughal, or The Great Mughals.
It is the story of the Mughal Emperor Akbar's rebellious son Salim, and his love for a dancing girl named Anarkali. Not a story with a happy ending, though - the story goes that Akbar disapproved of the relationship and had Anarkali buried alive. No one is quite sure if this is historically true, since there are no authentic records. But in Lahore, where Anarkali is from, there is a tomb said to be built by Salim.
The movie was a phenomenal success. I think I first saw it when I was perhaps 10 years old. I didn't quite get it. Why all this fuss about a dancing girl, I thought. But what a dancing girl! The effervescent Madhubala, of the kissable lips and magical eyes.

This is Dilip Kumar, who played the besotted prince Salim. In this scene, he's watching her dance performance. Looks besotted, doesn't he? (I used to be quite besotted with *him*, by the way - but that's another story!)

Mughal-e-azam is the stuff of Bollywood legend. Directed by K Asif (a madman if ever there was one!), this was the most expensive film ever made in Indian history. Tailors were brought from Delhi to stitch the costumes, specialists from Surat-Khambayat were employed for the embroidery, Hyderabad goldsmiths made the jewellery, Kohalpur craftsmen designed the crowns, Rajasthan ironsmiths crafted the weapons, and elaborate footwear was ordered from Agra.

For a battle sequence between Akbar and Salim, 2000 camels, 4000 horses and 8000 troops were used, many of them soldiers on loan from the Jaipur Regiment of the Indian Army. In the movie, Salim's father throws Anarkali into jail - and Asif ordered that real irons be used, not fake light ones. It was Madhubala's greatest ordeal in the film and she was bedridden for days nursing the bruises caused by wearing those chains.
Shooting began in 1944, but was completed only in 1960. In 1957, colour technology came to India, and Asif was immediately galvanised to shoot the movie in colour. By then, of course, the cost of the movie had already reached astronomical proportions, so only 3 reels were shot in colour, and 85% of the movie remained in black and white. When you went to the cinema, it started as a black and white film; then changed to colour, went back to black and white, and then colour again! The movie was recoloured recently, and relaunched in 2004. I guess Asif would be happy.
Strangely enough, I've only seen the movie in bits and pieces. I watched one dance clip recently on TV (from where I got the photos above). It prompted me to write this piece, and now I'm itching to buy the DVD. But I think I'll need to brush up on Urdu before I attempt this film!