Humayun (1945)

One of the main characters in Prince of Foxes was a man who actually existed in history: Cesare Borgia (1475 (?) – 1507 AD). This post is about a film that features one of Cesare Borgia’s contemporaries, a man born halfway across the world, seven or eight years after Cesare Borgia was born. A man as ambitious as Borgia, and a man who had as marked an impact on the history of India as Cesare Borgia did on Italy. This was Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty – without which we wouldn’t have had the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, murgh musallam, and who knows how many Hindi films.

Humayun is (as the name suggests) more about Babur’s son and successor Humayun (who, coincidentally, was born almost exactly a year after Cesare Borgia died – Borgia died on March 12, 1507; Humayun was born on March 7, 1508). But the film begins with Babur (Shah Nawaz) invading India, so Babur does play quite an important role in the scheme of things.

It is 1526, and Babur, having decimated the armies of Sikandar Lodi at Panipat, is systematically conquering the rest of the area.

At one fort, he is challenged by the resident princess [a beautiful Veena; throughout the film, she is referred to only as ‘Rajkumari’, so I’m not sure whether this is also her name or just her title]. The princess defies Babur to conquer her fort, and he is so impressed by her valour that he allows her to not just retain her fort and her freedom, but ‘adopts’ her as a daughter).

The princess probably realises this is a safe option; she doesn’t really have any chance against the Mughal armies, anyway. So she welcomes Babur and his son Humayun (Ashok Kumar) into the fort and accepts them as father and brother respectively.
Unfortunately, not all are pleased with the princess’s decision to honour the invaders.
Her commander-in-chief, the senapati Jai Singh (K N Singh), for instance, makes no bones about the fact that he thinks this goes against all that Rajput honour stands for.

The princess’s fiancé, Randhir (Chandramohan), the ruler of Chanderi, is even more furious. He tells his betrothed that this is just not done, and sets off to put a sword through Humayun right away.

Randhir, however, being a Rajput warrior, has a sense of honour which won’t allow him to murder a man as he lies sleeping. He therefore wakes Humayun up and challenges him to a duel to the death. Humayun cheerfully accepts, and the two men have just about launched into a swordfight [the first time I recall seeing Ashok Kumar in one] when the princess and Babur come rushing in.

Though the princess succeeds in stopping them – Randhir, being the man she is to marry, is now virtually the brother-in-law of Humayun, after all – Randhir is not happy. He goes away, spewing venom and promising to someday cross swords with Humayun again. Humayun seems to think this very amusing, and agrees. Randhir looks even more annoyed [yes, you do expect an angry challenge to get an equally virulent response; Humayun’s easy camaraderie is certainly deflating]. Randhir makes a promise to Humayun: he will not rest until he has put a teeka of Humayun’s blood on his own (Randhir’s) forehead. How gory.

Anyway, Randhir storms off [and keeps storming back, intent on having that swordfight with Humayun, at regular intervals throughout the rest of the film – always at very awkward moments]. The Mughals get back to establishing their empire in India.
To pay tribute and offer their congratulations to Babur, various noblemen come to court. Among the people who arrive at the fort is the lovely Hamida Bano (Nargis), the daughter of an aristocrat.

Humayun takes one look at Hamida Bano and is besotted with her. He’s just about got in a few words of flirtation (she doesn’t know who he is, and is very shocked at this stranger’s effrontery in chatting her up) when that bad penny Randhir turns up once again to challenge Humayun to a duel.
They manage to shoo him off; Hamida discovers who her admirer is, and – with the help of a few songs and a couple of brief romantic scenes – the two of them fall in love.

But poor Humayun is not destined, it seems, to live happily ever after with the love of his life. When he proposes to her, Hamida refuses to marry him. He’s too far above her (“Can the earth ever touch the sky?” she asks, and he replies, “At the horizon, yes.”) What’s more, she wants to be the only woman in her husband’s life. Humayun, being baadshah, will end up with a large harem and where will Hamida Bano be, then?

Humayun is so stricken by Hamida’s refusal that he falls seriously ill. He is, in fact, so ill that everybody gives up hope.
But for every dying soul, there should be one willing to give up his or her soul instead. In Humayun’s case, there certainly is: Babur prays, begging God to grant Humayun’s life in exchange for Babur’s own. Barely has the prayer been finished and Babur walked a few times around Humayun’s bed – than Humayun opens his eyes, now well. And Babur falls ill, and dies…

… having first pronounced Humayun his successor. So Humayun becomes the Mughal emperor, and almost immediately, the troubles begin. The first problem is Humayun’s own brother, Kamran (?). Kamran has had an eye on the throne for himself, and has been cribbing about having been denied it. Humayun, all sweetness and patience, offers the throne to Kamran, and thus shames him into asking for forgiveness.

That’s not all; shortly, other pests start crawling out of the woodwork too. Soon enough, wherever Humayun looks, there’s someone or the other raising an army to try and shove him off the throne. There’s Sher Khan (known to most Indians as Sher Shah Suri, the title he assumed after he ousted Humayun).
There is the princess’s senapati, Jai Singh, who is not just anti-princess but also vehemently anti-Mughal. There are a motley collection of other minor princes and rulers who’ve decided they don’t want to kowtow to the Mughals any more, and are busy fomenting rebellion. There is Randhir, who hasn’t forgotten that he’s promised to use Humayun’s blood as makeup…

…and there’s Kamran, who despite his pleas for forgiveness, is not precisely the most repentant of sinners. Like Randhir, he keeps turning up again and again, looking for a chance to unseat Humayun and take over the throne.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Hamida Bano is still stubborn in her refusal of Humayun’s suit. The princess tries to butter up Hamida by telling her that she (the princess) has dreamt of Hamida being the empress, but this has no effect.

And Humayun, surrounded on all sides by foes, with only a loyal ‘sister’ to stand by him, and a beloved who admits she loves him but cannot accept him – sinks deeper into distress.

How will it all end?

If you know a little bit of early Mughal history, you probably do know what happens. Not that Humayun is true to the story, but it does try to stick to at least the basics.

What I liked about this film:

Veena and Nargis. So lovely – and Veena’s character has a lot more spunk than one usually gets to see in onscreen ladies in Hindi cinema.

Some of the shot compositions (interestingly, Cecil B DeMille, after watching Humayun, is said to have written to Mehboob Khan – the producer and director of this film – appreciating the visuals of Humayun). The battle scenes and the fort and palace exteriors (filmed with the co-operation of the Maharaja of Jaipur) are especially good. Here’s one frame I liked a lot:

And yes, this was a small thing, but very exciting for me:

I don’t know who that actress beside Veena is – she looks a bit like Cuckoo, but I’m not sure (it wasn’t a speaking role, anyway). What thrilled me was that she was playing Gulbadan, Babur’s daughter and Humayun’s sister. Gulbadan has a very interesting role in history: when she was much older, her nephew Akbar persuaded her to write her memoirs, and they still make for an amazingly good read!

I was mostly ambivalent about the songs (the music’s by Ghulam Haider), except for the very first song in the film, Naina bhar aaye neer, which I think is lovely. What did intrigue me, though, were the lyrics of Jo desh kal nahin thha, woh desh phir hamaara (literally, “the country that was not ours yesterday, is once again ours”), sung in celebration by the masses when Babur generously announces that he is here only to rule, not to inflict his religion, culture, language, etc on the land.  I thought the lyrics had an undertone of the time when this film was made – 1945, with World War II coming to an end, and India’s chances of freedom in the near future beginning to look brighter. Were these words a mere coincidence, or was there a barely-hidden message there?

What I didn’t like:

The lack of cohesiveness in the story. True, Humayun had a very eventful and turbulent reign – what with his brothers constantly rebelling against him; Sher Shah Suri’s attacks, and the fact that Humayun himself seems to have been a weak-willed character who did not have any of the energy or decisiveness that characterised both his father Babur and his son Akbar. While Humayun does try to touch upon his political problems, it also throws into the cocktail too many other ingredients: his romance with Hamida, the enmity with Randhir, and just about every anecdote that’s ever related with reference to Humayun.

(A word on those anecdotes. That one about Babur having died after praying to God to grant Humayun’s life instead of his own is a well-known one. There are others, too – for instance, that Humayun once gave up his throne for a full 24 hours to a poor man who had saved Humayun from drowning. Or the belief that Humayun came to the rescue of a besieged princess of Mewar, who had sent him a rakhi, begging him to – as her ‘brother’ – save her and her kingdom. It certainly looks like whoever wrote the story decided to begin by collating all the popular anecdotes and stories they could find about Humayun).

A man can have a very eventful life, and one can – with some skill – cover a lot of it coherently in a film (Ben Hur is one of my favourite examples). But it’s hard to manage in less than two hours, not counting songs (eight of them), those aforementioned anecdotes, and some inconsequential dialogue-baazi. Humayun would have benefited a lot from being more focussed.

Lastly: very wonky history. Other than the obvious liberties taken with history, there are the portrayals that are totally off. Babur and Humayun were not the benign, forgiving men they are shown to be (Humayun may have been weak, but he was hardly that forgiving – after Kamran tried repeatedly to rebel against Humayun, Humayun had his eyes put out, and sent him off on a forced Hajj). And yes, to project Humayun as being some sort of lovesick fool who nearly squandered away his kingdom because the woman he loved didn’t agree to marry him… I’m not sure how true that was.

This is worth watching if you’re interested in the evolution of Hindi cinema. Or if (like me) you like Ashok Kumar, Veena, Nargis and Chandramohan. Or if you just want to gather all the quirky little anecdotes you can find about the first two Mughals.

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37 thoughts on “Humayun (1945)

  1. I wrote a comment which disappeared so forgive me if I repeat—I found this film so amusing, loved Chandramohan’s thirst for blood being repeatedly thwarted (and this is the movie that put him on my radar, I have to love it for that). It was such fun to see all these actors at such a relatively young age too :)

    • Yes, Chandramohan seemed to have only one expression throughout the film: eyes wide and glaring. And all he seemed to do was either pull his sword out of its scabbard, or push it back in (with a scowl, of course!) But he’s very striking, anyway – though I much prefer him in the superb Roti.

      I loved the fact that one got to see all those famous faces of later years when they were such spring chickens! Oddly, I thought Ashok Kumar looked younger and more spring-chickeny here than he did in Kismet, which is actually an earlier film.

  2. My Mom and I just got done watching “Babar” (incidentally the first collaboration between greats Roshan and Sahir Ludhianvi) and while the title character is the film’s chief focus, there is quite bit of time spent on the Humayun-Hamida Bano love story. We were planning to keep to the Mughal theme, with “Humayun” next on our list, so your review is particularly timely.:-)

    • I have never come across – even heard of – Babar. :-( But would love to lay my hands on it. Whom does it star?

      if you’re going in chronological order, you should probably do Jodhaa-Akbar next, followed by Anarkali, Mughal-e-Azam, Taj Mahal, Shahjehan and Jahanara. – before ending with Mirza Ghalib (okay, not too much of a ‘Mughal emperor’ connection, but it does have Iftekhar playing a very good Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’). ;-)

      • Babar is a 1960 film with Jagirdar in the lead role. I believe it is commercially available. Here’s a link to a song on You Tube:

        We are planning to go in chronological order and the line-up is: Babar(1960), Humayun, Jodha-Akbar, Noorjehan(1967), Taj Mahal (1963), Jahan Ara(1964) and Lal Qila (1960).

        • Thank you! (I am curious about Jagirdar in any kind of lead role – somehow I’ve always seen him as the gruff. sometimes-stern, sometimes-kind, wealthy old gentleman, mostly urban). I will certainly look out for Babar.

          Oh, and one more question, please: where did you get Lal Quila from? I’ve been trying to lay my hands on it for a while, because my sister especially (since she’s a historian and specialises in 18th and 19th century Delhi) wanted to see it. But I just haven’t been able to find it anywhere.

  3. This one sounds interesting – it is one of the movies set in the Mughal period that I have missed seeing. I think I will watch it just to see Ashok Kumar wield a sword. :) My problem with all these movies is the (huge) liberties they take with history – why on earth cannot they do some research? Probably won’t make for much entertainment then, I guess. I mean, they have to make the hero kind and forgiving and lovable – and no ruler, let alone the Mughals who had a bloodied history with son against father, brother against brother, could ever have ruled being kind and gentle and forgiving.

    • You know, Anu, it’s the liberties they take with history that bug me the most. (And this film, by the way, had its story written by some ‘Professor Waqif’. Didn’t seem either too academic or too waaqif to me!) I guess somewhere it’s the fear that people will not like a historical unless it’s spiced up with lots of romance, high-falutin’ dialogues and so on. I don’t think it has very much to do with research – after all, finding information on the first six Mughals isn’t very difficult, even if you don’t happen to be a scholar.

      Frankly, I’ve reached the stage where I prefer period films that are set in historical times, but where actual historical figures are few and far between – Prince of Foxes, for instance. Cesare Borgia has just enough of a role to make him interesting and (at least as far as I could gauge) pretty true to his character and the way he played out politics in his time – but it didn’t delve deeply into his life; the film was mainly about completely fictitious people.

      Come to think of it, one of the very few historicals which I really admire – it’s accurate, doesn’t meddle (or hardly) with history, and is amazingly gripping is the British film Zulu. Fantastic.

      • It is interesting that you should say that you have come to prefer period films that are set in historical times – one such film ( I thought – even though it did deal with historical figures too) was Jodha Akbar. I loved the detailing that went into the film. Ashutosh Gowariker does do his research well – he is not perfect, but at least he tries.

        I watched Zulu a couple of years ago – maybe it is because I am an Anglophile, I think the Brits, when they do get into this genre, do it a darn sight better than their Hollywood counterparts. The latter are as bad as our lot when it comes to history and research.

        • Yes, I thought Jodhaa-Akbar was well-made. Reviewers have derided it as being too much eye candy (I remember someone mentioning the ‘designer sweat trailing down Hrithik Roshan’s back’ when he’s practising sword-fighting!!), but I enjoyed the film. And yes, they did a good job with the research too, from what I could tell.

          I agree re: the Brits generally doing a good job in the ‘historical’ genre. I don’t know why that is so, but yes, some of the most unforgettable Brit films I’ve seen – Zulu, The Battle of Britain, Sink the Bismarck!, North West Frontier etc do a very good job of recounting a historical event in excellent detail – yet being entertaining. Or, they spend a lot of effort in ensuring that the period and place depicted are as real as they can get, even when the events are completely fictitious.

          Compare that to cringe-worthy stuff like Son of Ali Baba, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Der Tiger von Eschnapur… not everybody can make historicals, not by a long shot.

  4. All of them are soooo young. I do not like Ashok Kumar as the lead!! But Veena was sooo beautiful and Nargis must have been really innocent!!

    • I believe Nargis was only 16 when she acted in this film. (Still, quite a bit older than Hamida would have been – Hamida was 15 when she gave birth to Akbar!)

      Yes, Veena was really beautiful. I also like her in her older, more imperious roles – for instance, in Taj Mahal. My favourite role of hers is in Chhoti Bahen, though – I just love her in that.

    • Ah, lovely song, Karthik. I hadn’t heard this before. Beautiful music and lyrics, wonderfully sung and picturised on two actresses I like a lot. :-)

      Now I really want to see this film!

    • Ah, Sudha Malhotra!! She was a good singer. Her voice could be recognised because of the way she pronounced the words girlishly. She seems to have sung quite a few duets with Lata and Asha.

      • Here’s another one of her songs, also picturised on Shubha Khote, which I love a lot:

        Her voice does sound girlish and innocent and young – somehow very appropriate for Shubha Khote.

  5. That’s an interesting link to the previous one DO.
    I love historicals. All that pageantry, and good dialogues, and most of the time good songs.
    Enjoyed the review….>Anyway, Randhir storms off [and keeps storming back,
    Hahahahaha!

    I’ve heard all those anecdotes. The version I heard had Babur go round the sick bed of Humayun 7 times.
    Was that really how he died? Is there any other information about his death in any historical chronical?
    If this is true then both he and his son died very non warrior like deaths, because Humayun is supposed to have fatally fallen down the stairs of his library.

    • As also the beautiful Urdu usage, dialogues,lyrics, portrayal of Mughal adab.

      it is quite difficult to construct a realistic picture of the Mughal empire because some of the important details ought to be lost along the way.

      Mughal emperors were very fond of their mothers, and until Jehangir’s time, the mother was the first lady and not the queen.

      For example, what of the other queens of Akbar in Mughal-E-Azam? The Hindu queens were considered inferior to Muslim queens, but Jodha was the first to bear a son for Akbar, Interestingly, I was reading a book on Google books about the Mughal harems, which depicts a realistic account of the proceedings and hierarchy in the harem.

      http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=v-2TyjzZhZEC&pg=PA15&dq=mughal+harems&hl=en&ei=oSdHTo3JOoKGrAefxpyQBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=mughal%20harems&f=false

      How can one forget the 9 gems while shooting a darbar scene in Akbar’s palace? We hardly have any movie which shows say Birbal or Todarmal, because each one of the movies focuses on various aspects of the Mughal empire, or the personality of the emperor per se. Tansen adds musical flavour of course,in most of the movies.

      Did “Jodha Bai” have authentic Urdu, I cannot say, as I havent seen the movie.(dared not to see).
      Does the music director of Jodha Akbar have enough knowledge of Urdu as say Roshan saab had? (Roshan saab was born in Gujranwala-his Urdu must have been sound, and hence his partnership with Sahir ought to have been successful.He learnt classical music under Sri.Ratanjankar and re-created the Mughal atmosphere through his music, the right ragas, right instruments,I can go on and on).
      Recreating the Mughal shaan is just not about exquisite ornamentation, designer suites, or eye candy. These are mere distractions :-)

      Is there a match between Javed Akhtar “saab”and the genius of Sahir? For example, the songs of Babar, one of the earliest collaborations of Sahir with Roshan saab have such strong Urdu inclusions which itself adds to the authenticity of the portrayal of the Mughal empire.(which is not correct, it was Persian and during Aurangzeb’s time, Urdu became important).

      This is what makes the 1960’s movies such a delight and Madhu’s blog too :-)

      • Thank you, Karthik! Reading your compliment was a delight for me. :-)

        Yes, I do agree to some extent about the fact that the splendour and gorgeousness of Jodhaa-Akbar is not all it takes to make a good historical. Frankly, the pageantry and surface allure of films like that are hardly what I really notice even in a film as expensive as Jodhaa-Akbar. I’m still looking for the entire package – which means good, cohesive story; good acting; good music; and authenticity. Jodhaa-Akbar‘s music, while not of the calibre of Taj Mahal, Jahanara, Mughal-e-Azam etc, is far better than a lot of the ‘music’ I hear in films nowadays. (I like In lamhon ke daaman mein quite a bit). And yes, Jodhaa does not speak Urdu in the film – she speaks Hindi, and fairly ‘thet’ Hindi at that. Akbar’s – and the other Muslim noblemen’s – Urdu I recall as being pretty good. I guess what I really liked about the film was the fact that it concentrated more on the relationship between Jodhaa and Akbar – which anyway is not something academicians would go into – so the film-makers had a lot of space to interpret it any way they wanted to. But where there were facts about Akbar (for example, about how Akbar was trying to train an elephant the first time Jodhaa’s father saw him; or how Adham Khan tried to kill Akbar, and ended up killing Atgah Khan… only to be punished by Akbar having him thrown repeatedly from the ramparts until he died. Or the ‘sniper’ archer who tried to kill Akbar – all of that is true). So that did appeal to the inherent amateur historian in me! :-)

      • P.S. That book you’ve linked to is a favourite bookmark of mine. I use it very regularly when I’m doing research for my books. :-)

        Another very well-written book about the more ‘social’ (and less political) aspects about Mughal India is Anne Marie Schimmel’s The Empire of the Great Mughals. Abraham Eraly’s books are also highly recommended.

      • Thankyou for the link Karthik.
        I know, I know, visual is not everything :)
        But I used to be a history buff during my college days and at present I’m not sure what is fact and what is not.
        I love even the depiction of legend that grew around kings etc. For example, the jokes attributed to Birbal are not facts, but we continue to accpet the ‘jokes of Birbal’.
        History is controversial, people like to influence it in their favour, and one really doesn’t know what to make out of it.

        You shouldn’t miss Jodha Akbar. As DO says, the writer played it safe and we see things which are not mentioned anywhere. Nevertheless it generated contoversey.

    • Pacifist: According to historians, the tradition of a parent circumambulating a sick offspring’s bed while praying for his/her well-being was a fairly popular one in Persian belief, so Babur wasn’t doing anything very out of the way, anyway. But since it’s a picturesque thought, everybody seems to have latched on to that (yes, that’s what I actually read in the book I just cross-checked!). Babur, though, actually fell ill and died a few months after Humayun had recovered, so it wasn’t quite so dramatic as that.

      It seems the most widespread notion is that Babur went three times around Humayun’s sickbed.

      Incidentally, the building where Humayun fell downstairs to his death – Sher Mandal, at the Purana Qila in Delhi – is still an important enough monument (and is kept locked, so that no similar accidents occur)! Here’s a photo of it:

      http://photos.igougo.com/pictures-photos-p258311-Sher_Mandal.html

      • Thank you DO. I didn’t know about Sher-mandal.

        I’ve seen this act of taking the illness from another person and getting ill instead…dying too, in some other hindi films. Perhaps this ritual got adopted.

        • Yes, I guess it’s an intriguing enough belief, isn’t it? In a world of cinema where heartfelt prayers are invariably answered by a flower falling from around an idol’s neck, it’s certain to appeal. :-)

  6. Humayun Nama, a book by a mughal princess! I should read this. The movie sounds interesting, despite its (usual) glaring historical inaccuracies. Hindi movies do like to depict its heros in a lovelorn mode.

    • You must read Humayun Nama. My father has a copy, I think translated by Rumer Godden, so I’ve read it. What I like is that while Gulbadan does spend most of her time on describing Humayun’s turbulent reign (all that trekking back and forth across India and Central Asia!), she does it from the perspective of a woman inside the harem – so there is some stuff about politics and so on, but there’s a lot else besides.

      If the Mughals were such lovelorn heroes as Hindi cinema makes them out to be, they probably wouldn’t have had any time for actually ruling! ;-)

    • Rani Karnavathi was the one who sent Humayun the rakhi, asking him to come to her rescue when she was besieged, right? – but Humayun did not get there in time and she ended up having to resort to jauhar? They sort of put that story into some extent, because they turn the Rajkumari (Veena) into a similar charcter – she hasn’t married Randhir yet and he’s far away, so she sends a <i.rakhi to Humayun, asking him to help his ‘sister’.

  7. The LOVELY girl in The “BABUR ” clips seems to be AZRA , who was really a classic muslim beauty and unfortunately was reduced to bit roles in some later movies.
    I hoe you review Babur and give us some info on the whereabouts of this pretty actress

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