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.