I ended up re-watching this film in a roundabout sort of way, which is a story in itself. A few months back, my sister (a historian, whose PhD was on 19th century Delhi) remarked, “I’d like to watch Lal Qila. I’ve never been able to find it in stores.” So, good little sister that I am (and a shameless opportunist), I figured out at least one of the things I’d gift my sister for Christmas.
Before gift-wrapping the VCD, I decided to watch Lal Qila, and write up a review right after. The latter didn’t happen – because Lal Qila is so badly written, so badly directed, and such a crashing bore, I couldn’t make head or tail of it most of the time. Only Rafi’s superb renditions of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poetry – especially Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon – are a saving grace.
I was so peeved and disappointed after Lal Qila, that I needed this to buoy myself up. In any case, I told myself: logically, the two films are related (other than the fact that both feature Helen): the Lal Qila and the Taj Mahal were both built by Shahjahan.
Here we go, then. One of Hindi cinema’s better historicals, with a stellar cast and very good music.
The Taj Mahal story begins in the Agra Fort, at the fortnightly Meena Bazaar, where the ladies of the fort put up a temporary bazaar where they sell trinkets, cloth, dolls, and other pretty little things. Not only are the shopkeepers at the Meena Bazaar women; so are the buyers – for the only men allowed are the Emperor and the princes.
Prince Khurram (Pradeep Kumar) has graced this Meena Bazaar with his presence, and Laadli Bano (Jabeen Jaleel), the daughter of Khurram’s stepmother, Noorjehan, is trying her best to lure him with her charms.
Khurram, though he’s civil to Laadli, is not impressed. But, a short while later, as he’s reaching to have a closer look at a necklace being displayed by the court dancer Gulbadan (Minoo Mumtaz), he comes face to face with a beauty whom he’s never seen before – and whom he’s smitten by, at first glance.
The girl (Bina Rai) hurries away in confusion, and Khurram has to turn to Gulbadan to find out who she is. Gulbadan enlightens him: that was Arjumand Bano, daughter of the Wazir, Asif Khan – who is Noorjehan’s brother. Small world, indeed.
Fortunately for Khurram, Gulbadan is more than willing to help him in his courting of Arjumand Bano. On Khurram’s instructions, Gulbadan delivers a necklace to Arjumand – which Arjumand promptly refuses, but in a way that convinces Gulbadan (as she later reports to Khurram) that Arjumand’s heart doesn’t refuse.
Which, of course, emboldens Khurram to try again. This time, he sends Arjumand a carrier pigeon.
… and thus begins their romance. They exchange a couple of love notes, and then start to meet, every evening, in a baradari (literally, a ‘pavilion with twelve doorways’) beside the Yamuna. Here, they finally pledge undying love to each other. Arjumand tells Khurram how beautiful this riverbank is, how wonderful the view – and how magnificent a palace here would look.
Finally, she makes him vow that when she dies, he will lay her to rest here, in a mausoleum that will stand as a memorial to their love.
Before it starts getting too cheesy for words, however, reality kicks in, in the form of Noorjehan (Veena, in one of her most imperious roles ever).
Noorjehan, born Mehrunissa, was a widow with a baby daughter, Laadli Bano, when Khurram’s father, now the Emperor Jehangir (Rehman) fell in love with her. Now, by dint of her own ambition and intellect, Noorjehan has become a powerful personage. Jehangir loves and trusts her immensely, and even heeds her advice on matters of state.
Noorjehan knows very well that of his sons, Jehangir loves Khurram best of all. The other son, Shahryar (Jeevan) is completely degenerate, and spends all his time in wine, woman, song, and the company of his equally dissolute cronies.
So Noorjehan has decided that Khurram – whom Jehangir is certain to announce his heir – will be a good match for her own daughter Laadli Bano. Laadli, as we already know from that opening scene at the Meena Bazaar, is quite keen on Khurram anyway.
At this point, the dancer Gulbadan – who till now had been helping Khurram and Arjumand in their romance – does an inexplicable about-turn. She goes and sneaks to Laadli Bano about how Arjumand is being courted by Khurram…
… and Noorjehan, who arrives during the conversation, decides to take matters into her own hands. After all, if Laadli Bano marries Khurram, and Khurram becomes (as he certainly will) the Emperor, Laadli Bano will be Empress and her mother will be able to keep a hold on her current position of power.
Noorjehan, though she does not say it, is obviously put off by this wishy-washy attitude. So she sets out to do what she can: by visiting her brother Asif Khan, and his daughter Arjumand. They are surprised to see her – Noorjehan has not exactly been a frequent visitor since her elevation to Mallika-e-Alam.
And the Empress has another surprise in store: she has come to fetch her beloved niece to stay as a guest in the imperial palace. Arjumand is taken aback, but pleased too: she will now be closer to Khurram, more able to meet him!
She hasn’t reckoned with her aunt, though; Noorjehan has only brought Arjumand to the imperial harem so that she can be better watched. On the first day that Arjumand tries to step out to go meet Khurram, she finds her way barred by guards:
If Noorjehan is a tough cookie, so is her niece. Arjumand makes her way to Khurram, and even gatecrashes Laadli Bano’s birthday mushaaira, where she proceeds to announce her defiance loud and clear.
All of this gets Noorjehan nervous, and she ends up seeking an alliance with Shahryar. The conversation is in very cloaked, careful words, so it’s never quite clear exactly what Noorjehan wants of Shahryar, or what she’s promising him in return. But one thing’s obvious: these two are up to no good.
Noorjehan finds an opportunity to put her plan into action when unrest breaks out in the Deccan and Jehangir is forced to send the Mughal armies on a campaign down in the peninsula. Jehangir intends to lead his armies himself, but Noorjehan intervenes, suggesting that this would make the Mughal empire seem weak – that it has no good general other than the Baadshah! Khurram should be sent instead; he’s a great warrior.
Jehangir is all agreement. Of course – there is none braver than Khurram! (And we realise what Noorjehan’s plan is: Khurram will almost certainly die in battle, and then Shahryar will be the heir to the throne – and Laadli will be married to him).
So Khurram leads his troops into the Deccan and is gone on a long, bloody campaign of a year and a half.
But return he does, and a lot of things happen all at once. Jehangir, very proud of his son, announces that Khurram will henceforth be known as Shahjahan, and that he will sit on a throne alongside his father.
At a song-and-dance to celebrate Khurram/Shahjahan’s triumphant homecoming, Khurram receives a desperate note purporting to be from Arjumand, begging him to come to her aid immediately. He can’t interrupt the proceedings, so Khurram slips away by himself – only to end up being attacked by a gang of Shahryar’s men who had used the forged note as a ploy to ambush Khurram. Fortunately for Khurram, they run off without checking if he’s dead, and Arjumand – who’s been feeling uneasy (Ah! True love!), arrives in time to smuggle him away into the taikhana (basement) of her father’s mansion, where he can be treated in peace.
… which means that Khurram misses out on the fact that:
(a) Jehangir suffered some sort of illness (a heart attack, possibly?) at the function,
(b) has been laid up in bed ever since, and
(c) is huffy that while all his other offspring have been to ask about his health, his favourite son hasn’t bothered.
Huffy, in fact, to the point that he decrees that if Khurram does not present himself at Jehangir’s bedside by the following evening, he will declared a traitor and a rebel.
Shahryar’s spies have conveyed to him the news that Khurram is at Asif Khan’s house. So, to prevent Khurram turning up at the imperial chambers, Shahryar posts his men outside Asif Khan’s mansion. Arjumand, however, helps smuggle Khurram out in disguise, Khurram makes his way to Jehangir’s bedside, and reveals, to his stunned father, the still-healing wounds of the failed assassination. Khurram refrains from telling Jehangir whom he suspects, but does explain that he owes his life to Arjumand’s care.
That, though, is far from the happily-ever-after these two star-crossed lovers have hoped for. They do have their joys and their years of happiness, but there are a lot of challenges, trials and tribulations ahead as well.
What I liked about this film:
The songs (the lyrics are by Sahir Ludhianvi, the music by Roshan – easily one of his best overall scores for a film). Taj Mahal’s most outstanding feature is its fantastic score, which really puts everything else – opulent sets, good cast, fairly decent scripting – into the shade. Each song, from the brilliant qawwali Chaandi ka badan sone ki nazar to the frequently-repeated Jo vaada kiya woh nibhaana padega – is a gem. So are Na-na, na re na-na, haath na lagaana and Jo baat tujh mein hain teri tasveer mein nahin. My favourite, however, is the absolutely sublime Jurm-e-ulfat pe humein log sazaa dete hain: quietly defiant lyrics which are allowed to shine forth by the subdued and beautiful music, and by Lata’s superb rendition.
I also liked the way in which the film manages to blend political (sometimes factual) events with romantic (fictitious) ones. This is one complaint I generally have with a lot of Hindi ‘historicals’: they’re historical almost completely in name only. Lal Qila is one glaring example.
What I didn’t like:
Now that I’ve praised Taj Mahal for the fact that it isn’t a completely ahistorical historical, let me clarify: it’s not got many of the facts right. There are inaccuracies, flights of fancy, utter departures from the truth. Khurram and Arjumand’s ages, for instance: they actually got married when he was 15 years old, she 14. And, as in Jahanara, here too, we have Mumtaz Mahal dying genteelly in her bed in the palace. (She actually died in a muddy tent after giving birth to Gauhar Ara, having accompanied Shahjahan on one of his campaigns).
Then there’s the other popular misconception (repeated often enough in cinema), that a certain Shirazi was the architect of the Taj Mahal. (According to historical sources, the architects were probably Ustad Ahmad Lahauri and Mir Abdul Karim, along with Makramat Khan – and possibly with contributions from Shahjahan himself, who took a deep interest in architecture).
Then there are the little details that stuck in my craw. For example, the gay abandon with which royal ladies went about in either very flimsy or non-existent veils; or the anachronistic architecture.
Plus, the last 15 minutes of the film are a little too melodramatic for my liking.
But, still. The film does manage to do justice to the very popular (though possibly over-romanticised) love story of Shahjahan, Mumtaz Mahal and the Taj Mahal. Bina Rai is beautiful, Veena is excellent as the supercilious Noorjehan (who, interestingly, does have shades of lighter grey in her character).
Or, you can just watch it for the music. That’s more than enough reason.
Little bit of trivia:
Here’s something odd that I noticed. One little-known song of Taj Mahal is Khuda-e-bartar teri zameen par, sung by Arjumand while Khurram is away on the Deccan campaign. Here are the lyrics, and here is the song.
Now listen to this song, Ishwar allah tere jahaan mein, from 1947: Earth. Am I the only one who sees a startling similarity between the two songs? Not in the music, but in the lyrics – down to specific words, not even just the overall sentiment.