Book Review: Anil Zankar’s ‘Mughal-e-Azam: Legend as Epic’

In the nearly ten years this blog has been in existence, I’ve reviewed hundreds of films. Including many, many Hindi films. Some have been big hits, others so obscure that even fairly faithful followers of my blog, seeing the name of the film in their RSS feed, have probably decided my review didn’t even merit a visit.

But there are also the (to some) glaring omissions. Every now and then, someone wonders why I’ve never got around to reviewing some of the most iconic Hindi films of the pre-70s period. Mother India. Guide. Pyaasa. Devdas. To them I say that I fear I will not have anything to say that somebody or the other hasn’t already said, and probably in a far better and more informed way than I could.

Among the films about which I’m asked, again and again, is Mughal-e-Azam.

This one is a somewhat more puzzling omission from my list of reviews, given that I am deeply interested in Mughal history, I am very fond of Madhubala, and that the film really does have near-cult status. So much so that it was even the first full-length film anywhere in the world to be digitally coloured for a theatrical re-release (in 2004). But what would be the point of me writing about Mughal-e-Azam? Almost anybody who’d be interested enough in the film to read my review of it would almost certainly have already seen the film, and chances are, would know not just the story, but would have decided and definite views about much of the rest of the film, too: the characters, the songs, the dialogue, the historicity (or lack of it).

All of this, too, was in my mind when I began reading Anil Zankar’s Mughal-e-Azam: Legend as Epic (Harper Collins Publishers India, 2013; 200 pages; Rs 250). I was intrigued: what would Zankar have to say about a film so well-known?

After a very brief prologue, Zankar describes how Mughal-e-Azam came about: K Asif’s career till then (this was only his second film) and how, with Chandramohan, Durga Khote, Sapru and Nargis in the lead roles, he began shooting the epic in 1944—only to have Partition throw a spanner in the works when the studio owner sold off the studio and migrated to Pakistan. Zankar goes on to explain Asif’s eventual partnership—after four years of concerted effort—with Shapoorji Pallonji Mistry, and how that finally culminated in the making of Mughal-e-Azam, a film that released a full 16 years after its original shooting had first begun.

Zankar divides his analysis of the film, and his discussion of it, into seven chapters (the principal cast and crew and the bibliography are annexures): The Film; The Design of the Script; Language and Dialogue; Mise en Scène; Sets, Murals, Costumes and Cinematography; The Music; and Mughal-e-Azam: On a Larger Canvas. Beginning with a fairly detailed synopsis (covered in The Film), Zankar goes on to the background to the story, the play Anaarkali, written by Imtiyaz Ali ‘Taj’, which he in turn had based on folklore. Zankar discusses the story of the play, and contrasts it with the story of the film (which draws from Taj’s play only in part).

He examines the characters, the dialogue, each song—where it appears in the film, what it conveys. The iconic Pyaar kiya toh darna kya, especially (and unsurprisingly) gets a good deal of space, including interesting trivia about the writing of the lyrics (in the space of one night, with Shakeel Badayuni churning out more than fifty drafts). There’s more trivia about the recordings of the songs (in a tin shed!), and about the construction of the sheesh mahal that is one of the main highlights of Pyaar kiya toh darna kya.

There are stills and promotional material sourced from the National Film Archives. There is a detailed, frame-by-frame analysis of one memorable confrontation between an enchained Anarkali and an imperious Akbar.

But does the book leave an impact? Not for me, it doesn’t. Yes, there is some trivia that I didn’t know, but it’s too little. As for the rest, there was little there that I couldn’t have noticed on my own. The characters, the dialogue, the songs, the story: all of these require only observation and some thought to be able to process—this is K Asif making a period film, not Ingmar Bergman making a psychological drama that you need notes to be able to decipher.

On the other hand, there were aspects here that I wished Zankar had touched upon, but didn’t. For instance, considering the budget of the film (K Asif even insisted on a real pair of Rs 3000-per-pair shoes for a star instead of a cheaper imitation, because he wanted the man wearing the shoes to feel that he was royalty)—why were all the many scenes set in gardens so obviously shot on sets, in fake gardens? Why not in real gardens? (Zankar makes much of the gardens, even going so far as to explain how Babar brought the concept of the charbagh from Persia to India).

I will only touch upon the fact that when one is examining a historical film and praising it for getting its look right (Zankar correctly mentions that the ‘historical facts’ are not really facts, after all), one must actually make sure that the look really is right. It isn’t—Mughal-e-Azam’s glittering interiors, all cusped arches and Shahjahani columns, are actually not accurate: that particular style of architecture didn’t come into being until the reign of Shahjahan; the architecture of Akbar’s time is quite different.  And those virulent, gaudy colours are again not representative of Mughal interior design, which tended to veer more towards subdued tones and highly intricate patterns.

Then, there are the songs. Zankar makes no mention of the fact that Mohe panghat pe is not a Mughal-e-Azam original (it’s a traditional thumri, and there are several versions available online, even of recordings made in the 1930s). And while he does mention that of the fifteen songs originally written for the film, only twelve were finally used, he doesn’t mention that one song—Husn ki baaraat chali—was actually shot, though eventually not used in the film.

There are typos, there are words incorrectly transcribed (hain instead of hai for है, one of my pet peeves) and just plain incorrect language: Gawaahon ke bayanaat aur tamaam sabooton ke [sic] madde nazr rakhte hue adalat is natije par pahuchti [sic] hain [sic]… 

Yes, I know I’m being picky about these typos, and they are certainly not bad enough or frequent enough to really interfere with the reading of the book itself. The problem lies in the book, which has too little to make it useful to anybody who is really interested in Mughal-e-Azam. As an introduction to the film for someone who hasn’t watched it, or who may lack the powers of observation and the maturity to draw conclusions from it, it may be of use; to me, it came across as mostly forgettable. 

33 thoughts on “Book Review: Anil Zankar’s ‘Mughal-e-Azam: Legend as Epic’

  1. I have never read books based on films or film personalities. Don’t know why, but I don’t think I really want to either.

    Anyway the film itself was spectacular, especially the dialogues. When we went to see the fully coloured film in theatres we saw people actually clapped at some dialogues.

    And I have read somewhere that “Mohe panghat pe” was actually composed by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah or someone in his darbar, I am not sure.


    • I have absolutely zero interest in reading about the personal lives of anybody, film personality or not, so those types of books do not appeal to me. But books about the making of cinema – about what goes into a film – interest me.

      No idea if Mohe panghat pe was composed by Wajid Ali Shah, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.


  2. Thanks for the insiteful review Madhiluka. And for saving me some money and time. I
    am looking for a good book about the history of Indian cinema (Bollywood) however. I am relatively new to the films and actors and would like to know more. I’ve bought and watched about 20 Madhubala films and just a adore her. Through those I’m discovering other actors, music, dances, and directors. Not being an Indian native I’m not familiar with all the cultural and stylistic differences between Indian films and American but am very curious. Any suggestions?


    • Chris, thank you for commenting. I’m glad you liked this review.

      As for a book about the history of Bollywood – I’m afraid there’s nothing I can recommend. There is an Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, but I’ve not read it, so can’t say what it’s like (besides, since it’s about Indian cinema and not specifically Hindi cinema, Bollywood is likely to be only a part of it).

      What I do like are the books by people like Sidharth Bhatia and Akshay Manwani about certain specific film makers – very well-researched books, and well-written too. They won’t give you a complete picture of Hindi cinema, but they do offer glimpses of the evolution of the industry. Among the books I’d especially recommend are Askhay Manwani’s biography of Nasir Husain (he’s also written a biography of the poet/lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, though I don’t think that’s as good – plus, if you don’t understand Hindustani, that may be a drawback, even though Manwani provides translations); Sidharth Bhatia’s book on Navketan, and his book on The Patels of Filmindia; and Jai Arjun Singh’s book on Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

      Om Books does have a book on the Golden Age of Hindi cinema, but it’s awful.

      If you have the time, you might want to click on the ‘Book Review’ tag – it’ll lead you to all the posts in which I’ve reviewed books on Hindi cinema. I hope that helps!


      • Thank you. From all I’ve read on your wonderful blog it sure seems like you have the knowledge and skill to write THE book on the history Bollywood! I am learning a lot every time I come here, so thank you for all your great work. PS looking forward to your thoughts on Tarana one day.


        • You’re being very flattering! Thank you – but no, I know I don’t have a tenth of the knowledge required to write a book about cinema. (And that, actually, is why I haven’t ventured into that territory – because it’s so easy to make a mess of it. With fiction, there is less scope for messing up as long as you can write a decent story and have a good grasp over the language. With non-fiction, the added strain of having every fact correct, and of doing tons of research to get it all right, makes it more difficult).


  3. K.Ashif insisted Shakeel Badayuni saab to write “ Mohe panghat pe nandlal ched gayo” because Nandlal who made “Anarkali” in between making Mughal-e-azam and released


  4. Thanks for the review of the book. It seems it won’t provide anything new to our knowledge!
    I watched Mughal E azam for the first time in 2004, in a theater. When other newly released movies were waiting for audience, the Mughal e azam show was houseful.
    I liked it very much. Of course Madhubala and the songs were the only attractions for me and enjoyed the film a lot!
    I didn’t pay much attention to other details, except the dialogues, which were full of heavy urdu and audience was clapping and whistling on Akber’s dialogues. I think equal credit goes to Prithviraj Kapoor for this!


    • Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I can well imagine a crowd at the show of Mughal-e-Azam: it really is a spectacle, certainly the epic it’s known as.

      I must admit to a very great liking for the dialogues of the film. They are fabulous! Prithivraj Kapoor’s dialogues, of course, but also others (that Kaanton ko murjhaane ka khauf nahin hota is a special favourite of mine). :-)


  5. Madhu, thank you for reviewing this; I would have wanted to buy it otherwise. You just saved me time and trouble. :)

    I must admit to a very great liking for the dialogues of the film. They are fabulous! … Kaanton ko murjhaane ka khauf nahin hota is a special favourite of mine). :-)

    That’s my special favourite too; as is: Shehenshah ke in behisaab baksheeshon ke badle mein yeh kaneez Jalal-u-Din Mohammed Akbar ko apna khoon maaf karti hai.

    and Toh mera dil bhi aapka Hindustan nahin hai jo aap us par hukumat kare!”

    Oh, so many to like in this one. :)


  6. And those virulent, gaudy colours are again not representative of Mughal interior design, which tended to veer more towards subdued tones and highly intricate patterns.

    That, I think, you have to blame on the people who coloured the print, not K Asif. Though I must confess that the Pyar kiya toh darna kya sequence was rather lurid. And that was K Asif’s doing.


    • Anu, I was specifically meaning the original print, not the coloured one (and Zankar does make it a point to mention that he too is not referring to the coloured version released in 2004). All the screenshots in this post are taken from the original version – including that one of Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, which I thought illustrated the luridness pretty well.


  7. The sets for the ‘pyar kiya toh darna kya’ song look like candy land or something…always reminds me of the gingerbread house in ‘Hansel and Gretel’. They were quite lurid… The outfit they made Madhubala wear in that song was also so gaudy and it wasn’t a well choreographed song either. She was very graceful in ‘Mohe Pangal pe’, so ‘Pyar kiya toh darna kya’ didn’t turn out the way it did simply because Madhubala wasn’t a natural dancer. With adequate practice and with a well choreographed song, she could acquit herself very well. ‘Pyar kiya toh darna kya’s’ strength as a song lies in the lyrics, Madhubala’s acting and expressions, and where it is situated in the narrative, as a song of defiance.

    There are many, many amazing dialogues in the film. It’s one of the most exquisitely written films ever. The dialogues transition from stately and declamatory (Akbar), to more personal expressions of love or anguish in the case of Madhubala. Some of her lines were very regally delivered as well though; e.g. her ‘in behisaab bakshishon ke badle mein….’ line mentioned earlier. Then there were witty Suraiya’s amusing one-liners, and Nigar Sultana got some killer dialogues as well. Almost everyone got at least some fabulous lines.

    It’s an interesting observation you make about the fake sets for the gardens, and why they didn’t opt for real gardens. Another thing that’s always puzzled me is why it took K. Asif so long to decide that he wanted the film to be in colour. He had a very grand vision for the film, and lavished so much money on minor things; real pearls and fancy shoes. Colour Hindi/Urdu films had already started coming out in the early 50’s e.g. Aan. Why did it never occur to Asif to make the film in colour at the outset? I think I would have preferred the whole film in colour.


    • “The sets for the ‘pyar kiya toh darna kya’ song look like candy land or something…

      LOL! Well put. Yes, they do. And all you have to do is actually look at the Sheesh Mahal in Amber Fort (which is apparently where K Asif got the idea) and you can see how much more subdued that it. Plus, the mirrors in the original are tiny and really close together.

      I don’t know why K Asif never thought of making the entire film in colour. If his first bit of work was abandoned at Partition and it took him a further four years to tie up with Mistry and begin shooting again, I would guess (at a conservative estimate) that he’d have begun in 1952 or so. And while Aan had already been released in colour (plus a few other films?), it still wasn’t the norm. But with a budget like that, I certainly think he might have made it all in colour…


      • Shooting for this version of Mughal-e-Azam began in 1950 when colour wasn’t prevalent. It took ten years to shoot this movie – mostly due to the budget. This film was originally supposed to be a tri-lingual – made simultaneously in Urdu, Tamil and English, with each scene being filmed thrice.

        Also, it was Sohrab Modi who filmed in colour first (I think the film was Jhansi ki Rani in 1953) but by the late 50s colour was everywhere. So Amrohi decided to film the Pyar kiya toh darna kya sequence in colour; he also shot the climax in colour. Apparently, he liked the look so much, he wanted to reshoot the entire film but the distributors became impatient – they had already waited more than 8 years.

        In fact, it was a wonder the film was completed at all. Asif and Dilip Kumar had a falling out during the making (the latter didn’t even attend the premiere); the film was so over-budget that Asif had problems with his financiers (and he nearly shelved it halfway); Dilip Kumar and Madhubala had broken up in the interim and weren’t talking to each other – and so on and so forth.

        To be honest, I hate the colourised version – simply because the colours are fake. It’s bad enough to have the original coloured portions look like a painter run amuck; having digital colours takes away from the elegance of the cinematographer’s craft. Besides, the colur version is around 20 minutes shorter than the original film.


        • Thank you for that very detailed answer, Anu. I think that pretty much answers all the whys of the film’s being in black and white.

          I agree completely re: the colourised version. I hate it. It looks so artificial (and that goes for every single Hindi movie or movie clip – I’ve seen several from Chori Chori, Dil Tera Deewaana, etc – that I’ve come across). I would any day watch a movie in its original black and white rather than in a fake colourised version. If one can’t tell, it doesn’t matter. Sadly, in most cases, it’s so horribly evident, it gets in the way of enjoying a good movie. (Plus, I agree about it taking away from the cinematographer’s craft).


  8. Even if Hindi colour fims were rare in the late 40’s and 50’s, K. Asif had vast ambitions for ‘Mughal-e- Azam’ and wanted the film to be visually spectacular. The whole notion of spectacle preoccupied him a good deal. Having the film made in colour at the time would have been one obvious way to make it stand out, and more effectively bring out the splendor he wanted to depict on the screen . In light of this, it’s puzzling that shooting the film in colour occurred to him so late in the day…and even in the 40’s when the film was just being conceptualised, there was a precedent for colour movies in the Bombay film industry. Apparently, the first colour Hindi film was called ‘Kisan Kanya’ and came out way back in 1937. I also used to wonder why Madhubala was considered so beautiful. I thought she was nice looking but considered appellations such as ‘Venus of Indian Cinema’ to be greatly exaggerated. It’s really when you see the original colour portions of ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ that you understand why she was considered so beautiful. The black and white changed and subdued her appearance. The colourisation job that was done later on was obviously ghastly, and I would prefer the original black and white any day. But the original colour portions were good, notwithstanding the somewhat garish backdrop to the ‘pyar kiya toh darna kya’ sequence.


    • Please read Anu’s comment, above – I think she makes some very good points regarding this.

      As for Madhubala: I think she looks her loveliest in her black and white films – in Kaala Paani, for instance, or Amar, or Howrah Bridge. But we will agree to disagree, shall we? :-)


  9. @silver – because colour film was expensive, and the sheer scale and magnitude of this film already made it the most expensive Indian film – even in its black & white version.

    As for why Amrohi didn’t envision it in colour – I don’t know if he did. But sheer practicality made it impossible to fund the film even in black & white. The budget for the Pyar kiya hai darna kya sequence was as much as that of an entire film in those days. (About Rs 1.5 million in those days; adjust it for inflation and you can only boggle at the cost.)

    Asif had a solid gold Krishna statues, imported Belgian glass for the Sheesh Mahal set, multiple cameras (not the norm in those days), a cast of hundreds, live animals for the battle scenes – the film cost between a crore and a crore-and-a-half rupees. You’re talking 1950s. Now imagine the sheer scale and spectacle of the film and tell me how you think it could have been funded if the entire film was in colour?

    The producer Shapoorji Pallonji nearly went bankrupt; certainly, by the time the film reached the theatres, there was no love lost between the producer and the director. Luckily for both of them, the film was a blockbuster.

    Regarding Madhubala, one has to only see her on screen to witness her magic. And I agree with Madhu that watching her in black and white was infinitely superior to the coloured portions of Mughal-e-Azam. She certainly didn’t look her best in the Pyar kiya toh darna kya sequence. But liking someone – whether in black & white or colour – is a subjective issue, and like Madhu, I’ll agree to disagree with your opionion (and vice versa).


  10. As you yourself mention in an earlier comment, after filming the ‘Pyar kiya toh darna kya’ sequence, K. Asif himself wanted to reshoot the entire film in colour. This is something he clearly envisaged as a real possibility. The producers were naturally not likely to entertain the proposal, after the film had been in production for over a decade, was now nearing completion, and with millions of rupees having already been spent. Had K. Asif aired the desire to shoot the movie in colour early on, and not when the film was nearing completion after a decade, the film may well have been in colour.

    I’m aware of everything you’ve listed: the gold krishna statue, the hundreds of extras, the expensive battle sequences, every single item of jewellery being real etc. Can anyone even tell that the krishna statue is real gold or that pearls being showered down were real in B & W? No. Yet, Asif insisted on it. All of this reinforces the idea that K. Asif did not perceive money as a limitation. If he wanted something a particular way, he would go all out to get it. He paid Bade Ghulam Ali Khan a staggering amount for recording ‘Prem Jogan Ban Ke’; even Khan was astonished at the amount offered and would have probably agreed for considerably less. Asif was throwing around immense amounts to fulfill his vision, and was satisfying his every whim with regards to what ‘Mughal e Azam’ would feature. I think it is entirely conceivable that if K. Asif had gotten it into his head to shoot the film in colour earlier on (and not near the end), the film before us today would have been in original colour. He would have gone the extra mile, or put in greater effort to secure the additional funding.

    With regards to Madhubala, I do think it is a real pity that we saw so little of her in colour. Colour came much closer to representing how she actually looked in real life. I certainly think that she looked very beautiful in this song:


    • I think you’re missing the point. K Asif certainly threw money around like it was going out of fashion. But the fact remains that if he had envisaged his vision in colour at the beginning or at the end, there would have been no one willing to fund the endeavour. The cost would have been too staggering to imagine.

      In fact, the black and white version itself went so much over the budget that he almost shelved the whole project half-way. It took Dilip Kumar to convince him and Shapoorji Pallonji to cough up the necessary funds. I doubt that he could have ‘secured additional funding’.

      But since we seem to be going round and round the [hypothetical] mulberry bush, I’ll cede the argument to you.


  11. Any thoughts on an English translation of the title? The most common translation I see is “The Great Moghul”. Occasionally, “The Emperor of the Moguls”, although someone once told me the best translation is “The Great Moghul Emperor”


        • Too true! I personally don’t think Indian colourists (is that what they’re called?) are too good at their work when it comes to aesthetics – they tend to be lavish with the gaudiness. Colourised films like Mughal-e-Azam, Naya Daur and Hum Dono end up reminding me of the art my five year old churns out.


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