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.