If you are from India you have probably heard of Mughal-e-Azam (which translates as The Greatest of the Mughals.) If not, you probably haven’t, which is more or less the point of this column: to flag up films that are worth watching that might otherwise escape attention. The DVD cover of Mughal-e-Azam promises much (the Emperor’s moustache alone caused me to pick it up in the first place) and if I quote the back cover blurb at length you might begin to see why I was happy to snap it up without further hesitation:
To say the least it is history recreated. An epic that happens only once in the annals of time or when true love challenges the pages of history. With K. Asif’s legendary genius you feel and experience the golden era of the greatest rulers of all time.
Mughal-e-Azam is an attempt to present Emperor Akbar as a man torn between his duties as the Emperor and love as a father towards his son Salim who fell in love with a frightened little palace maid, called Anarkali. It is a portrayal of the confrontation between the silken tresses of love and iron laws of the state, the sheer madness of romance, the vibrant emotion of Salim and Anarkali.
…unbelievable war scenes acted by thousands…
History is not made overnight. Mughal-e-Azam was created over a span of fifteen years, a period of toil, turmoil and talent. With the magnificence and grandeur of true to life sets reflecting the Mughal Sultanate, the dubar, the sheesh mahal and so on, unbelievable war scenes acted by thousands of jwans, camels, horses, elephants, the costumes, fourteen cameras operating at a time, it has been the highest ever budgeted film. With classic music, touching lyrics, inimitable acting, the film, no longer, made international history. Mughal-e-Azam, K. Asif’s dream come true, a film not to be seen but experienced. An epic only as immortal as love itself.
Heady stuff, I think you will agree. Lovers of literature have long known that the major themes of all the great stories are love, war and insanity. In cinema these generally translate to sex scenes, fight scenes and wibbly psychedelic wig-outs (possibly finding their ultimate conclusions in hardcore porn, extreme gore and the collected works of Stan Brakhage, but that is another article entirely) to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the skills and budget of the filmmakers concerned. Sergei Bondarchuk’s masterful six and a half hour adaptation of War and Peace, for example, fuses these three elements perfectly and to date remains the high water mark of this kind of epic storytelling. More recent attempts at the epic have fared less well, relying either on expensive sets, excessive CGI or tacky graded filters to make up for a general absence of suitably sweeping storylines, so it is refreshing to see a film like Mughal-e-Azam manage to do so much with so little and with so much charm.
…quite possibly the single most effective piece of storytelling…
The original version was seen in black-and-white with two extended musical sequences in full, garish colour showing off the costumes and sets to their fullest extent, and it is these, I think, that represent the film’s greatest assets. The romance between the two leads, despite being central to the story, is not especially memorable, but their hair and make-up most definitely is. A wordless sequence following a rose navigating its way along an internal palace waterway is quite possibly the single most effective piece of storytelling in the entire movie, but it is not alone. Games are played with statues and gardens and the rooms in which the drama takes place are the equal of any of the actors at play within them. The music is another highlight. Lata Mangeshkar, often reported to be the most prolific female recording artist of all time, is without doubt the greatest playback voice of Indian cinema and her dulcet tones heard here are unmistakeable. Anyone even remotely interested in the history of music in film needs to seek this out along with anything else that boasts her credit.
The film doesn’t get everything right. The battle scenes, impressive though the staging might have been, are largely represented by large numbers of horsemen riding alternately left to right then right to left across the screen, repeated ad infinitum until the point where someone wobbles back onto the set clutching armour or a chestful of booty. The historical accuracy of the storyline is also open to question, with a recent article in the Guardian pointing out that the real-life Salim wasn’t at all the nice chap he is portrayed as here.
…celebrated as something of a trailblazer…
A hilarious series of scenes early on depict the infant prince discovering the joys of alcohol for the very first time, leading to plenty of bad behaviour, rudeness and filial disobedience only for him to be redeemed in battle and find himself transformed into a bit of a big girl’s blouse just in time for the movie’s central act. If history is to be believed, however, he remained quite the little tearaway for the remainder of his days, having had several who displeased him castrated, beaten to death or skinned alive for his pleasure and is supposed to have been behind the murder of his best friend. It has also been suggested that the woman he fell in love with to the anger of his father was actually one of his father’s wives, which adds a whole other dimension of anger to the civil war that subsequently raged between them. Still, seeing as this is a Bollywood crowd pleaser filmed in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s I think it would be unreasonable to expect much more than what we get.
The ending is surprisingly downbeat, however, which counts for something. It is certainly more out there than anything either Federico Fellini or Ken Russell was making at that time, both of whom could be seen as having made developments on the film language demonstrated here, and as such K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam deserves to be celebrated as something of a trailblazer.