Directed by: K. Asif || Produced by: Shapoorj Pallonji
Screenplay by: Aman, Kamal Amrohi, K. Asif, Wajahat Mirza, Ehsan Rizvi || Starring: Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Durga Khote
Music by: Naushad || Cinematography: R.D. Mathur || Editing by: Dharamvir || Country: India || Language: Urdu
Running Time: 177 minutes
I’ve noticed something interesting in my exploration of the Bollywood film industry and subsequent discussions about its films with people from South Asia or of South Asian decent. I’ve discovered that, quite like in the United States and with regards to Western film industries, there are two main types of movie-going audiences: Those that love the old-school classics and those that stick to mainstream new releases. With regards to Bollywood and Hindi films, the former audiences love things like Mother India (1957), Sholay (1975), and Raj Kapoor, and the latter moviegoers prefer titles like Lagaan (2001), 3 Idiots (2009), Shahrukh Khan, and Hrithik Roshan. My “utilization” of both types of Bollywood fans has directed me toward a wide range of titles across many genres of the melodramatic Indian landscape that is the South Asian film industry.
This brings me to the Bollywood-Urdu language classic, Mughal-E-Azam (MEA), which was released way, way back in 1960 in its original black-and-white format. Turned on to it by both my own research and the recommendations of some of my oldies-oriented South Asian friends, I was eager to see and compare this well regarded film to other Bollywood classics I’d watched, most notably Sholay and Mother India. I knew from the start this flick would resemble the flavor of previous old-school Bollywood flicks I’d seen, so I made sure to put myself in the right mindset and view the film from the most mature perspective possible. What did I find?
The results were pretty stunning. While not as outwardly expressive or as dark as Mother India, nor as tenaciously violent as Sholay, MEA is a subtly beautiful film that incorporates many elements of classical South Asian feature-filmmaking, namely heartfelt and melodramatic romance, inter-familial turmoil and conflict, and a colorful (both literally and figuratively) background of religious expression.
The primary drama of MEA centers around the romantic interests of one Prince Salim, son of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who presides as the holy Muslim ruler of India during the late 1500’s. The story goes that Salim falls in love with a woman from a substantially lower social class than he, the court dancer Anarkali (Madhubala in her most famous role), and the relationship is discovered and formally disapproved of by said Emperor Akbar. Much melodrama ensues, including plentiful amounts of diverse music, colorful dress, spectacular set-designs, and many emotionally distraught characters.
The big strength of MEA is its intense, singular focus on the romance at hand. Once the setting is established and the primary characters are introduced, MEA doesn’t bother with the needless distractions that so many other Indian flicks endorse. The story is firm in its aim, and pushes forward until the ultimate conclusion of its characters’ arcs. All of the main characters’ motivations are established, and then the story only bothers its near three-hour length with fleshing them out further. Nothing is wasted.
The main components of the story are the mother (Jodhabai, played by Durga Khote)-father (Akbar, played by Prithviraj Kapoor)-son (Salim, played by Dilip Kumar) dynamic, and of course, Madhubala’s Anarkali. There is some minor exterior examination of the political scheming that occurs in the background of the primary romantic conflict, but these minuscule subplots add weight and depth to the overarching character-driven plot. While undoubtedly a romantic epic in the same vein as Gone with the Wind (1939) or Mother India, MEA is a much leaner, much more focused narrative that strives to get the job done as simply and as effectively as possible. It’s all muscle, no fat.
In addition to showcasing a throbbing romantic tale, the movie encapsulates magnificent spectacles through extravagant sets, costumes, extras, and exciting (albeit brief) action scenes featuring impressive cavalries of horses and elephants. The intricate set and costume-designs make the settings glow with passion, something that was clearly influential to and recreated in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 Devdas remake. The costume themselves function as beautifully woven extensions of the glorious palace halls, and emphasize the emotional content of the characters wearing them. Though used sparingly, the massive amounts of extras in the outdoor song numbers and the few action scenes give size and scale to the political drama; they contrast with the intimate moments of character development within the indoor royal chambers.
Speaking of song numbers, MEA has a diverse lineup that pace the story well. Some are staged as solo dances while others are choral numbers, and some are even arranged as vocal debates that, dare I say, draw comparisons to modern day rap-battles! (There is a term for this type of musical call-and-answer, which I do not know.) Although none of the musical numbers match the technical brilliance of MEA’s modern descendant in Bhansali’s Devdas, the sheer variety and smart pacing of the numbers makes this Urdu musical epic one with plenty of lyrical muscle.
The only thing I can knock MEA for is its stilted acting, a surprise in a national film culture known for melodrama and overracting, and which robs the story of some emotional force. Other than Madhubala’s performance, most of the male actors, including Prithviraj Kapoor as Emperor Akbar and Dilip Kumar as Salim, lack emotional potency and act like robots on screen. It’s a shame, because the movie could have transcended exceptional territory if its cast had the acting muscle to back up the strength of the film’s narrative, musical, and set-design structure.
In any case, MEA remains a potent film despite its actors’ lack thereof, because all its other elements at play are so good. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into either category of old-fashioned classics-lovers or shallow mainstream release-followers, because I don’t identify with either group, but I have to say that in this case, the classics put on a damned fine performance. MEA lives up to its legendary status in resounding and definitive fashion.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Mughal-e-Azam is a disciplined, focused narrative that plays to its own strengths of romantic passion and political intrigue. It features strong, varied musical numbers and effective cinematography, which combine to give the film emotional depth that so many of its cast-members lack. The spectacular set and costume-design take full advantage of the post-colorization process to make the visuals come to life. The colorization of classic black-and-white films is generally frowned upon, but in this case, it was the right decision.
—- However… aside from Madhubala’s memorable turn as the alluring, tragic court-dancer, Anarkali, most of the cast is a robotic disappointment. I never thought I would see the day when I would ask a South Asian film to put more energy into its actors’ performances, but here it is.
—> Mughal-e-Azam receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? I never once heard Emperor Akbar say, “It’s a trap!” Not once.