K. Asif’s “Mughal-E-Azam” is a glittering icon of Indian cinema, nine years in the making, 16 in the planning, that was released in 1960 amid much fanfare and a rapturous reception.
Around 1957 color film had arrived in India, and Asif wanted to reshoot everything, but because that was financially prohibitive, he had to be satisfied with filming only three reels of his two-part, three-hour epic in color. As it is, the film cost $3 million, an astronomical sum at the time; even today the average Bollywood production costs only $1.3 million.
Now “Mughal-E-Azam” (“The Great Mughal”) has been lovingly colorized -- not a good idea for most black-and-white classics but perfect in this particular instance -- and the blockbuster has surround sound and a 70-millimeter format as well.
In its grandiose theatricality and operatic sweep, “Mughal-E-Azam” brings to mind such emotion-charged silent era spectacles as “Cabiria” and “Intolerance” and Cecil B. DeMille in general -- perhaps “Samson and Delilah” in particular -- and, as an example of powerful, larger-than-life storytelling, even “Gone With the Wind.” It takes awhile to get used to its florid look, feel and language, but Asif’s vision and the fierce commitment on the part of everyone involved take hold quickly.
The film becomes compelling, its exalted language taking on an aura of Shakespearean tragedy performed in the grand old declamatory style, accompanied by Naushad’s appropriately thunderous score. That most of the action takes place in the Mughal’s vast, incredibly ornate palace attests to Asif’s energy and cinematic flair and his and co-writer Aman’s deftness in integrating the film’s many musical interludes into the narrative flow. Every dance, shot with a nod to Busby Berkeley, and Shakeel Badayuni’s plaintive lyrics expand and heighten emotions and themes. “Mughal-E-Azam” is an example of popular folk art at its most endearing, and while the film is filled with considerable grace, as a mass entertainment it has not an ounce of subtlety.
It also tells an essentially simple story. Hindustan’s Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor), the great Mughal, and Empress Jodhabai (Durga Khote) are at last blessed with an heir. When Akbar realizes his son is turning into a spoiled, dissolute adolescent by his indulgent mother, the emperor puts him into armor and sends him off to war for the next 14 years. Upon his return Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar), now a handsome war hero, catches the eye of the sensual and ambitious court dancer Bahaar (Nigar Sultana), who schemes with an anti-royalist sculptor (Kumar) to create a statue of a beautiful young woman as a homecoming present for the prince. As Bahaar doubtlessly anticipates, Salim will defy the court astrologer to wait a day before unveiling it. Once unveiled, the statue comes to life as a lush-looking yet demure courtesan, Anarkali (Madhubala).
Salim is immediately smitten, and although Anarkali realizes that love between the two would be “ignominy,” she is swept off her feet.
The film thus reaches the heart of its matter, the eternal struggle between love and duty, which pits father against son -- the Mughal throne cannot be “wasted on a mere slave girl” -- and the father against himself -- “I am not an enemy of love but a slave to principle.” Not even a military revolt by the son against his father ends the conflict.
Asif reveals grandeur and dimension in his characters as they thrash out their fates, and although “Mughal-E-Azam” plays to populist sentiments, equating the freedom to love with liberty and the right to happiness, it ultimately upholds strong traditional values after allowing Akbar to grant Anarkali a purportedly just fate. The caste system is affirmed; the status of women remains lowly no matter how noble their character. The plight of Anarkali, the woman whom Salim would make his queen, might seem archaic, but probably not to Camilla Parker Bowles.
In expressing a longing for a past of fantasy grandeur and glory, “Mughal-E-Azam” acknowledges a spirit of revolution ultimately only to uphold the established order in a superbly stirring fashion.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Suitable family fare
Prithviraj Kapoor...Emperor Akbar
Dilip Kumar...Prince Salim
Durga Khote...Empress Jodhabai
A Sterling Investment Corp. Private Ltd. Presentation. Project design and direction of the 2004 restoration Deepesh Salgia. Director K. Asif. Screenplay by K. Asif and Aman. Cinematographer R.D. Mathur. Editor Dharamvir. Music Naushad. Lyrics Shakeel Badayuni. Dance director Lachu Maharaj. Costumes Jagi. Art director M.K. Syed. In Hindi, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 57 minutes, plus intermission.
At selected theaters.