There are two kinds of movie buffs who watch Mughal-E-Azam, arguably the greatest Bollywood film ever made. One, of course, watches it for the pure love and artistry of Mughal-E-Azam and the other watch it just for Madhubala. So intrinsic is the imagery of Madhubala in Mughal-E-Azam that we often forget that films on the same subject (based on a 1922 play called Anarkali by Imtiaz Ali Taj) had been made thrice before. Silent era star Sulochana played Anarkali twice (in 1928 and 1935) while in a 1953 version, Bina Rai was the bewitching courtesan in whose blind love Prince Salim, the future king of Hindustan, has raised the flag of revolt. On the opposite side of the spectrum is his father, Emperor Akbar.
Records suggest all versions of Anarkali were runaway hits. In fact, Bina Rai’s Anarkali with Pradeep Kumar was the highest grossing Hindi film of that year. Yet, it is the fourth version, Mughal-E-Azam from 1960 with an unrepeatable star cast of Madhubala, Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Durga Khote and Ajit that has become a cultural touchstone. There’s no point in repeating the near-mythic stories related to the making of the film. Hindi cinema viewers have long known that Mughal-E-Azam was in the making for over 12 years and went through several changes of hands. The film was believed to be first conceived in the mid-1940s by K. Asif, that era’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali multiplied by ten. The original cast was Sapru, Chandramohan and Nargis but when its Jinnah-leaning producer left for Pakistan post-Partition the film got stuck until rescued by Shapoorji Pallonji, a Parsi millionaire from Bombay. By this time, it was the 1950s. Times had changed. The stars originally signed up were no longer in currency.
Nargis, who would go on to immortalise the long-suffering but strong mother figure in Mother India, gave way to Madhubala, who was already working with all the leading superstars of the day including Dilip Kumar (Tarana, Amar and Sangdil), Ashok Kumar (Mahal and Howrah Bridge), Guru Dutt (Mr and Mrs 55), Kishore Kumar (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi) and Dev Anand (Kala Pani, Nirala, Armaan). It helped that Dilip Kumar was in love with her. Mughal-E-Azam’s frame quivers with their passionate chemistry. And yet, look at their professionalism! The most erotically-charged scene in the film – the feather sequence – was shot when the couple were separated and didn’t even see each other in the eye. As Kumar revealed in his autobiography The Substance and The Shadow, “The outcome was that halfway through the production of Mughal-e-Azam we were not even talking to each other. The classic scene with the feather coming between our lips, which set a million imaginations on fire, was shot when we had completely stopped even greeting each other.”
Its behind-the-scenes story is equally fascinating. Madhubala’s father was a menace on the sets. How do you get her to shoot such an erotic scene in her dad’s presence? According to one story, K. Asif handed a wad of notes to his Man Friday with the specific instruction to keep Ataullah Khan, Madhubala’s father, away from the set and somehow, distracted. “Take this money,” K. Asif is believed to have commanded. “Play cards with him. Lose!”
In his autobiography, Kumar also confirmed what many fans already knew – the reason Madhubala’s marriage with Dilip Kumar fell through. Admitting that Madhubala did “have some of the attributes I hoped to find in a woman at that age and time,” the reason they could no longer be together was her greedy father’s alleged attempts at making a business venture out of their marriage. He was perhaps afraid that he would lose Madhubala/Baby Mumtaz who had been the sole breadwinner for the large family from her days as a child artiste, a theme that was common in Hindi cinema of that time. (Meena Kumari being a shining example and victim of an oppressive father.)
Incidentally, at the heart of Mughal-E-Azam is a powerful father figure. The film opens with a map of India, with the mighty Hindustan of Himalaya and Ganga as the narrator. Though K. Asif pitches it as a historical epic the fact is that there’s no historical basis for the enchanting figure of Anarkali. There’s a grave in Lahore claimed to be Anarkali’s. The film, then, like the play on which it is based, is pure fiction. The characters speak Urdu. Lyricist and writer Javed Akhtar points out in Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Talking Films: Conversations with Javed Akhtar, “In Akbar’s time, Urdu wasn’t developed at all and the lingua franca was Persian. Akbar did not know Persian. He was born in Sind and brought up in northern India. So he most probably spoke Haryanvi and Bhojpuri.” To think of Mughal-E-Azam in Bhojpuri or any language other than Urdu would make it a laugh riot of the unintentional kind. Surely, no film in Hindi cinema history would lose so much of its value by being made in another language. Little wonder then that four best writers of the Urdu language were employed to pound out the memorable lines. All actors of the film spoke chaste Urdu, including Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala.
In the opening scene, we see Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) walking barefoot like a commoner under the scorching desert sun to seek saintly blessings for an heir to the Mughal kingdom. Soon, he’s blessed with a son, Prince Salim. Anarkali’s entry is half an hour into the film. Anarkali is deceptively dressed as a marble sculpture when a grown-up Salim first meets her. That itself is the first key that points to the ominous omen of the climax when Anarkali would be condemned to be entombed alive. The song “Teri Mehfil Mein” holds clues to the uncertain future of Anarkali who, it seems, foresees her glorious doom and impending fame accorded to tragic love when she sings, “Mohabbat humne maana zindagi barbaad karti hai/ Yeh kya kam hai ke mar jaane pe duniya yaad karti hai/ Kisi ke ishq mein duniya lutakar hum bhi dekhenge.”
From there on, Mughal-E-Azam is all about this common courtesan who challenges the imposing courts of the Mughal sultanate. She openly rebels against Akbar in ‘Jab Pyaar Kiya Toh’, one of the most popular tracks of the film. Madhubala dominates the soundtrack like no other film heroine ever did. If one heart of Mughal-E-Azam is in its dramatic scenes, the other heart lies in its song and music. In a film that’s all about royalty and courtly affectations, it is the nautch girl Anarkali who suggests royalty and class with her uncompromising values and power of love. The film could well have been titled Anarkali, instead of Mughal-E-Azam and no one would object.
In 1960, besides Mughal-E-Azam, Madhubala dominated the box-office charts with Barsaat Ki Raat, the second highest grossing film of the year. Nine years later, just 36, she died tragically young. We will never know what she would have been like in dotage. Guess, she would have gone the Waheeda Rehman way – graceful and elegant. Maybe, she would have taken the Suchitra Sen route, going AWOL from the public eye. We do know that Hindi cinema has never produced a more bewitching beauty than her. We have Shammi Kapoor on record that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He even proposed her marriage.
Instead, Madhubala married Kishore Kumar. It was a marriage made in hell. She died of a heart ailment, leaving behind only memories, magical stardust and mystery – and many bruised and broken hearts, including those belonging to Shammi Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Premnath to name just a few.