New Delhi: When it comes to Bollywood epics, it is hard to find a film that surpasses Mughal-e-Azam. The 1960 epic, set during Mughal emperor Akbar’s rule, tells a tale as old as time — a tale that many even in 2020 will relate to. Salim and Anarkali’s love story is now a metaphor for every love story that runs into obstacles, especially in India, where couples from different socioeconomic strata are so often shamed and shunned. But the film’s real beauty comes from two things — its grandeur and Madhubala.
Directed by K. Asif, Mughal-e-Azam is based on a play called Anarkali, written by Imtiaz Ali Taj in 1922. The film tells the story of a young prince (played by Dilip Kumar), hardened from the war and striving to meet his father, emperor Akbar’s expectations. Instead, he meets Anarkali, a beautiful, intelligent courtesan (played by Madhubala), and instantly falls in love. Their love, of course, is not accepted by Akbar. Salim, in act of protest, goes to battle against his father and loses, sealing Anarkali’s fate — she is to be entombed alive.
The film, with a simple plot line and a grand production scale, captured the imagination of the Indian audience like nothing else. The story’s historical accuracy has been questioned many times, but that never really mattered to the audience. What mattered was Salim and Anarkali’s doomed love, which Kumar and Madhubala brought alive on screen. Her performance as Anarkali is considered to be the finest of Madhubala’s career. Her beauty and grace entranced audiences just as Anarkali did Salim. Taj’s play was adapted into film three times before this one, and while their Anarkalis were hits, Madhubala’s took the cake with her grace, beauty, dancing talent and ability to bring out the tragedy of the poor dancer’s life.
Another reason Salim and Anarkali dominated people’s imagination was Kumar and Madhubala’s on-screen chemistry. The couple dated in real life for close to seven years and broke it off while the epic was being shot. There are a few stories of how their relationship turned acrimonious on set, but none of it translated on to the screen. In fact, it seemed like they were more in love than ever. One specific scene, famous for its sensuality — Salim and Anarkali almost kiss with only a feather separating their lips — was reportedly shot when they weren’t even on talking terms.
The film is famous for many other reasons — it is one of the highest grossing films in Bollywood history, it took over 12 years to make, thanks to the original cast dropping out during Partition, and it cost a whopping Rs 1.5 crores. Asif, however, pulled off his magnum opus, by sticking to his principle of getting every tiny detail right. This meticulousness is visible also in the film’s much-loved music, directed by Naushad. From Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya to Mohe Panghat Pe to Teri Mehfil Mein, each song on the 12-track playlist is a gem not only because it is enjoyable, but because each song lent more emotion, more mood to the story.
Tragic romances are a Bollywood staple and it is because each one tries to recreate the magic of Mughal-e-Azam. In fact, when it was re-released in colourised format in 2004, it did just as well as it did in 1960. It turns out, even half a century later, a little bit of Salim and Anarkali are still alive in all of us.