New Delhi: A set at Mohan Studios — 150 feet long, 80 feet wide, 35 feet tall, and adorned with mirrors and lighting, which took almost eight hours to set up — has left a lasting image in the mind of viewers. Envisioned by director K. Asif, this was the set of the 1960 Indian cinema classic, Mughal-e-Azam.
The tragic romance between Salim and Anarkali has become a metaphor for doomed love stories. Everything from Madhubala’s performance as the courtesan Anarkali (exceptional, especially given her lack of training in classical dance), Naushad’s gorgeous music — such as Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, which has remained every lover’s anthem — to even the design of the invitations to the film’s premiere (like a royal scroll) were evidence of Asif’s obsessive, meticulous eye for detail. No wonder it took him 16 years to make this movie, which broke every box-office record there was. It was only 15 years later that Sholay finally dethroned the epic, but that does not take away from the grandeur of the work of art.
Interestingly, film scholars like Eric Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy dismissed the movie as “an absurd and gaudy spectacle quite undeserving of awards or recognition”.
Asif was active from the 1940s until 1971, but only had four films to his credit, two of which remained incomplete. At every step of his filmmaking career, the universe seemed to thwart his dreams. On his 49th death anniversary, ThePrint looks back at the rocky road that was this cinema icon’s life.
Arduous journey to a magnum opus
Born as Asif Karim in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, the future director-writer-producer moved to Mumbai with filmy dreams. Mughal-e-Azam was not his first film. He made his debut with Phool (1945).
Asif had begun developing Mughal-e-Azam in 1944, but faced many hurdles. He had to imagine two versions of Imtiaz Ali Taj’s play Anarkali.
The first one starred Nargis as Anarkali and Chandramohan as Akbar. For a brief period, production of the film seemed to be well under way without any glitches. But as 1947 drew closer and with it, Partition, Asif was soon abandoned by his financier, who chose to move to Pakistan. To make matters worse, Chandramohan died on 2 April 1949. The movie was shelved.
But everything happens for a reason, as they say. And in Asif’s case, it was as though Madhubala and Dilip Kumar were simply meant to play the star-crossed lovers. Once business tycoon Shapoorji Pallonji stepped in, the sets of Mughal-e-Azam came back to life, and how.
The tragedy of his last directorial ventures
The latter two movies that Asif was making were called Sasta Khoon, Mehanga Paani and Love And God. Of these, the second venture was to be made completely in colour — another tragic romance, a retelling of the story of Laila and Majnu. It, too, ended up being a massive labour of love, not only for Asif, but also for those he left behind.
Love and God beat Mughal-e-Azam in the time it spent in production — a whopping 23 years. The film originally had Guru Dutt in the lead role, but when the actor drank himself to death in 1964, he was replaced by Sanjeev Kumar. However, soon after that, Asif too passed away in 1971.
A decade and a half later, the first of Asif’s three widows, Akhtar Asif, sister of Dilip Kumar, released the incomplete version of the film by stitching together all that she could find in different studios. The patchwork version of the film was released on 27 May 1986, by which time several members of the cast had died, including Sanjeev Kumar.
With songs composed by Naushad and dialogues by Wajahat Mirza and a stunning playlist (including a song that featured Mukesh, Mohammad Rafi, Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey, Lata Mangeshkar and others), Love and God was on its way to becoming a film that could have been even bigger than Mughal-e-Azam.
But the director of star-crossed love stories turned out to have a star-crossed life himself.