K. Asif's "Mughal-E-Azam" is a glittering icon of Indian cinema -- nine years in the making, 16 in the planning, released in 1960 amid much fanfare. The film cost $3 million, an astronomical sum at the time; even today, the average Bollywood production costs only $1.3 million.
"Mughal-E-Azam" ("The Great Mughal") has been lovingly colorized -- not a good idea for most black-and-white classics -- but perfect in this instance, and the blockbuster now has surround sound and a 70-millimeter format.
In its grandiose theatricality and operatic sweep, "Mughal-E-Azam" brings to mind such emotion-charged silent era spectacles as D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" and Cecil B. DeMille's "Samson and Delilah." Asif's vision and the fierce commitment of everyone involved take hold quickly.
It 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 he discovers the boy is becoming a spoiled adolescent, the emperor puts him into armor and sends him off to war for the next 14 years. Upon his return, Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) becomes smitten with a lush-looking yet demure courtesan, Anarkali (Madhubala), a statue come to life as a result of palace schemes.
Anarkali realizes that love between the two would be "ignominy," but 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 freedom to love with liberty, it 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, "Mughal-E-Azam" acknowledges a spirit of revolution ultimately only to uphold the established order in a superbly stirring fashion.
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