Released in 1960 and directed by K. Asif, the Indian movie called Mughal-e-Azam, is a tale made after the scenario created by Imtiaz Ali Taj about the legend of Anarkali. Dreamy version of India’s Moghul Empire’s history, Anarkali could have been a court dancer which Prince Salim, son of the famous Emperor Akbar, was supposed to be in love with. All the plot turns around the illegitimate love between Salim and Anarkali that social decency and Emperor Akbar’s decisions made impossible to enjoy, which will lead the two lovers toward tragedy.

I had to watch this movie twice before starting to like it: the first time, in colorised version, and the second time, in the original black and white. I have to acknowledge that the colorised version of a very typical 50’s to 60’s Indian movie can be a bit hard to get in. Abundance of pastel colours – due to the important ageing of the colorisation work – and the extreme use of shiny reflections in costumes and sceneries, are all elements that need to be put aside in order to really enjoy the movie. There has been a long period of European mistrust for Indian movies, especially Mumbai productions, and I guess one of the most central stereotypes was the issue with shapes, songs and colours. In my opinion, this is completely due to the lack of aesthetical flexibility among modern Europeans. I said 「modern」 because I bet that it wouldn’t have been the case with ancient aesthetics but some recent centuries of obscurity in arts brought the European mindset to an extreme exactingness and some blindness in front of other continents’ fashions. For this reason, I would recommend European people to watch Mughal-e-Azam in its original black and white version.

The movie’s interest is even not in the plot, which is indeed, a very classical story. The interest is in how the story is treated. In this archetypical scenario directed as if it were a theatre play, the actors’ work is mostly seen in their sights, their faces, their gestures – or even better, their absence of gestures – and how they stick to the accents and rhythms of the movie songs. Those who understand Hindi/Urdu will notice how the language is intended to show a classical moment in India’s cultural history, when this blend of Hindustani with Persian influences was the witness of how cultural fusion can be the root of elegance. Those who don’t know Hindu/Urdu can still feel the contrast between the solemn and dark atmosphere and the punctual lightness of voices and brightness. This is also true for Akbar’s very tensed personality, well played by Prithviraj Kapoor. The psychic conflict that hurts him from inside, trapped between his love for his son – and his respect for Anarkali – on one side, and his political duty for justice and the country on the other side, is not overacted, actually just as if it were a classical European tragedy. Anarkali is played by Madhubala, and she knows how to render the actual freshness of an extreme opposite character who shows herself natural, free but respectful, brave and honest, and perfectly able to publish her love even before the court. Madhubala has a good mastery of the sad smile.

If Mughal-e-Azam could be watched for other reasons than the cultural interest of 16th century’s Moghul India – unfortunately in a 20th century’s fantasy version – we could still add that this movie would help newcomers to set foot in a very contemporaneous mindset, given the year of the release, but also classical and even conservative to some moral and political extent. A real contrast is established between a love revolution ideal – clearly expressed in one of the final scenes’ songs ऐ मोहब्बत जिन्दाबाद [1] by Naushad and Mohammed Rafi – and promotion of a return to moral and civic righteousness. Symbols of thoughts on justice are a bit heavy and outdated but the artwork was not made for realism.

One finally can’t watch Mughal-e-Azam without interest in the soundtrack. With contemporaneous artists – at least for the year of the release – a blend of traditional music modes is offered: raga (kedar, durga and darbari) composed by Naushad, but more folk songs by Lata Mangeshkar and a somptuous qawwali तेरी महफ़िल में क़िस्मत [2] by Lata Mangeshkar and Shamshad Begum.


[1] ऐ मोहब्बत जिन्दाबाद :

[2] तेरी महफ़िल में क़िस्मत :

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