MJ Akbar's 2004 'Byline' column on re-watching the colored version of Mughal-e-Azam. It originally appeared in the Asian Age newspaper.
Now that George Bush can confess to getting "teared up" and win an election, I can make
my own confession. I am a total sap for movies like Mughal-e-Azam, the wondrous
classic about Emperor Akbar, his son Salim, and the dancing girl, Anarkali. The casting
is perfection. Prithviraj as emperor: no one has quivered quite like him. Dilip Kumar as
Salim: no one has crossed a heart with his sword with such poetry. Madhubala as
Anarkali: no beauty better deserved a prince. Give me a map of my country rising above
a plasticine medieval-Delhi-skyline on a large screen, a sonorous voice saying ‘Main
Hindustan hoon,’ dollops of the sweetest language in the world, Urdu, and my eyes fill
up like a river in the monsoon. Thank God movie halls are dark. What I was not prepared
for was the intensity of the rest of the audience. It was a late night show in the heart of
Delhi and the hall was full for the colour version of a black-and-white film first screened
in 1960. I thought that only Sixties’ groupies would turn up to relive their comparatively
innocent youth. It was an age when virginal love was considered scandalous, so fantasy
had a wonderful time. The Sixtians were there, and looked frostbitten by reality. They
had found husbands instead of Dilip Kumar, and wives instead of Madhubala.
The young people in the audience were clearly anthropologists who had come to check
out what made the Neanderthals tick. They must have been shocked to discover that it
was songs like Pyar kiya to darna kya, jab pyar kiya to darna kya; Pyar kiya koi chori
nahin ki, chup chup aahen bharna kya! (When I have loved, why should I fear? It is love,
not theft, so why should I sigh from behind a curtain?) It would need a social historian
better than I to convey how powerful, even revolutionary, the idea was that love
transcended fear, for every father was an emperor then, demanding the destruction of
love in the name of some higher social principle. Emperor Akbar would not allow his son
Salim — the future Emperor Jahangir — to marry Anarkali, a kaneez, a palace girl much
above a courtesan but much below a princess because the honour of Timurid blood and
the demands of empire would not permit a leap over social walls that held the
establishment in place. In thousands of mohallas across India, millions of fathers would
not permit a leap over the walls of caste and religion and language. And just as Anarkali,
played by Madhubala, accepted in the end, so did millions of women who dreamt of a
brief moment of defiance and glory that they could call their own and take to their
graves, secret even from their children. All around me every Madhubala had become just
another mother. Sitting to my left was a lady who, midway through the movie, spoke
very softly into her mobile, a transgression I forgave for she was talking to a hospital
about a patient. As in the last moments of the film a frozen Madhubala walked away to
freedom and misery, bereft of a love she had been forced to betray, and the song in the
background became a chorus of catharsis for us all, I could not help singing along with
Lata Mangeshkar: Khuda nigehbaan ho tumhara, dharakte dil ka payaam le lo, Tumhari
duniya se jaa rahe hain, utho hamara salaam le lo (God protect you, my love, take a
message from a trembling heart; I leave your world, broken, but rise and take my last
salute). The lady next to me began to sing as well. I am sure that both of us wished,
strangers as we were, that we had the courage to sing louder.
These are some of the things that could shock the young. In a film of 20 reels,
unravelling over three and a half hours, there is not a single item number. There is no hint
of cleavage. Even the men are overdressed. The highest-paid playback singer in the
movie is the classicist Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was given Rs 25,000 for
Shubh din aayo and Prem jogan ban… at a time when Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad
Rafi received about a thousand rupees per song. (Classical Indian music in a popular
movie? Isn’t that truly shocking?) Bahar, Anarkali’s competitor for Salim’s affections,
played by Nigar Sultana, arguably as beautiful as Madhubala, wears a light veil when she
goes to meet a stranger. Madhubala says namaaz for the life of Durjan Singh, son of Man
Singh, who has just rescued her at the cost of his life to keep the word of a Rajput. The
emperor prays to Allah, through the sufi divine Salim Chishti of Agra, for a son, and
accepts prasad from his Hindu wife, Jodha Bai, after she has worshipped Lord Krishna
on Janmaashtami. I could hear the credulity of one youngish voice break down in the
hall. The scene was set just before the epic battle between father and son (the battle itself
is a masterpiece of fusion between K. Asif’s direction and R.D. Mathur’s camera). A
maulvi ties a tabeez on the right arm of the emperor with the famous victory verse of the
Holy Quran Nasrumminallah-e-fateh-un-qareeb. Then a Hindu priest blesses the emperor
as well with a saffron mark on the forehead. "Arrey," asked a querulous voice, "yeh
Hindu hai ke Mussalman hai? (I say, is this chap a Hindu or a Muslim?)" The times are
more liberal now, but the understanding is much less.
Why hasn’t a chain of Mughal-e-Azam boutiques opened up? K. Asif brought master
tailors from Delhi, and specialists in zari from Surat to create an exquisite array of
clothes. But the piece de resistance is the jewellery, made by goldsmiths from Hyderabad
and craftsmen from Kolhapur. It was the most expensive, as well as the slowest, film
made till then, and the passion shows in every intricate detail. The clothes may not find
takers in a culture of pace, but the jewellery that Bahar wears would lead to competitive
bidding in any elite environment. It could even be called the Bahar line. I visualise a
jewellery fashion show ablaze with Mughal gold, ruby, sapphire, emerald, diamond and
baskets of pearl. The models would wear jewellery and nothing else, of course. That
would put their pictures in every newspaper and magazine around the world.
Bahar’s high moments come during two qawwalis in which she is matched against
Anarkali. The first, Teri mahfil mein kismat aazman ke ham bhi dekhenge, Ghari bhar to
tere nazdeek aakar ham bhi dekhenge (Let me test my fortune in your presence, Let me
spend a moment near you), establishes the interplay of character, ambition, opportunity,
love and tragedy. Prince Salim judges the two women. The rose goes to the upbeat
Bahar, the thorn to Anarkali, who knows that tears are so often the price of love. She
accepts the thorn, and tells the prince, "Kanton ko murjhanein ka gham nahi hota…
Thorns never have to face the sorrow of decay."
It is a line that gets derailed in English.
With the ebb of Urdu a civilisation has diminished. Urdu is utterly civil, rooted in values
and anchored in two words that supersede translation: tehzeeb and akhlaq. A "practical"
Urdu-English dictionary defines tehzeeb as civilisation, etiquette, manners, politeness,
courtesy, polish, refinement, instruction, education, discipline, culture. It is all this and
much more, including that very delicate wit that nuances an idea or a sentiment with a
sensitivity that becomes a bridge between lovers and a gulf between antagonists. Akhlaq
is the practice of tehzeeb.
I wondered about the Urdu-deficit in the Delhi theatre hall. Forty five years ago, a film
could be made in superb Urdu for an India-wide audience. Mughal-e-Azam also made
marketing history in 1960 when it was released in 150 theatres simultaneously. Today
film language is a pidgin patois bred outside known cultures. This does not make it good
or bad. To state a fact is not to pass judgment. The relevant point is that the Mughal-e-
Azam audience of 2004 seemed entranced by the music of words, and in the music lay
the meaning. Urdu lives.
The denouement is marked by a qawwali that Bahar sings alone, for the conflict with
Anarkali is over. Love has been defeated by power. There is pyrrhic victory for both
women. Anarkali is permitted to become queen for one night, not — as the emperor
taunts, because a laundi (slave girl) cannot give up the dream of a crown — but because,
as Anarkali retorts, she does not want a future emperor of Hindustan to be remembered
as a man who could not keep his word to a slave. In return, she must drug the prince to
sleep while she is led away by guards to death (in the legend) and desolate freedom (in
the film). Bahar has won the night, but lost the future, for she does not replace Anarkali
in the prince’s affections. But she is permitted her final taunt, and she sings:
Yeh dil ki lagi kam kya hogi, yeh ishq bhala kam kya hoga
Jab raat hai aisi matwali phir subah ka aalam kya hoga!
How will this passion ever diminish, this love ever wither?
When the night is so delirious, imagine what morning will bring!
I have rarely come across a more startling and poignant metaphor for power. This is
the story of every government, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Everyone in power is
permitted the luxury of just one night, and no one ever believes that the night will come
to an end. Deceivers promise a dawn filled with wine, when the truth is that dawn will
bring a drug that will put the miracle to sleep. And you will wake up with nothing around
you except loss; the mind swooning with the memory of what was, and the mouth bitter
with the ash of what might have been.