A hand-painted poster for the film from: http://www.scoutnetworkblog.com/2012/02/8476/bollywood-poster-art-gets-a-shot-in-the-arm/
A hand-painted poster for the film from: http://www.scoutnetworkblog.com/2012/02/8476/bollywood-poster-art-gets-a-shot-in-the-arm/

BIFF19logoThe second of Bradford’s presentation of some of the landmark films of Indian cinema, Mughal-e-Azam, is a little easier to write about than Kalpana, but only because it conforms to aspects of Hindi popular cinema. As a production it is out on its own. The print we watched on Pictureville Cinema’s big screen was the 195 minutes print held by the BFI and last screened widely during the BFI’s Imagine Asia season in 2002. The print was in pretty good condition and appeared to be colour stock. The mainly black and white image thus had that grey-blue appearance. There are two key sequences in the film in colour, one just before the Interval (which therefore had a colour title) and the other at the end of the film.

Mughal-e-Azam is perhaps best described as an epic ‘historical romance’. The gigantic production is reputed to have taken ten years or more to bring to the screen – so long in fact that Indian cinema had already begun its conversion to CinemaScope and Technicolor by the time it finally reached cinemas (this explains the black and white Academy ratio format with colour inserts). It was for a long time the most expensively produced in India and the money is certainly there on the screen. I’ve never seen studio sets quite as lavish as these. The story is set in the court of the third great Mughal Emperor, Akbar who ruled most of India from 1556 to 1605 (the empire would be at its most extensive under Araungzeb in the later 17th century). Many commentators have noted that this was roughly the same period as Elizabeth I in England and there is certainly an Elizabethan drama feel to the film’s narrative which deals with the Emperor’s unruly son Salim who is sent away to war at age 14 as a cure for his indolent lifestyle. On his return as a warrior he defies his father over his love for a ‘maid’ – a dancing girl in the court troupe. He refuses to give her up, claiming that his love is greater than his need for power or glory. But eventually he goes to war against his powerful father with all the consequences of family feuds amongst the powerful. The Emperor is played by the magnificent patriarch Prithviraj Kapoor, the father of Raj Kapoor. Dilip Kumar is Salim and the girl, re-named by the Emperor as Arkanali (‘pomegranate-blossom’) by the beautiful Madhubala. Salim’s mother the Rani (Queen) is played by Durga Khote.

The black & white Academy frame – avoiding 'colourisation' in the DVD.
The black & white Academy frame – avoiding ‘colourisation’ in the DVD.

It’s not difficult to see why the story – or at least the context since the film narrative is myth rather than historical fact – is so important in terms of Indian national identity. The film actually starts and ends with a map of India hovering over a model layout of an Indian landscape (strangely clunky in a film where set design is otherwise fantastic). The map seems to speak as ‘Hindustan’ about its history. Not only did Akbar reign successfully for so long but he also promoted at least the sense of religious tolerance. His marriage to a Rajput princess and the inclusion of Rajput warriors as his close advisers and guards allows the film to portray both Islamic and Hindu ceremonials and rituals. (The Rajputs were the great warrior caste of Hindu India and provided the majority of rulers of the ‘princely states’ in Northern India.)

In many ways this is the kind of narrative – and the kind of film – that were it a British or American film, I would probably avoid at all costs. Why then was I held for over three hours? I think it is a mixture of the exotic (no matter how global in outlook you wish to be, the exotic always has an allure), the spectacular (the sets in colour and with the myriad of reflecting mirrors are superior to anything else I’ve seen and many sets match the almost expressionist qualities of Kalpana), the beautiful dialogue (even in translation the Urdu poetry works), the history and the star performances. But above these, perhaps, is the music and the dancing. I think there are around a dozen songs – more than in contemporary Hindi cinema. By the end of the film I think I was hypnotised by Lata Mangeshkar’s singing and Madhubala’s dancing.