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A Film and a Legend

At a lavish party thrown on the evening of the premiere, invited celebrities whispered that this would be the biggest flop in the history of
Mughal e azam and K Asif
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On the premiere of Mughal-e-Azam at Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir on 5th August, 1960 the film drew yawns from the celebrated audience. Tickets were sold ten weeks in advance at fantastic prices. When the screening came to an end, the theatre was drowned in a death-like silence. Producer Shapoorji Pallonji was apprehensive that he would become a pauper. But the ambitious and patient K. Asif was confident that the film would do well at the box office. With simultaneous releases in 150 theatres across the country, a record in those days, the black-and-white Mughal-e-Azam, which took Asif seven long years to complete, earned around Rs. 40 lakhs, a king’s ransom at the time. The recently concluded 28th KIFF has paid a tribute to K. Asif on his centenary year (who was born in 1922) by screening this historic film. 

At a lavish party thrown on the evening of the premiere, invited celebrities whispered that this would be the biggest flop in the history of Bollywood. K. Asif, who left no stone unturned to see his film to completion and release, remained silent. The audience began to trickle in. Mughal-e-Azam remains one of the most-written-about films in history. Made at an astronomical budget of Rs. 10.5 million, it collected a record revenue that remained unbroken until Sippy’s Sholay broke it.

K Asif, director of Mughal-e-Azam

According to legends, Anarkali, which means ‘pomegranate blossom’ or ‘bestowed for her beauty,’ was buried alive in a wall said to be located within the bazaar, by order of Emperor Akbar. It is believed that her original name was Nadira or Sharf-un-Nisa. There have been many celluloid versions of the love story. Noor Jehan played the title role in Anarkali (1958), released in Pakistan. Iman Ali portrayed Anarkali in Shoaib Mansoor’s short music video series on the theme Ishq (2003), and Lahore has a market (Anarkali Bazaar) named after her. It is one of the oldest markets in South Asia.

Anarkali by Abdur Rehman Chughtai

The director who brought the legend of Anarkali to life on screen was Kareemuddin Asif, known across the film industry as K. Asif who carved his name with just one among the few films he had made – Mughal-e-Azam. K. Asif was born in Etawah in Uttar Pradesh in 1922 to a respectable, educated Muslim family. He was least interested in education but surprisingly, had acquired a masterly command over Urdu. Fed up with education, he came away to Bombay to try his luck in films. His maternal uncle, Nazir Ahmed Khan, who was already working in films, helped him get a job as a tailor as his family had a background in tailoring. But Asif was not interested in the job. 

Nazir Ahmed Khan was already a successful producer, director and actor in Bombay. He saw the talent and dedication in his nephew and asked him to direct his next production, Society. But he was dropped later on. Asif’s maiden film Phool in 1945 was produced by his friend Kamal Amrohi. Phool was a big-budget film starring Suraiya, Durga Khote, and Prithviraj for which Kamal Amrohi wrote the dialogue. Phool did fairly well and established Asif as a director who was a perfectionist. He would actually act out a scene for every actor before the camera rolled. His second film Hulchul (1951) was directed by S. K. Ojha and written by Hasrat Jaipuri. He co-produced it with a couple of friends. The film starred Dilip KumarNargis K. N. SinghBalraj Sahni, Sitara Devi, Jeevan and Yakub

Rumour has it that Asif was a very colourful personality in his personal life and frequently fell in love with his heroines. However, he was already married. He married two of his actresses- Sitara Devi and Nigar Sultana and also the youngest sister of his dear friend Dilip Kumar.  

Dilip Kumar and Asif collaborated on several projects, the most famous being Mughal-e-Azam. Dilip Kumar’s soft-spoken Saleem and Madhubala’s breathtakingly beautiful Anarkali are still a treat to watch, not to forget Prithviraj Kapoor as Akbar and Durga Khote as Jodha Bai. 

Asif had built a replica of the Sheesh Mahal of the Lahore Fort. Measuring 150 feet in length, 80 feet in breadth and 35 feet in height, this palace took two years to build, made of glass imported from Belgium and cost around Rs.15 lakhs,  a sum higher than the budget of an entire film in those days. The mirrors reflected the light of 500 trucks and around 100 reflectors. Consultants from Hollywood, including filmmaker David Lean pronounced that it would be impossible to shoot there. But by covering the mirrors with a thin layer of wax and using strategically placed strips of cloth to bounce the lighting, Asif and cinematographer RD Mathur, not only filmed Naushad’s memorable song there but did it in Technicolor. The song Pyar kiya to darna kya was set in the sheesh mahal of Lahore Fort. However, this is a historical gaffe because the sheesh mahal of Lahore Fort did not exist in the era of Emperor Akbar. Decoration with mirrors known as Aleppo glass was a recurring part of early Mughal architecture.

Dilip Kumar and Asif collaborated in several projects, the most famous being Mughal-e-Azam. Dilip Kumar’s soft-spoken Saleem and Madhubala’s breathtakingly beautiful Anarkali are still a treat to watch, not to forget Prithviraj Kapoor as Akbar and Durga Khote as Jodha Bai.

The beautiful lyrics of Shakeel Badayuni made the film a landmark in the history of world cinema. The dialogue in chaste Urdu was a bit tough to follow. Madhubala definitely stands out as a dignified Anarkali and the most beautiful Anarkali ever. Asif had originally planned to make the film in 1944, after reading a play on this love story. He went ahead, casting Chandramohan, Nargis and Sapru in the roles of Akbar, Anarkali and Saleem respectively. But the film was shelved for lack of funds. He had vowed to take Chandramohan again but Chandramohan died in a tragic accident and Prithviraj Kapoor played Akbar.

For the battle scenes, Asif used 2000 camels, 4000 horses and 8000 soldiers.  Most of the soldiers were taken on loan from Jaipur Regiment of the Indian Army. Tailors were brought from Delhi for the costumes. Specialists from Surat were hired for the embroidery, goldsmiths from Hyderabad designed the jewellery, craftsmen from Kolhapur worked on the crowns, ironsmiths from Rajasthan made the weaponry and shoemakers from Agra produced the footwear. 

Naushad’s outstanding musical score remains one of the all-time highlights of the film. From Mohe panghat pe through Mohabbat ki jhooti, Bekas pe karam keejeye to Pyar kiya to darna kya, the music, the rendering apart, the positioning of the songs within the cinematic narrative, its orchestration, choreography and performance were so aesthetically conceived and executed that they remain milestones in Hindi film music.

From left Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and K Asif

Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sang two songs for the film, lending his voice to Tansen’s character. Warsi informs that Ustadji charged Rs.25,000 for each song when Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi were paid Rs. 400 per song. The film still ranks second among all-time blockbusters in mainstream Hindi cinema. Naushad’s score is counted among the best musical scores in the history of film music. 

Looking back on the e film today, which stands out as one of the ten biggest hits in Indian cinema in the first 100 years of its existence, Mughal-e-Azam appears too loud, a bit crude and filled with melodrama. That does not take away its place in history. It does not take away from K. Asif’s working on the film for eleven long years, with frequent halts in the shooting, mainly for want of funds and also because of the long court case between the lead pair Dilip Kumar and Madhubala that went on for years and years. The coloured version turned out to be a flop.

Images courtesy: Shoma A Chatterji, Wikimedia Commons & Facebook.

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award twice, in 1991 and 2000. She has authored 26 published titles of which 14 are on different areas of Indian cinema. She holds two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. in History (Indian Cinema). She has also won a few Lifetime Achievement Awards from different organizations over time.

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