Friday, March 28, 2008


In one of my earlier Bollywood posts I'd written "less is often more." Not in Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960), though. Its hallucinatory sets, sumptuous costumes, epic battle scenes and delirious dance numbers are overwhelming, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The film is set during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) in 16th-century India, and tells the story of the doomed love of Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) and the court dancer Anarkali (Madhubala). The Emperor opposes their love, banishing Salim from court and imprisoning Anarkali in Piranesi-like dungeons. Ultimately, of course, the Emperor realizes that only death can separate the lovers...

Mughal-e-Azam's Urdu dialogue is acclaimed for being highly poetic (and quotable). Unfortunately, as in Sholay (1975), the effect is lost in the English subtitles, which often make the characters sound as though they are making stilted pronouncements at each other. This is especially true of Prithviraj Kapoor as the Emperor Akbar, who has an appropriately stentorian way of delivering his lines. In contrast, Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim underplays almost to a fault. Madhubala's Anarkali is the emotional center of the film, and her luminous beauty is breathtaking.

The sets and costumes are still jaw-dropping, as are the battle scenes featuring charging war elephants and thousands of clashing soldiers. What makes the film work for me above all, though, are its songs. The music is by Naushad with lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni, sung by an exquisitely fresh-voiced Lata Mangeshkar; Lachchu Maharaj choreographed the spectacular dance numbers. The seductive "Mohe Panghat Pe" ("Krishna teased me at the well") introduces us to Anarkali; Madhubala lifting her veil in its opening moments is justly one of the most famous shots in Indian cinema. The call-and-response competition in "Teri Mehfil Main" between Anarkali and her rival Bahar (Nigar Sultana), each seeking to outdo the other in her description of the sufferings of love, is a brilliant setpiece. When Bahar is awarded a flower and Anarkali the thorns (Salim pricks his own finger as he hands them to her), we have an intimation of the lovers' unhappy end in a brilliantly compressed image. Anarkali turns this ambiguous gesture into a complete victory, though, when she responds, "Thorns will never fade." Wah!

Mughal-e-Azam served as the inspiration for many other Bollywood films. In particular both Umrao Jaan (1981) and Devdas (2002) feature rebellious aristocratic sons who insist on loving, and being loved by, women of whom their stern, unbending fathers disapprove, and both films also end tragically. Sometimes the references are direct: "Mohe Panghat Pe" is clearly the template for Madhuri Dixit's "Kahe Chhed Mohe" in Devdas, as "Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya" ("I shall tell the story of my love")--Anarkali's defiant reassertion of her love for the Prince--is for that film's "Maar Daala." In Mughal-e-Azam, "Mohe Panghat Pe" ends with the Prince rewarding Anarkali with his own necklace; Umrao Jaan's "In Ankhon Ki Masti" ends with the same gesture being made by the Nawaab to Rekha's Umrao Jaan.

The DVD version we watched is riotously colorful, although the original film was mainly shot in black and white (the original is also available on DVD). While for most black and white films colorizing is an abomination, I don't feel quite the same way about Mughal-e-Azam--visual overload was so clearly a major part of director Karim Asif's aesthetic. As Memsaab reminded me in a comment on my earlier post, "sometimes more can be more too."


  1. I'm a recent convert to Bollywood -- have seen nothing later than "Sholay" -- and just discovered "Mughal-e-Azam" in the colorized version. Much as I love the movie I saw, I'd love to see it in the original b&w. Do you know where I might get a copy of that version? Thanks.

  2. The black and white version of Mughal-e-Azam is available from; go to (By the way, this isn't a personal endorsement; I haven't ever ordered from Nehaflix.)

    A word of warning: Nehaflix uses Yahoo Store to process its orders, and so your personal information will be collected and used by Yahoo. I don't find Yahoo's privacy policy to be adequate; however, you may want to come to your own judgment about it (there's a link from the Nehaflix privacy policy page).

  3. Understood. Thanks for your help!

  4. has anyone here watched this version thanks in advance

  5. Robert, you've provided a link to a site selling the colorized version. That's the version we've watched (multiple times) and enjoyed very much. I will say that it's pretty clear which scenes are colorized; and the original version's black and white photography is highly celebrated. Whichever version you choose, Mughal-e-Azam is a stunning achievement.