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Mughal-e-Azam: Legend as Epic


A masterwork for all times
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | New Delhi, November 9, 2013 16:17
Tags : Mughal-e-Azam: Legend as Epic | Anil Zankar |

It is perfectly befitting that writer Anil Zankar dedicates this monograph about one of the most memorable films ever made in this country to “the writers and technical artists of the Indian film industry, whose contributions do not always get the recognition that they richly deserve”.

In the case of Mughal-e-Azam, as with many other major films in Indian cinema history, movie fans barely know, let alone remember, the behind-the-scenes men who made this cinematic epic possible with their awe-inspiring craftsmanship.


Mughal-e-Azam is generally regarded as one of the most ambitious movie projects ever undertaken in India, a project to which one man devoted his entire life. This remarkable man had made only one film before he embarked upon this grand, uncompromising production. He died at the age of 59, leaving another magnum opus, Love and God, incomplete.

Most of us obviously know that the film was helmed by Kareemuddin Asif – that bit of information is an integral part of Indian cinema folklore. We also know and can recall innumerable stories about the principal actors in the cast (Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala) and the film’s timeless songs. We are also aware that the film took its creator over a decade and a half to complete.

However, the film’s writers, cinematographer, art director and costume designers are rarely celebrated for their yeoman inputs into the project. Film scholar Zankar restores the balance by devoting space generously to the men who put down the concept on paper and to those that gave shape to that vision.

It was of course director Asif who was the captain of the ship. He steered the course of the project, but the spirit and substance of Mughal-e-Azam was the result of remarkable teamwork.

In his textual re-reading of the film, Zankar singles out the work of cinematographer RD Mathur and describes it as “of the highest order”. He inevitably alludes to the film’s piece de resistance, the sheesh mahal scene, the only passage shot in colour in an otherwise entirely black and white film. “This set posed a major problem to the cinematographer, which he overcame by his genius,” the author writes.

The challenge stemmed from the fact that the entire production design was done in keeping with the requirements of black and white film. But the sheesh mahal set, which took two years to build, offered Mathur the opportunity to reveal the props in greater relief.

“In colour, objects like the chandeliers, thrones and benches gained prominence. In fact, we see the beauty of these placements more clearly in the colour sequences than in the black and white,” writes the author. When Mughal-e-Azam was colourised a few years ago, that remarkable contrast was lost on the audience.

Zankar also alludes to an anecdote that not only sums up Asif’s approach to filmmaking but also shows the kind of relationship he had with his cinematographer. In a shot, Akbar was supposed to wear a pair of shoes laden with pearls. It would have cost Rs 3,000, a huge amount back then.

Since there was going to be no close-up of the shoes, Mathur wondered why Asif was insisting on getting such an expensive pair. Asif’s reply ended all questions. “Your camera may not see the shoes… but when my Akbar wears those shoes and walks, he will feel every inch an emperor and that expression is what the camera will capture,” the director told Mathur.

Mughal-e-Azam – Legend as Epic opens with a chapter that provides a detailed synopsis of the film, and then goes on to cover a lot of ground in its concerted attempt to understand the creative processes behind the epic as well as the physical elements and design ideas that constitute it.

Zankar analyses the mise-en-scene of one particular scene from Mughal-e-Azam to show the reader exactly how Asif approached the craft of harmonizing the different aspects of the screenplay to heighten the impact.

It is a scene that gives the viewer a glimpse of the many contrasts around which the drama is built by highlighting the divide between Akbar, who is in the Diwan-e-Khaas, and Anarkali, who is in shackles. The film abounds in many such unforgettable moments.

It wasn’t just the grandeur and beauty of Mughal-e-Azam that have ensured it immortality. It was the passion of the people behind it that set it apart. Despite its huge success and the openings it offered, Asif refused to leave his two-bedroom flat he lived in.

Sanjeev Kumar, actor and Asif’s close friend, suggested that he should a buy a plot of land and build a bigger house for himself. Asif replied: “I am here to make films, not bungalows.” This book does justice to an extraordinary man and an even more extraordinary film.

Author: Anil Zankar

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-9-350-29763-6

Pages: 200

Price: Rs. 250

Publisher: Harper collins

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017