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Making of a Magnum opus.

Byline: Asif Noorani

Exactly sixty years ago, the greatest historical film in the subcontinent and indeed one of the most notable films in this genre anywhere else in the world. went into production. Truly a magnum opus, K. Asif's Mughal-e-Azam took nine years for completion. The man, whose dream it was and who pursued it madly to make it come true, had just two forgettable films to his credit as a filmmaker, before he conceived and created a major milestone in the South Asian cinema.

Karimuddin Asif's enthusiasm was infectious and his whole team worked with a passion and missionary zeal on a project that was launched on a stupendous scale. Backing him up financially was Shahpoorji Pallonji Mistry, a Parsi millionaire (when millions were valued as much as the present days' billions). His favorite character in history was Akbar, the emperor titled Mughal-e-Azam. He had great faith in the ability of the filmmaker, who didn't believe in making compromises when it came to production, both in terms of efforts and finances. Shahpoorji's son called the project a bottomless pit and often told his father to abandon it. He once even decided to hand over his film to Sohrab Modi, who had made costume dramas, but went back on his decision because Modi did not have the vision and the unquenchable thirst for perfection that K. Asif had. Little wonder that Madhubala, the film's heroine, put her foot down saying that she would not work under any other director.

K. Asif didn't spend money on himself except for the non-lucrative salary that he drew. He didn't even own a car and commuted in cabs. Two large floors of Mohan Studios were reserved for the colossal project for most of the nine years. When it came to dresses and jewelery, Asif settled for nothing less than authentic. When the ailing Madhubala, who looked every inch the doomed Anarkali, had to drag herself with heavy chains tied to her feet, she too took it in her stride. The scene was completed to the satisfaction of the not easy to please Asif, but the badly bruised performer was bedridden for quite a few days.

When Prithviraj, who looked every inch the great Mughal, had to walk barefooted in the burning sands of Rajasthan on his way to the shrine in Ajmer to pray for a son, Asif also walked without shoes to give his actor moral support. Prithviraj suffered from blisters which took time to heal. Asif was luckier as he was back to work the next day.

No compromises were made in shooting the battle scene. These days it is easy to increase the number of people by thousands in a shot digitally manipulated but Asif would not have opted for it had the facility been available half a century ago. Authenticity was his guiding motto. It would need a full-fledged article to write in detail on how he borrowed the soldiers from the Indian army, how much he spent on the armor that the soldiers had to wear, not to speak of the costumes donned by the monarch, the prince, and other nobles in the war scene. Even the heavily built Prithviraj found it difficult to walk with the heavy metallic armor and that was also true of the eternal lover on the Indian screen, Dilip Kumar. Transporting the soldiers to far off places for location shooting and arranging for their food was a massive exercise, both in terms of efforts and finances. If Asif thought big, Shahpoorji spent big too.

Between composer Naushad and Asif a decision was made that Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan be requested to record two short versions of classical ragas to be filmed on Tansen, the court singer. The Ustad was not amenable to the idea. Just to ward off Asif he demanded Rs. 25,000 for each track, but Khan sahib had no idea who he was dealing with. People thought Asif was insane to pay the price, because in the sixties no film singer, not even Lata and Rafi, charged more than Rs 5,000 for each song that they recorded.

Not one, not two, but four eminent writers were engaged to write the dialogue of the film. They included Kamal Amrohvi, himself an accomplished filmmaker, Wajahat Mirza, Ehsan Rizvi and Amanullah Khan (Zeenat Aman's father). They wrote on reams of paper until they agreed among themselves and got the approval from the filmmaker.

The maestro with the Midas touch, Naushad recorded more than 15 invaluable numbers for the movie but only ten were included in the movie and its LP, among the first vinyl records to be released in India, featured all ten of them. Later, Ae ishq ye sab dunya walay, a solo by the inimitable Lata Mangeshkar, picturized on the Venus of the Indian screen, Madhubala, was also included in the film months after its release, thus drawing more audiences.

Initially, the filmmaker had decided to cast Sapru in the title role and Chandramohan as his son. The role of Anarkali was to go to Nargis, but when Chandramohan died, Asif opted for Dilip Kumar, who was initially reluctant to act in a historical film, Nargis then bowed out because she had by then entered the Raj Kapoor camp and Kapoor was envious (to put it mildly) of his great contemporary. Later Sapru was replaced by Prithviraj, who was basically a brilliant stage actor and was ideal for the role of the emperor. Durga Khote played Maharani Jodha Bai with a flourish.

All performers facing the camera did exceedingly well; they couldn't have done otherwise, but the one who was truly outstanding was Madhubala. She was signed for the role of Anarkali, well after several scenes that didn't feature her were shot. Who will play Anarkali was a question that intrigued every filmgoer. Several columnists aired their guesses.

There was no one who could have suited the role as much as Madhubala. Says Khatija Akbar in her memorable biography of the star: "Anarkali and Madhubala. The actual similarities were not many but if the lives of Madhubala and her screen character are consistently seen as overlapping, it is because of the overwhelming sense of loss and tragedy, and the unrelenting diktat of destiny that clung to both and which neither could escape [from]."

Her portrayal of anguish and pain were just as heart-wrenching as her expressions of defiance in a losing battle against the Emperor. Her exquisite love scenes, particularly the one where Saleem (Dilip Kumar) lightly brushes a feather on her cheek, have been benchmarks in romantic scenes in Indian cinema. The two stars were in love and what is so surprising is that even in the love scenes that were picturized after they had parted and were not on speaking terms were so very memorable. Mughal-e-Azam was to Madhubala what Devdas was to Dilip Kumar. They had set the standards for both the memorable characters which have not been remotely equaled so far.

And yet Madhubala was not declared the Best Actress of the year by the Filmfare Awards Committee, the trophy was given to Bina Rai, for a mediocre performance in an inconsequential film.

Dilip Kumar, who had been in his element more in Kohinoor, a comedy which was released the same year, bagged his fifth trophy for the film directed by his friend, S.U. Sunny.

K. Asif also appeared in the nominations list but he too was not given the coveted trophy. Naushad, who was given the title Mooseqar-e-Azam by his millions of fans after the movie's memorable music was released, was also ignored. Shanker-Jaikeshan, who were accused of buying thousands of copies of Filmfare to clip the nomination coupons and filling their names in the Best Music Director's Award, got the trophy for their average score in Kamal Amrohvi's Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai.

Lata lost the Best Playback Singer trophy to Rafi. In those days there were no separate awards of male and female singers. She was nominated for the song Pyar kiya to darna kiya. Shakeel Badayuni was also nominated but couldn't bag the trophy. The line became a very convenient to use expression in the two sister languages, Urdu and Hindi.

The dialogue was just as memorable. I had an uncle in Mumbai, who saw the film several times (like hundreds of other ardent filmgoers). He could render the lines from his memory. The four writers got the Filmfare Award.

Strangely enough, Mughal-e-Azam was declared the Best Film but Asif and his team boycotted the award ceremony. "How can a movie which was not given many key awards, be declared the best film," an angry Asif told the Press. The awards were boycotted by the entire team.

Mughal-e-Azam created records at the box-office, Asif won glowing tributes and Shahpoorji was amply rewarded for his faith in his director. It ran for a year in main cities. Four decades after the film, originally shot almost entirely in black-and-white, was digitally colored. It was massively re-released and went on to run for 25 weeks in many cinemas in India in the face of competition from movies like Shahrukh Khan's Veer Zara.

K. Asif didn't live long enough to see his labor of love in a colorful garb but before him there were curtains for Madhubala. Mughal-e-Azam was her swan song and what a performance it was! One fumbles for adjectives to describe it.

Asif Noorani is a seasoned journalist and writes on art, literature, travel, music and movies.
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Publication:South Asia
Date:Jul 31, 2011
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