The Mughal-e-Azam correction
Though I have never been a participant in the mythology surrounding Mughal-e-Azam and though I have never quite seen it as a ‘great’ film I do think this classic can be offered as a corrective to the recent Jodha-Akbar and in general to all those who would attempt unfocused period pieces.
Mughal-e-Azam despite the somewhat misleading title is basically a love story. Gowariker would have called it ‘Salim-Anarkali’. From beginning to end K Aasif’s efforts are centered around this legendary romance. The film almost anticipates the masala tradition to come. There are the lovers, the opposed parents, the generational clash, the situational song and dance numbers including half a mujra, the overwrought dialog, and finally the tragic ending. The director through all of this single-minded about sticking to the love story. The politics of the film happens in the backdrop with a few battle-scenes thrown in that also are well-integrated into the plot. Of course K Aasif is also greatly helped by the fabled nature of the subject he selects. There is certainly no Indian emperor as famous as Akbar (then or today) and the Salim-Anarkali story is for an Indian one of the archetypal ones.
I have written extensively on Jodha-Akbar and will not revisit that entire argument but a few basic points still need to be restated. Gowariker essentially attempted historical romance (I refer to genre) where K Aasif’s film is structured like a historical drama slashed with masala. Gowariker’s film often passes over into bourgeois domesticity. Additionally the director keeps switching modes from one genre to another. It is true that ‘romance’ often involves an episodic narrative but unity was traditionally brought to this genre by defining the narrative contours in terms of the hero’s ‘quest’. Despite the historical framing as well as the director’s avowed purpose in trying to use the inter-religious romance to cast a light on the present the central romance of the film never manages to mean very much other than a tale of ‘adjustment’ on the part of the bride following an arranged marriage. If Mughal-e-Azam is the ‘Bobby’ of period romances Jodha-Akbar is the equivalent of something like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. K Aasif relied on a legend but his film succeeded in making us understand why and how the lead characters of his film could give rise to a legend. With Jodha-Akbar we have neither the begetting of a strong myth nor even the weight of a ‘historical’ to illuminate a romance and a world.
A different sort of correction to Gowariker’s film could be offered by way of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. Again a film which creates the Roman world but is at heart a story of betrayal and revenge. The historical backdrop and the details of mise-en-scene lace the narrative throughout but never impede it in any fashion. Here too Gowariker has impressive interiors (and sometimes exteriors) but we are far from having a true sense of the Mughal world, especially one as significant as Akbar’s reign.
Mughal-e-Azam has been overrated down the ages as ‘classics’ often are. But the film succeeds very well at what it attempts. The same cannot be said for Gowariker’s simply passable work. A director must always be commended for attempting in contemporary times a historical period piece with royals. More’s the pity that Gowariker could not duplicate K Aasif’s achievement nor could he for that matter fail gloriously like Ketan Mehta did with Mangal Pandey.