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.

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9 Responses to “The Mughal-e-Azam correction”

  1. Once again an insightful observations..I salute the masterstroke you did with the sentence”””” If Mughal-e-Azam is the ‘Bobby’ of period romances Jodha-Akbar is the equivalent of something like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam””” –This is very first time I have seen an attempt to revisit both far/near past with near/current present !!..Always we tend to debate present in terms of past only!!!

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  2. Omrocky786 Says:

    I love the music of all the four films- MEA, Pakeeza, Razia Sultan and Jodha -Akbar.
    Satyam I hope there is no coding /politics/problems with the music of these movies !! LOL

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    • Weirdly enough I don’t love any of these soundtracks. The first one has always seemed a little overrated to me barring the obviously iconic Pyar kiya. Pakeezah I think is stronger but it’s never been a favorite. Much like the film there’s something overwrought about it (UJ is simply superb thaough). Just like one song with Razia Sultan. JA is Rahman and I can never not like a significant Rahman album though this is not to my mind one of his strongest even in Hindi. It is more low key than it needs to be and the energetic moments are not distinctive enough. Nonetheless I do like the album.

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      • Omrocky786 Says:

        Hmm- I like slow/relaxed songs with some good lyrics.
        I would rate Pakeeza as my all time fav., then Razia Sultan, then Jodha- Akbar and then MEA.

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  3. For the first Satyam, I disagree with almost your entire post. Quite a rarity. For starters, I don’t understand what “correction” you are referring to. Do you mean that M-E-A is model for historical romances that Gowariker should have followed more closely? Or do you mean of historical films in general?

    Second, I don’t agree that the title of M-E-A is “misleading”, or that it is “basically a love story.” Certainly it has been presented as such, in the same way that the Devdas story has been constantly presented on screen as a “love story”, when the book makes it clear that it is anything but that. (I haven’t yet seen Dev D., so don’t know how that one plays out in this regard). Instead of being “misleading”, I think the title of the film is asking us to focus on another character besides those of the two lovers. I have wondered about that title myself for a long time, and have come to the conclusion that the director used a well-known love story (the legend of Anarkali and Salim, which apparently has no historical basis, much like there is no historical record of a queen “Jodha”) to present his idea of the importance of Akbar. (I also disagree, btw, that “There is certainly no Indian emperor as famous as Akbar (then or today)” — what about Asoka? Chandragupta? And in the south, Krishnadevaraya? Perhaps the products of the current Indian educational system are not aware of any other emperor besides Akbar, but that is a different matter.)

    After long pondering, my own reading (or perhaps speculation is a more accurate word) is that the film is a reaction to the partition of India. Why? Well, it took something like nine years to complete, and was released in 1960, which means that it was begun in 1951 — close enough to the partition. But more compellingly, there are several scenes of Akbar agonizing over his decisions, declaring his commitment to Hindu-Muslim unity (in his conversations with Salim’s mother), and above all, his commitment to keeping the empire strong and united, and the sacrifices this entails on the part of the royal family. Somehow to me it all makes sense as a plea against the breaking up of the country. Of course I could be totally wrong about this. 🙂

    Jodha-Akbar is such a mess on anything other than an aesthetic level that I don’t even think it is worth analyzing. Briefly, I think it again displays Gowariker’s muddle-headedness in scripting, where he has an idea for a worthy ideal (improving villages in Swades, religious harmony in JA), but never does the work to translate that idea into a believable story with convincing characters. I didn’t buy Hrithik as Akbar at all — he was essentially the pretty boy of Dhoom 2 got up in historical costumes. The incidents outlining the development of the relationship between Akbar and Jodha were so at variance with known historical facts that I couldn’t buy that, either. But, at least, I don’t think it was as bad as HDDCS. And that is my final disagreement with you. 🙂

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  4. Also, the real problem with doing historical films in India is that Indians are too comfortable putting their icons in a box labeled “iconic hero” or “iconic villain”, and don’t want to bother trying to understand them as people. With all its historical faults, I think Santosh Sivan’s “Asoka” must at least be commended for trying to present the emperor as a human being, with human motivations for his actions. I always think that it was a great achievement of N.T. Rama Rao for presenting Ravana also as an understandable human being, and not just a one dimensional villain. If you haven’t seen his films where he portrays the title role of Ravana (either “Bhookailas” or “Seeta Rama Kalyanam”), I suggest you check them out, even without subtitles.

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