When the 1960 movie, Mughal-E-Azam, premiered in India, it was a blockbuster success on a scale which had never been seen before from a Bollywood film. Today it stands as a milestone for multi-cultural filmmaking, and religious tolerance. Set in the late 1500s, it tells the Muslim legend of Emperor Akbar the Great and his profligate son, Salim. I have included a full account of the movie below as a demonstration of this legend’s continuity with the many great epics, from India and elsewhere, that have gone before it. At the same time, it can be observed that this narrative supports a theme of romantic love and reverence for women that rivals Rama’s love for Sita, or the love of Paris for Helen of Troy.
Along with Ashoka (see Movies About Buddhist India), Mughal-E-Azam is among the very few historical films from India that have won a place in the Western imagination. It is surprising to me that there is not a film of comparable weight and popularity about Shah Jahan and the building of the Taj Mahal. The original black and white edition of Mughal-E-Azam was colorized in 2004 and re-released to renewed acclaim. The colors are fantastical, though they have something of a popsicle quality.
After an abundance of advertisements for Bollywood movies on the DVD, this story begins with the Emperor Akbar the Great (reigned from 1556 to 1605) making a pilgrimage, walking barefoot before his royal caravan, to plead with holy men to give him a son. His wish is granted and Prince Salim is born. The boy turns out to be a profligate little hellion, with an early penchant for wine and loose women. His angered father sends him off to do battle far afield. He becomes a great warrior and for fourteen years he wins his campaigns and brings honor to the empire. His grateful father orders him back to the royal fortress/palace. There is festivity and ample expression of Mughal opulence. A statue has been created in the Prince’s honor. It is a female figure that comes to life. The festivity continues and the first elaborately choreographed song and dance number is presented.
The Prince is entranced by the beautiful lead singer, named Anarkali. A slow courtship begins, hampered by their roles as Prince and commoner. Another full musical number comes when the pretty women of the court formally sing the praises of the Prince. The would-be lovers attempt a secret meeting in the palace gardens. There are eyes among the flowers and the Emperor learns of the Prince’s forbidden love. Anarkali is thrown into prison. The Emperor hopes the darkness of the prison has dampened her love; he sets her free. Perpetrators of intrigue convince the Prince he has been betrayed and he treats Anarkali cruelly. At the command of the Emperor, Anarkali is made to perform one last song and dance in the throne room. She sings of forbidden love and her wish to die if she cannot have her Prince. The unmovable Emperor casts her back into the dungeon. The father and son argue but to no avail. The Prince rejects the authority of his father, the pleading of his mother, the honor of the Mughals, and the fate of India. He frees his love from her chains and they ride off together, only to be stopped when the gates slam shut. Salim has no choice but to go back to the battlefield. He sends a message to his father that he will lead a rebellion unless Anarkali is freed and he is allowed to marry her.
The enraged Emperor puts on his armor and prepares for battle with his son. The Queen is torn between loyalties to husband and son. Anarkali sings of her misery in the prison. Vast armies assemble on the field (this is before computer graphics and they are real soldiers). Seized with misgivings, the father goes to his son’s camp to plead his love for his errant son. At an impasse, the Emperor threatens to execute Anarkali. Things change when they learn that a man loyal to Salim has rescued Anarkali and brought her to his tent. There is no recourse now but war. The great armies march on each other, pennants flying. Akbar hurls threats from atop his war elephant. Salim answers from his horse. It is a massive clash of men and horses and cannon. The Emperor’s elephant falls and he mounts a horse. Father and son fight fiercely with swords. Just as it looks as though the Emperor will slay his son, the scene switches abruptly to the palace.
The Emperor has retuned to his wife to tell her that Salim is not dead. He is a prisoner of war and is brought before his father in the throne room. As the court looks on, the two repeat their same arguments and reach the same impasse. Salim is sentenced to death in place of Anarkali. He is led up the long stairs of a pyramid temple to await his execution. Many mourners have gathered and the sculptor leads a song that says, ”Love’s revolt can change the world.” The Emperor runs to the scene at the last moment and fires a cannon that appears to mistakenly kill Anarkali. This is getting way too convoluted. She is not dead and they splash her with buckets of water to revive her.
Back in the palace, the Emperor sentences Anarkali to death and she uses her last request to demand that she marry Salim and be made Queen, even on the eve of her execution. The Emperor relents and there is a joyful song-and-dance wedding. The Emperor has given her a drugged flower to make Salim fall into unconsciousness and not be aware of his wife’s death. The flower apparently does its work and the tragic Queen is led off by black-clad soldiers to her death.
In one last anticlimax, the mother of Anarkali rushes onto the scene and remembers that the Emperor had long ago given her a token ring and a promise to grant her any wish. The stricken Emperor seems to consider releasing the daughter even as we see her being walled into a living coffin. But surprise, the Emperor leads the mother through a tunnel and there is her daughter alive behind the wall. He instructs mother and daughter to follow the tunnel to a place beyond the Mughal realm and never reveal to Salim that his love is alive. The Emperor pleads for forgiveness but Anarkali appears to have died to the world. As the two walk away, a narration explains that though the Emperor seemed cruel and unbending he did indeed spare Anarkali, allowing her to become a cherished symbol of love in Mughal lore. So it ends.
Taj Mahal (1963)
Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story (2005)
Either one of these films might have completed a brief cycle of the most important legends of the Mughal Dynasty in India. But unfortunately for this website, they are not yet available in English. Both tell the story of young Prince Khurram and his passionate love for the beautiful Arjumand Bano. Khurram, son of Emperor Jahangir, will one day become the Emperor known as Shah Jahan, and his beloved Arjumand will become the Empress known as Mumtaz Mahal. The course of their love story is disrupted by the machinations of one of Emperor Jahangir’s jealous wives, resulting in bitter warfare between father and son. The lovers live to ascend to the Mughal throne. When Mumtaz dies bearing her nineteenth child, her distraught husband begins the construction of her mausoleum, the Taj Mahal. The ending shows the dying man in his ornate prison cell, gazing across the landscape at the tomb of his wife.
The Warrior (2001)
This is listed as a British film, made by British filmmaker Asif Kapadia of Indian descent. Filmed in Rajasthan and the Himalayas, it opens at an isolated desert hut where a ragged warrior is teaching his young son the use of weapons. These are feudal times in India. Rajasthan is a center of Mughal power. The warrior is in service to a local warlord who maintains his power through brutal massacres. He is first seen ordering the beheading of a poor farmer who cannot pay his taxes. The warrior is ordered to conduct a massacre at the village of the farmer. Amid the carnage and destruction, he finds himself face-to-face with a young girl whom he is about to kill. He has an epiphany and abruptly leaves the scene vowing to change his ways. Back at home with his son, the warlord’s men arrive in search of him. They carry off the boy and later the disguised warrior must witness the slitting of his son’s throat at the order of the warlord. He goes off alone into the Rajasthan Desert where he is joined by a needy young man who insists on following him. After a long odyssey in the desert, north to the foothills of the Himalayas, the warrior meets the man who killed his son. He slits the man’s throat. The warrior continues his journey alone.