“Mughal-E-Azam,” a Hindi language film released in 1960, became the most expensive Indian film ever made, but rewarded its makers with record crowds and a favorable response from critics. It tells the story of a love affair between a Mughal prince named Salim (Dilip Kumar) and a beautiful and passionate servant girl named Anarkali (Madhubala). As heir to the Mughal empire, Salim’s affair with Anarkali displeases the Prince’s father, Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor), who tosses Anarkali in the palace dungeon. Salim puts together a rebel army to fight his father’s injustice. The movie explores the battle between father and son and raises ethical questions about love, tradition and duty.

Madhubala, as Anarkali, entices Dilip Kumar (as Prince Salim) in "Mughal-e-Azam."

Madhubala, as Anarkali, entices Dilip Kumar (as Prince Salim) in “Mughal-E-Azam.”

The movie begins with an animation of India rising above the domes and spires of a Mughal land. The narrator turns out to be the voice of India itself, who says that Akbar taught the people of India to love one another. Soon, the narration tells of the pilgrimage Akbar makes to a high priests entreating him to send a son and heir. Soon, Akbar’s wishes come true and he’s blessed with a Prince. Joy leads to displeasure as Salim grows into a disobedient child. Salim even disrespects the sacred symbol of the realm, a giant scale representing the power of justice. The Emperor catches Salim playing around the scales while servant girls sit on each of the balances. Immediately, Akbar banishes Salim to an exile in a military academy. Akbar only allows Salim to return after he becomes an adult and raises himself to the rank of General in the Mughal army.

Salim makes a triumphant return to the palace, and all of the young servant girls at the dream of becoming Salim’s wife and the future queen. However, it only takes one look from Anarkali to attract Salim’s love. Anarkali is a gifted palace dancer and singer who’s allure continually drives Salim to disobey his father. Another beautiful servant girl, Bahar (Nigar Sultana), does her best to catch Salim’s attention, but she’s easily outdone by Anarkali’s resolve and strength of character.

Although originally a black and white film, I saw the colorized version released in 2004. The color looks fantastic, and it highlights the colorful world of the Mughal court, with its glorious textiles and magnificent jewellry. The rich color contrasts well with the grayish scenes centered around the palace dungeon and tunnels. As with almost all other Bollywood movies, the film showcases several songs which include colorful dancing and interesting visual effects. The Director, K. Azif, makes excellent use of mirrors and reflections to highlight the splendor of palace life, and the frequent costume changes by the main characters also help keep up the visual interest.

All the action takes place in the sixteenth century, which explains the extremely formal dialog. Although the film contains plenty of conflict, every sentence seems poetic. For instance, the Emperor says “Love can conquer hearts but not armies. Your emotions cannot fight an omnipotent Emperor.” Salim replies: “The battlefield will decide.” The battlefield does decide the finale of this epic, but not in the expected way. The conclusion of the tale ultimately rests on promises and duty.

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