This classic film has its flaws, but after I saw it I found myself obsessed with it – and its gorgeous heroine – and had to watch it again just a week later. Hailed as “The biggest Indian film ever made,” this dazzling period piece took nearly a decade to make and was, at the time of its release in 1960, the most expensive film in the history of Hindi cinema.
Mughal-e-azam ("The Greatest Emperor") relates the rebellion of Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) against his father, the great Mughal emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor). The rebellion was real, but its cause, as told in the film, is legendary: Salim’s wild love for a maid of the court, Anarkali (Madhubala). Not satisfied with the prospect of Anarkali in his harem, he wants her for his queen, a state of affairs that his father cannot tolerate. Akbar tosses Anarkali in his dungeon, and the internecine struggle is underway.
What makes this film so mesmerizing is the opulence of the glittering sets, the brilliant costumes, a wonderful soundtrack – and Madhubala, who is heart-stoppingly beautiful. The greatest weakness of the film is that the heady whiff of propaganda blows consistently through it; Mughal-e-Azam tells a 15th century tale that is palpably an allegory for the issues that divided post-Partition India. At the film's opening, a giant map of India - modern, post-Partition India, not the Mughal empire - rises like the sun over a vast landscape, unsubtly defining the terms on which the film is to be interpreted. But the political message is only a little distracting, because the dominant concerns of post-Partition India map well onto the famously ecumenical court of Emperor Akbar, and the film takes full advantage of the symbolic possibilities afforded by that history. Akbar is a Muslim; his wife, Queen Jodha, is Hindu, and so the religion of the rebellious Prince is ambiguous - he represents both, and neither. In the royal court the traditions of both are observed. In one sequence, for example, Krishna's birthday is celebrated with a musical performance, with the lead role of Radha played by Anarkali, a Muslim. The film is loaded with other scenes carrying the message of ecumenical religion and secularist politics.
At any rate, the political allegory is easily outweighed by the film’s highlights. My favorite parts include Madhubala’s performance at the celebration of Krishna's birthday, the stunningly sexy "Mohe panghat pe." The film also features the famous “feather scene,” among the most erotic moments I’ve encountered in Hindi cinema. Other highlights of the brilliant, evergreen soundtrack include Anarkali's bold declaration of defiance, "Pyar kiya to darna kya" ("I have loved so what is there to fear?"), her imprisoned lament "Mohabbat ki jhoothi," and a musical debate over the nature of love, argued by Anarkali and her chief rival Bahaar, "Teri mehfil mein."
Note that Mughal-e-azam was originally released in black-and-white (except for two color scenes); a 2004 colorized re-release is trippy and pushes the opulence of the film completely over the top. Both versions are available on DVD.