Why Mughal-E-Azams legacy remains evergreen in the age of shunning Nehru, Akbar and Urdu

Today, when India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy is under attack, history is sought to be re-written and there are suggestions to remove Urdu words from school curricula, a study of Mughal-e-Azam is interesting.
Anil Zankar writes in Mughal-e-Azam: Legend as Epic: “I am guided by the view that every film primarily belongs to its time in the sense that it reflects dominant ideas of the time in many ways. It may react directly or indirectly, positively or negatively to the prevailing spirit of the time. Therefore, how Mughal-e-Azam reflects or corresponds to the experience of the so called Nehruvian era of the post-Partition years is another consideration.”
I had a long conversation with him and decided to examine the film’s legacy and relevance

‘Akbar-e-Azam in the film was K Asif’s idea of Nehru’ Photo by Homai Vyarawalla

The dialogue writers, Amanullah Khan, Ehsan Rizvi, Kamal Amrohi and Wajahat Mirza as well as director K Asif himself belonged to Uttar Pradesh and believed in the idea of India, choosing to stay on after the Partition in 1947.

This movie was a testimony to their belief in India’s pluralistic past, its syncretic culture and a future full of hope.

K Asif, based his film on Anarkali, a historical fiction play by Imtiaz Ali Taj. While the play’s protagonist was Anarkali, in the film it is Akbar.

This hero was the soul of newly-independent India. In fact, in his paper “Mughal-e-Azam: Narrating the Nation in Mainstream Cinema”, Prof Moinuddin A Jinabade: Centre for Indian Languages, JNU says that Akbar-e-Azam in the film was K Asif’s idea of Nehru.

In this court of Akbar, Anarkali — a slave girl — is given the honour of dancing on the festive occasion of Janmashtami, that marks the birth of Krishna.

The dialogues written by Amanullah Khan, Ehsan Rizvi, Kamal Amrohi and Wajahat Mirza were iconic and went a long way in making the film legendary. Though it was given a Hindi certification, the dialogues were crafted to suit the mood and sensibility of the scenes:

Empress Jodha Bai and her attendants spoke in Hindi; highly Persianised Urdu was used for court scenes and simple Urdu or Hindustani as the language of love and revolt. It was the India of the ’50s and ’60s. Many of the dialogues went on to become legends in themselves and introduced Urdu to the non-Urdu speaking world.

The technique used in this film — of Hindustan being a narrator — was later adopted in the Doordarshan TV series Mahabharat, where time was the narrator.

In Mughal-e-Azam, the opening sequence has Hindustan itself testifying to the love and devotion of Shahenshah Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar, who embraced and adored the subcontinent.

Others looted me, but Akbar loved me and taught people to love one another, says Hindustan in a slow, measured tone.

Akbar is shown walking barefoot to pray at the dargah of Sheikh Salim Chisti in the village of Sikri near Agra. The narrator describes how a man used to magnificent palaces and grand carriages is walking on the burning sands and suddenly you realise why Hindustan loves him and, actually, so do you.

Who wouldn’t love an emperor who, in reality, is just as human as any of us in his desire for a son and his humility in meeting a saint? The elephants may be accompanying him, but he is stumbling in the sand — the words actually make you want to go and lend him a helping hand. His prayers are answered and a son is born to him; the emperor names the child Salim after the saint.

Akbar the doting father is not afraid to send off a young Salim to the battlefield, to get him honed as a soldier who can serve India, instead of spending his time in the palace, in the company of wine and women. He can’t bear to see India’s future threatened by the young prince’s follies. The boy has to be separated from his mother’s silken “aanchal” (the corner of the saree, a proverbial shelter for the child) and sent to rough it out in the company of soldiers.

Having won his battle honours, displayed in court with his bloodied armour or sword, Salim returns to the palace — receiving a soldier’s welcome from his father, and an ecstatic one from his mother.

In this court of Akbar, Anarkali — a slave girl — is given the honour of dancing on the festive occasion of Janmashtami, that marks the birth of Krishna.

The Mughal court celebrates Janmashtami, Nauroz and has baitbazi and qawwali competitions. Empress Jodha Bai is regularly shown worshipping at her temple within the palace quarters.

Contrary to the film, Jodha Bai was not Akbar’s wife; he had a Rajput wife, Harka Bai, given the title of Mariam-uz-Zamani — who did have her own temple inside the palace as seen at Agra’s Fatehpur Sikri.

In fact, Mariam-uz-Zamani’s palace itself is built in Rajasthani and Gujarati architectural styles.

However, as was the norm in the medieval era, Akbar is a benevolent despot, not afraid to sacrifice his son’s happiness for the greater good of his beloved India.

The core of the film is the rebellion of his beloved Salim, who, instead of concentrating on consolidating his father’s empire, actually wants to spend his time with the slave giRl.

The battle of wits between a heavily-chained Anarkali and an Akbar who is pacing up and down is a masterpiece. Photo: YouTube

Both Anarkali and Salim challenge Akbar and are not afraid to question him. The battle of wits between a heavily-chained Anarkali and an Akbar who is pacing up and down is a masterpiece. But Akbar prevails and Anarkali is sentenced to death. In the play, the end is tragic as Anarkali is buried alive in a wall. The India that K Asif and his writers of his film were living in was full of hope for the morrow and thus here Akbar helps Anarkali to escape alive.

It’s ironic that while the film and its songs are evergreen, attempts to rewrite the the legacy of Akbar, Nehru and even Urdu are in place. In fact, Mughal-e-Azam, a musical play based on the legend, by director Firoz Abbas Khan, is a spectacular success.

After a blockbuster run in Mumbai, the musical is currently being staged at where else but Delhi’s Jawahar Lal Nehru Indoor Stadium, and even though the ticket prices go up to Rs 10,000, the show is running to packed houses.

Khan plans to take the show all over India and abroad. It is getting rave reviews across the board showing Akbar is still relevant and still great.

Perhaps, Akbar might just say “Takhliya”. 

[Leave me alone]


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