Who hasn’t heard of Mughal-e-Azam? A historical epic with grandeur on a scale that has rarely been seen on the Indian screen, K Asif’s 1960 production is the stuff of legend. Everything about the movie, from its expansive sets and costumes, dramatic confrontations, breathtaking battle sequences, tender romantic moments, memorable music and fine performances, have generated reams of analysis down the years.

Mughal-e-Azam underwent an arduous struggle of more than a decade and a half before it was completed. The journey also saw huge amounts of money and effort being poured down the drain, when about 25 per cent of the film that was shot before the Partition had to be scrapped.

Sometime around 1944-5, Asif hit upon the idea of adapting Imtiaz Ali Taj’s play about a doomed love story between the Mughal prince Salim and a courtesan-dancer in Akbar’s court, Anarkali. According to legend – the story has no basis in historical fact – Akbar disapproved of his son’s involvement with a commoner and put a cruel end to the romance by having her entombed alive inside a brick wall.

There had been three screen versions of the story by then. Two starred one of Indian cinema’s top female stars, Sulochana, as Anarkali – in 1928 as a silent feature and then in 1935 as a talkie. For his own ambitious version, Asif teamed up with Shiraz Ali Hakim, the owner of Famous Cine Studio. Hakim had also supervised Asif’s directorial debut, Phool (1945). Written by Kamal Amrohi, Phool is regarded as one of Hindi cinema’s earliest multi-starrers with a stellar cast that included Prithviraj Kapoor, Durga Khote, Veena, Yakub, Wasti, Suraiya, Sitara Devi and Mazhar Khan.

An early announcement on Mughal-e-Azam appeared on the cover of the November 1945 issue of the Filmindia magazine. The star cast was named as Veena, Nargis and Chandramohan, who were to play Bahar (the name was changed from Dilaram in Taj’s play), Anarkali and Akbar respectively. The film was to be shot at the Bombay Talkies Studio in Mumbai’s Malad suburb.

Hakim had become a partner in Bombay Talkies at the time, having bought shares surrendered by the studio’s co-founder Devika Rani after she married Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich. The production controller of Bombay Talkies, Hiten Chowdhury, suggested that Asif and Hakim consider a young newcomer who was on the company’s payroll for Salim’s role. In fact, he was already working on his third film there, Nitin Bose’s Milan (1946). However, Asif rejected the young man, whose screen name was Dilip Kumar.

The shooting of Asif’s magnum opus began in earnest in 1946, and the cast and crew were expanded. Sapru came on board to play Salim and Durga Khote was signed on as Akbar’s Rajput wife and Salim’s mother, Jodha. Up-and-coming actor Himalaywala, who had played a key role in Mehboob’s Humayun (1945), was finalised for the role of Salim’s Rajput friend Durjan Singh, who sacrifices his life for the prince.

Veena as Bahar in the shelved Mughal-e-Azam.

Anil Biswas was to score the music while Kamal Amrohi, Aman, Wajahat Mirza and Ehsan Rizvi were signed up as writers. Regular advertisements, and reports from the sets in Filmindia issues in 1946 suggest that production was going smoothly enough with about a quarter of the film in the cans when the political turmoil that was spreading in the wake of India’s imminent independence played spoiler.

The partition of the sub-continent saw Hakim and Himalaywala deciding to make West Pakistan their home. In one stroke, Asif was bereft of his financier and a key actor. Around 10 truckloads of raw stock went to waste and were thrown away. To make matters worse, Asif found himself without his emperor. Chandramohan, who was to play Akbar, died on April 2, 1949.

Even Filmindia, which was known for its caustic film reviews, conceded in its obituary of the actor, “Never again will this great actor be replaced. For, the lambs of the day can never reach the stature of the lion that died.”

Chandramohan in Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939).

Before selling the studio and relocating to Pakistan, Hakim suggested to Asif that if anyone could drum up the vast finances for the film, it was reputed builder Shapoorji Pallonji, whose company had also constructed Famous Cine Studio in Mumbai. And indeed, it was Pallonji who helped Asif realise his dream – a fantasy that was finally released on August 5, 1960, at the cost of an unbelievable 1.5 crore.

Even if they couldn’t immortalise the Salim-Anarkali love story on the silver screen, Sapru and Nargis played another pair of famous star-crossed lovers in Romeo & Juliet (1947). In its review, Filmindia noted, “The love scenes between the two are played with appropriate restraint and dignity, though (in a tale of classic fashion) a little more fire and intensity was indicated.”

Across the border, Himalaywala portrayed Akbar in a screen version of Imtiaz Ali Taj’s play. Anaarkali (1958) saw singing star Noor Jehan play the doomed courtesan and also sing some of her finest songs ever.