Mughal-e-Azam continues to enthrall. That is why we now have a musical play adaptation that is now in its fifth season and gathering accolades, chiefly for staying true to the spirit of the film. Director Feroz Abbas Khan said the production was meant to be a tribute to K Asif’s movie, which broke box office records in 1960, receiving popular as well as critical acclaim.
The soundtrack – replicated in the play – amplified the grandeur of the theme. Scored by Naushad and written by Shakeel Badayuni, it dazzles with gems such as Mohe Panghat Pe, that gently undulating Janmashtami ode to Krishna, the plaintive Bekas Pe Karam Kijiye, and the dainty, whimsical Ae Ishq Yeh Sab Duniyawale, which might well be an alternate anthem for those who swear by the transformative power of love.
It might be called Mughal-e-Azam, or The Great Mughal, but we all know it’s the story of the court dancer who dares to fall in love with a prince. It’s about her passion, her rage and her tragedy.
Perhaps that is why Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya is considered the defining song of the film. Anarkali’s rebellion is played out in Technicolour, her defiance reflected back at the court through thousands of blinding mirrors. An anthem for thwarted lovers everywhere, it was recently performed to excellent effect by Kathak dancer Avni Sethi on the streets of Ahmedabad. Against the backdrop of walls scrawled with graffiti that cautioned the public about “Love Jihad”, Sethi twirled to the song with aplomb, elegantly arguing against the specious notion of gullible Hindu women often being “lured away” by Muslim men.
More power to the creative disruptors. Anarkali would have approved.
It needs to be said, however, at the risk of being entombed: the song is unremarkable when compared to the other melodies in the film. Mohe Panghat Pe, for example, adapted from the original thumri performed by Indubala Devi, opens with an exquisite sitar prelude in raag Mishra Gaara – one of many sitar pieces in the film. Ten sitars led by the late virtuoso Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan played in different octaves around the dancer. The flute interludes are by the legendary Pannalal Ghosh.
This song serves as a literal curtain raiser to the romance. As prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) gazes on the dancer (Madhubala) with the crooked smile, the first spark of love is lit. The destiny of the Mughal dynasty – and indeed, of Hindustan itself as Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) would like to believe – is in danger of being altered forever.
Stories about the making of the film are plentiful, and include the familiar one about how the great Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was persuaded to lend his voice. The maestro, like many vocalists of his time, was not keen on singing in a film, and quoted an astronomical price, which, to his surprise, Asif agreed to pay. The result was Shubh Din Aayo, a grand celebration of the prince’s return from war, and Prem Jogan Ban Ke, the lead-up to the iconic tryst that involved fountains, flower-strewn pavilions and the now-famous ostrich feather.
At the heart of the soundtrack is this playful ditty by Anarkali’s sister, teasing and mocking a dour Durjan, friend and protector of the prince, who is not too pleased about the royal obsession with a lowly dancing girl. “You can’t reason with those in love,” she declares. “Just listen to them talk about love’s sweet agony… You may blindfold them, but they still yearn for a glimpse of the beloved.”
Her poetic taunts, rendered in the manner of witty shayari, are effective – the prince is half-amused but his friend ends up squirming.
A range of instruments collaborates in this cheeky song – sitars, a shehnai and violins, all fading into a pleasant hum as the dancer departs. This solo by Lata Mangeshkar, along with Humen Kaash Tumse Mohabbat Na Hoti, was reportedly added much later, nearly a year after the release – a common practice then, presumably to reinvigorate interest in the film.
She doesn’t balk at competition, our Anarkali, so when her rival challenges her to a musical duel, the gloves and veils are truly off. In Teri Mehfil Mein Kismat Azmakar, singers Shamshad Begum and Lata Mangeshkar spar on behalf of the two contenders. One aggressively stakes her claim to the prince’s affections, while the other offers to undergo pain and even ruin for the sake of love. No prizes for guessing who the prince prefers.
All hell breaks loose, of course, when the emperor learns about the affair. If I can’t have Anarkali, we will have war, Prince Salim informs his father. As the emperor sets out to fight his renegade son, Anarkali is hauled into dungeons, where her anguish finds expression in two sublime numbers: Mohabbat Ki Jhoothi Kahani and Beqas Pe Karam Kijiye. One is a song of protest, the other is a naat, a supplication to Prophet Mohammed.
Set to raag Kedar, Beqas Pe Karam Kijiye is the lament of a woman who now has no earthly recourse. Each stanza glides from the high octave to low, and back again, as she beseeches the Master of Medina for help. The song was apparently a personal favourite of Mangeshkar’s, film journalist Raju Bharatan writes in Naushadnama: The Life and Music of Naushad.
The music director, for his part, revealed that each song in the film was recorded in studio that was “nothing more than a tin shed”, with 20-25 musicians huddled together in a small space and woolen blankets shutting out the sounds outside.
The prince manages to free Anarkali but loses the battle, and is sentenced to death. As he faces the mouth of a cannon, the good citizens of the kingdom gather to protest the travesty of justice with Ae Mohabbat Zindabad, a Mohammed Rafi rendition accompanied by a 100-strong chorus.
The prince is saved from the cannon when Anarkali is recaptured. She must die, the emperor declares, and the prince cannot be allowed to mess with the plan. During their final meeting, therefore, the prince must be deceived into believing that all is well. Yeh Dil Ki Lagi sets what first appears to be a festive mood, one that gradually turns sombre as the singer – Anarkali’s rival getting her own back – alludes ominously to the morning after, which will bring death for the dancer, and an end to her defiant love story.
Anarkali’s farewell to her prince, and to life itself, is summed up in Khuda Nigehban, a song brimming with pathos but also stoicism. As the prince lies prone, she walks away, devastated but spirit intact, instructing him to “honour our love”, and futilely, to wake up and say goodbye.