The Anarkali-Salim legend is unsupported by historic evidence but the story of thwarted youthful love in conflict with convention and authority provides rich dramatic material with immense popular appeal. It is no surprise therefore that this popular legend has been filmed many times on the silver screen but Mughal-e-Azam is perhaps the definitive version of the doomed love story.
Mughal-e-Azam hit the screens in 1960 after almost fifteen years in the making, its initial cast being Chandramohan, Nargis and Sapru in the roles finally played by Prithviraj Kapoor, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar. Produced at a cost of Rs 1.5 crores in those days filming took over 500 working days! It was easily the costliest Indian film till date. Tailors were brought from Delhi to stitch the costumes, Hyderabad goldsmiths made the jewellery, Kolhapur craftsmen the crowns, Rajasthani ironsmiths fabricated the shields, swords, spears, dagger and armour, specialists from Surat-Khambayat were employed for the exquisite zardosi embroidery on the costumes while the elaborate footwear was ordered from Agra! For one of the songs, Ae Mohabbat Zindabad there was a chorus of 100 singers used!
Premiered simultaneously in 150 theatres all over the country the film became the biggest money grosser in those times. In a rave review, Filmfare wrote
"Mughal-e-Azam is a tribute to the imagination, hard work and lavishness of its maker…For its grandeur, its beauty and the performances of the artistes it should be a landmark in Indian films."
The breathtaking battle scenes, the sumptuous splendour of the Mughal Court, some of the most seductive song and dance ensembles ever filmed, the confrontation scenes between Akbar and Salim - the best of Mughal-e-Azam has never been surpassed and is the finest testament to K Asif's cinematic talents.
That is not to say the film is without its flaws. In his anxiety to show Akbar as a compassionate king and to provide his film with a so-called happy ending Asif changed the popular legend by letting Anarkali escape through the false bottom of the wall that opens out into a tunnel unknown to Salim. This however defies the internal logic of the tragic love story.
The performances too are a mixed bag. Dilip Kumar looks strangely uncomfortable in the role of Salim and Prithviraj Kapoor goes way over the top as Akbar. However his robust voice and regal bearing still carry him through. At the other end of the coin Durga Khote is splendid as Rani Jodabai caught between her husband and son and Madhubala is the life of the film as Anarkali. An immensely underrated actress, Mughal-e-Azam showed off the finely modulated depth she could bring to her performances if given the opportunity. It is without doubt the greatest performance of her career.
Of course the highs far outweigh the lows. Naushad's superb musical score stands out particularly the two songs by noted classical singer Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (Shubh Din Aayo and Prem Jogan ke Sundari Pio Chali). It was indeed shocking that he lost the Filmfare award that year to Shankar-Jaikishen for their populist score in Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi (1960). RD Mathur's expansive camerawork lifts the film even higher particularly the song Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya shot in colour in the famous Sheesh Mahal or Palace of Mirrors. The film deservedly won Mathur the Filmfare Award for Best Cinematography.
And last but not least, Mughal-e-Azam has perhaps the most sensitively portrayed erotic scene ever on the Indian screen as Dilip Kumar tickles the impassioned face of Madhubala with a white feather shot mainly in extreme close-ups of the two. Simply, magical!