Saturday, May 24 1997

The unmaking of a classic

Ashish Sharma

You couldn't possibly miss the ads. Just as in the black-and-white era when its unprecedented pre-launch hype created quite a sensation. Only this time round, it's a private channel that is engaged in the publicity routine, taking justifiable pride in notching up a first for satellite television. And the film has long since passed into celluloid history as something of an all-time classic.

In its grandeur of vision, epic scale and timeless tragic appeal, Mughal-E-Azam stirs our collective imagination as no other Hindustani film. Every film critic worth his peering glasses will tell you this. Anyone who has ever had to comment on anybody associated with the film will tell you this. No appraisal of director Karimuddin Asif, music director Naushad, dialogue writer Kamal Amrohi or its stars, Prithviraj Kapoor, Durga Khote, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar, is complete without customary obeisance to the film in which most of them are said to have attained the acme of their cinematic careers.

Next Sunday, when you get to watch Mughal-E-Azam on Sony TV, the generation that missed out on the real thing can do some catching up. But only those who relive the excitement of 37 summers ago will be able to invest the film with value that only nostalgia can.

For, among the many things that film critics won't bother to tell you is the fact that with the passage of time and without the endearment of a long association for most viewers, Mughal-E-Azam does not appear to be quite the cinematic marvel it was made out to be. True, Kamal Amrohi's lines have the power to move mountains and Prithviraj Kapoor's roaring rage shakes the skies still. But there is little else that lives up to the reputation.

Naushad has done better work in many other films, and not just Baiju Bawra, which also had him composing for the character of Mian Tansen.

Mughal-E-Azam surely compares unfavourably on a song-by-song basis with Filmistan's Anarkali, which had music composed by C. Ramchandra at his memorable best.

Anarkali, made in 1953 on the same theme of the doomed Mughal romance, also didn't suffer from what now appears to be a glaring case of miscasting in Mughal-E-Azam. While the generation brought up on the studied histrionics of Dilip Kumar would insist otherwise, it is a mystery as to why the actor who has achieved immortality in peasant roles was chosen to play Prince Salim after the original choice, Chandramohan, passed away.

His first scene in Mughal-E-Azam should rank among the biggest letdowns in popular cinema, coming as it does after an elaborate buildup. He simply doesn't look the part. And in no frame is he any match for the authoritative greatness of Prithviraj Kapoor. Not unlike the mismatch in Sangharsh where Dilip Kumar would confront Jayant to similar effect.

As for the treatment of romance between Salim and Anarkali, the glamorous Madhubala seems to be suffering from some kind of enfeebling malady, rather than the ecstasy of the most inspiring emotion known to humankind. Sure, the otherwise bubbly personality of the actress would have been out of place in the film, but there could have been some way of depicting the romance rather than spelling doom all over the faces of the romantic pair all the way.

There is no dearth of people who can read between the lines and see between the expressions (to stretch the phrase to another medium) to explain the subtle art underlying each moment in the film, but when you watch Mughal-E-Azam next Sunday, see it through your eyes only. Don't let the weight of mighty reputations cloud your vision.

But then, viewed thus, we could risk being left with very little to be proud of -- even Mother India, another case of overblown melodrama preserved as great cinema, seems to have less to it than meets the eye. Fortunately, that is not so. There is much in Indian cinema that hasn't yet got its due. But that is another story.

Copyright © 1997 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.





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