Mughal – e – Azam is a quintessential Indian story. A benevolent Emperor – Akbar – faces the rulers dilemma of how to discipline his wayward son – Salim, who would rather marry his love even if it means relinquishing his inheritance. It does not help that Anarkali – his chosen one is a strikingly beautiful, dancer, an accomplished singer and poet, but by no means socially deserving (remember what it was like in the stratified 16th century) of marrying a Prince. After all Kings do not marry for love alone!
In the end guile wins. Rani Jodha Bai – Salim’s mum, gets her wish fulfilled that Salim must not die – Akbar spares him in battle. Salim has his wish fulfilled. Anarkali is allowed to marry Salim. But only for one night before she disappears – ostensibly killed by unknown men. Anarkali’s mother gets her wish fulfilled by getting Akbar to revoke the death sentence he has passed on Anarkali in the hope that her absence would cool Salim’s ardour. In return Anarkali must secretly leave the kingdom to live quietly elsewhere whilst Salim lives on, alone and drunk, in the belief that she has died. Akbar gets his wish fulfilled – the son he had prayed so hard to get, is preserved in body to inherit his empire.
So, at the very end, everyone, who is anyone, lives on, albeit with regrets and dissatisfactions. Of course, many commoners die or get maimed, as battle fodder, in the war between the armies of the rebellious Salim and his father – Emperor Akbar. But it is normal for the grass to get trampled when elephants fight.
The story of Mughal e Azam is timeless. The dull duty to live by long established social norms, even at the cost of personal happiness, is as alive today, as it was five centuries ago. Akbar’s dismay at a son unimpressed by his enormous inheritance but enraptured by his beloved instead, is a story which has been milked dry by Bollywood. Rani Jodha Bai’s stoic acceptance of the social norm that it is not for Salim to choose his bride and her passive connivance in a possibly fatal slug fest between her husband and her son in battle, where the only sure loser would be her, is the stuff that the myth of Indian womanhood has been built around.
And what about Anarkali herself? An accomplished artist and poet whose only wish is to serve and obey the Emperor and protect her beloved Salim from self- destructing. Treacly? Too naïve to be real? Call it what u may. But there are millions of girls out there living their lives as modern day Anarkalis – accomplished but disempowered, giving but getting very little in return. Useful lives truncated unfairly.
And what of Salim? Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, honed to fight and rule, he pleads with his parents to feel his pain at not being allowed to love. But he never spares a thought about reciprocity in the relationship, like sharing his parents pain at his willful behavior – so unbecoming a template ruler, who must put the good of the State and its citizens before all else. The British and the Bhutan monarchies have been quite good at this. Most parents today would probably identify closely with the betrayed Akbar whilst Salim’s willfulness would probably resonate with the younger folk. Just goes to show that the world doesn’t change even in five centuries, as Shakespeare’s extended works also show.
This epic was first filmed in 1960. The screen play was written by the legendary K Asif; lyrics by Naushad; Prithviraj Kapoor played Akbar to Dilip Kumar’s Salim and Madhubala’s Anarkali.
57 years later Feroz Abbas Khan – the well-known Mumbai based impresario directs a musical, which recreates the magic on stage. In a tribute to the original, he sticks close to the 1960 script but embeds it in a new medium. The results are breathtaking. The production has world class quality and finish. The visuals are imaginative and effective. The kathak dance sequences are spectacular. In the Delhi edition, playing now at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium Theatre, Priyanka Bharve plays Anarkali to perfection and steals the show. The financial support is from Shapoorji Pallonji who incidentally also financed the 1960 movie.
The lyrics are in Urdu/Hindustani but a simultaneous translation into English is helpfully beamed alongside. It seems odd that the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) which funds mediocre Indian talent to spread Indian culture overseas has not snapped up this fantastic production for doing the rounds in London, Dubai, Tanzania and Sydney – all cities with a large Indian diaspora, where it is bound to be very well received. For showcasing North Indian medieval culture, in an internationally competitive manner, Mughal e Azam is as good as it gets.