25/08/2015 8:20 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

55 Years On, Mughal-e-Azam Still Casts A Spell

Indian cinema memorabilia dealer Shahid Mansoori displays a print of original movie theatre tickets of epic Indian film Mughal-E-Azam (Mughal Emperor of Emperors) from the black and white version (top and the digitised colour version (centre and bottom) in his shop 'Mini Market' in Mumbai on April 30, 2013. One hundred years after the screening of a black-and-white silent film, India's brash, song-and-dance-laden Bollywood film industry celebrates its centenary later this week. The milestone will be marked with little fanfare, while India will be honoured as 'guest country' at next month's Cannes festival. AFP PHOTO/ INDRANIL MUKHERJEE (Photo credit should read INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

Some of Indian cinema's best achievements in the last few years owe their success to great amounts of computer-generated imagery (CGI). This was not the case in the 1950s, when ambitious movie projects took long time to complete. One classic example is Mughal-e-Azam, which released on 5 August, 55 years ago, after nine painstaking years in production.

Even though he had already delivered a box office success with Phool in 1944, director Karimuddin Asif was not quite sure how to turn his grandiose vision of a legend from the Mughal period into a film. He lost his original cast and financier in the beginning while partition stalled his project for a long time. Before he could start afresh, another project based on the same subject called Anarkali starring Bina Rai, rushed into production and cashed in on the advanced publicity of Mughal-e-Azam, becoming a huge hit in 1953.

"'Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya', filmed on a set built to resemble the Sheesh Mahal in Lahore Fort... consumed around two years in construction, bleeding dry cinematographer R D Mathur and the financiers alike."

Still, Asif managed to rope in an investor with deep-pockets - the Shapoorji Pallonji Group -- to fund the project. He cast Dilip Kumar as Prince Saleem, Prithviraj Kapoor as Akbar, Durga Khote, who was part of the original cast, as Jodha Bai, and began principal photography.

Still, Anarkali eluded him. The director had envisioned Nargis for the role originally but she backed out for reasons unknown. The names of Nutan, Begum Para and Vijaylakshmi were all considered until, finally, Asif signed the beguiling Madhubala on the suggestion of Dilip Kumar, who also secretly happened to be her beau.

Even though Asif did not concentrate on historical accuracies in his story, he insisted on giving an authentic 16th-century look to the film. He hired two stages on the Mohan Studios in Andheri, Mumbai, and assigned art director M K Syed to recreate the splendour of the courts and palaces of Akbar. A perfectionist and a stickler for realism, he brought specialised artisans, tailors and craftsmen from across the country who worked tirelessly on the intricate embellishments on the palatial sets and costumes. For nine years these sets - with their like pillars, arches and walls -- were constructed, dismantled and stored time after time to be used again.

Today, "Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya", filmed on a set built to resemble the Sheesh Mahal in Lahore Fort, is considered the pièce de résistance of the film. Back then, to put it together was a Herculean mission that consumed around two years in construction, bleeding dry cinematographer R D Mathur and the financiers alike. At a time when entire movies were being made for less than a million rupees, filming the song cost 1.5 million rupees. The set was made of thousands of tiny pieces of expensive Belgian glass that Asif ordered in from Europe and used to create vivid visuals. However, much to the chagrin of Mathur, the glass reflected studio lights and overpowered the images. After struggling for days he used Satyajit Ray's cinematographer Subrata Mitra's "bouncing lights technique", placing strips of white cloth behind the cameras to strategically bounce off the glare from the glass.

Meanwhile, due to her congenital heart disease, Madhubala was unable to perform a staggeringly complex dance step, "girki," in the song (it involved rapidly spinning and circling around the large stage of Sheesh Mahal). Asif resolved the issue by getting sculptor B R Khedkar to create a rubber mask resembling the actress's face. This was worn by a male dancer dressed as Anarkali who then performed the difficult sequence.

The final product of the song shot in Technicolor gave Asif the idea to reshoot the entire film from scratch in colour. But the producers, who by then were probably aware that the director was thinking on a larger-than-life scale, at once refused to loosen their purse-strings further. They had already coughed up a lot of cash on the shooting of the battle sequences. For these extensive, vortex-like sequences, 8000 soldiers from the Jaipur regiment of the Indian Army were brought in, along with 2000 camels and 4000 horses.

"Mughal-e-Azam remains a shining beacon that reminds true cinema connoisseurs, young and old, of the success story of an era once ruled only by photographic film and gumption."

The only matter Asif did not have to worry about was publicity for the film. The love affair between Kumar and Madhubala had ensured that all eyes were on the stars and their project. He capitalised on this, even going to the extent of attempting to mend the situation between the two when things went sour, to keep the media and public interest alive. Kumar in his recent autobiography says, "I feel he did what any selfish director would have done for his own gain of creating riveting screen chemistry between actors who are known to be emotionally involved."

In 1959, the financiers heaved a sigh of relief when the shooting wrapped up. Asif won a prolonged, personal battle and what was left was to find out what the public thought. On an evening in August, 1960, possibly every star of Hindi cinema, national political figures and other dignitaries arrived to watch the much-awaited film at Maratha Mandir. Kumar, who by then was in a feud with the director over a private matter, did not attend the premiere. Madhubala, for whom Mughal-e-Azam would tragically be her last film, never appeared either.

The public response to the film was tremendous. A video shows the biggest crowd that any movie premiere had witnessed thus far gathered outside the theatre waiting to watch the film. It is said tickets were being sold for 100 rupees in black when standard rates were 1.50 rupees. The profits from the movie, which was released at around 150 theatres across the nation, was reportedly 3 crore rupees. Today the figure is evaluated to be around Rs 300-500 crore.

Nine years after Mughal-e-Azam's release, Madhubala succumbed to her illness, weakened perhaps by the grilling schedules of the film. Asif whose health deteriorated reeling under the strain of heavy work on the film passed away in 1971. He was directing another war epic.

In modern times, when the new wave of technology piggybacks an artistically run-of-the-mill film to the ostentatious Rs 100 crore club, 55-year-old Mughal-e-Azam remains a shining beacon that reminds true cinema connoisseurs, young and old, of the success story of an era once ruled only by photographic film and gumption.

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