Mughal-e-Azam, the epic love story between the two star-crossed lovers— the subversive Prince Salim and rebellious kaneez Anarkali— is directed by one of the most nonconformist directors of all time in the Indian Cinema, K. Asif, who took his inspiration from an Urdu scholar-dramatist Imtiyaz Ali Taj’s stage play titled “Anarkali.”2 Before we delve into the plotline, it is essential to note down that the existence of Anarkali is much debated upon because Taj based the play on his imagination that was stirred by him coming across an abandoned grave on which was engraved “Anarkali.”3 Meanwhile, some other whispered stories, passed down anecdotes, and quotes also become part of folklore. The making of Mughal-e-Azam required extensive research and the process, according to the legends, was so interesting that an entire film could be made upon it. This 1960 film starring Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, and Prithviraj Kapoor is considered a beacon in Hindi cinema. Asif’s sheer insistence on ensuring the minute details required a huge budget, which is why it took 15 years to make the movie and release it.4 The set took two years to build and cost more than ₹1.5 million, more than the budget of an entire Bollywood film at the time. The film's financiers feared bankruptcy as a result of the high cost of production.2
Nevertheless, this classic garnered massive appreciation, and due to its exquisite curation, it has stood the test of more than 60 years. Despite being known as one of the timeless tragic love stories of all time, Mughal-e-Azam is more than that. It is a film about maintaining social and power structures that dismantled Akbar’s family, forbade a love story, and sent men to the battleground. In this essay, we will dissect these power and social structures and delve into Asif’s process of making this film step-by-step to find out what made his magnum opus impact millions of spectators through the lens of aesthetics theory.
In the story of Mughal-e-Azal, the basic plot revolves around love, sacrifice, betrayal, and unbalanced power dynamics. This classic is a true Aristotelian tragedy in its essence because it follows the model presented by Aristotle when he described the elements of a tragedy.5 At the beginning of the story, Prince Salim falls in love with Anarkali, a servant at his palace who knew from the beginning that their love was out of bounds. The lovers were then put through a period of trial, which covered the larger duration of the movie. And, in the end, both Anarkali and Prince Salim were separated forever in their effort to save each other from the ultimate doom. However, this rather simple love story is much more complex and can be explained via Aristotle’s theatrical philosophy.
The great philosopher Aristotle drew his definition of tragedy. This paper will see how K. Asif’s timeless Mughal-e-Azam reflects Aristotle’s tragedy theory, which is divided into three parts. The first element of Aristotle’s theory is “unity” or wholeness5, which can only be acquired if a film has a definitive beginning, middle, and end. In Mughal-e-Azam, the beginning is the part where Prince Salim was sent away from the palace to rectify his behaviour and prepare for his rulership, and when he comes back, he falls in love with Anarkali at first sight; the middle is all about the trials, doubts, and changes that Anarkali and Prince Salim went through together, from trying to keep their affair a secret to finding a way to reunite; the end exhibits sacrifice where the two lovers decided to give up their lives to protect each other. However, one could argue that the end was not quite as satisfactory considering both Prince Salim and Anarkali survived. Still, the counter argument could be their eternal separation from each other is the real tragedy.
The second element of Aristotle’s tragedy is catharsis, which essentially means cleansing the audience’s emotions through fear and pity.6 According to Aristotle, these two emotions are the most important because they aid in judging action and are inextricably related to one another. Moreover, he further said that the audience responds more to fear than pity because ‘‘people pity things happening to others in so far as they fear for themselves.”6 This may be because pity evokes sympathy, but fear evokes shock because it happens contrary to the spectator’s expectations.6 In Mughal e Azam, the audience pities the two star-crossed lovers for not being able to have their happily-ever-after, but are in complete shock when Salim’s father— King Akbar— chose duty over fatherhood and condemns his son to death, who is suffering the unforeseen consequence of falling in love that generates pity before fear. This brings us to the third component of Aristotle's tragedy, where the protagonist makes errors of judgment and must suffer at least once in the story plot. That way he will gain acknowledgment from the audience. If we argue that Anarkali is the main protagonist of the film, then it is right to assume that her allowing herself against her better judgment to fall in love with a man of higher stature caused her suffering. The night she went to meet Prince Salim to sight the moon was the first practical error in judgment that was followed by a series of heartbreak and suffering, including being incarcerated in the dungeons.
In fact, while describing Hamartia, Aristotle believed that unjust actions are not relevant for a tragedy because, as he describes in chapter 13 of Poetics, “unjust actions are not unexpected and do result from wickedness.”7 Unjust actions do not generate fear or pity in the hearts of the audience. To ensure that this mistake is not adapted by the plotline, Akbar was given a chance to rectify his mistake by allowing Anarkali to live in the end. This provoked the spectators to find an emotional depth in Akbar’s character and forgive him as the agent of an almost unjust action. According to Aristotle’s poetics, Aristotelian tragedy dares and even intensifies its viewer’s ability to assess human action.6 Moreover, Asif’s, perhaps subconscious, employment of Aristotle’s model deepens the emotional engagement, thereby deepening our understanding and increasing our pleasure while watching this classic.6
Mughal-e-Azam does not have one linear storyline. It is a story about a father and son who went to war against each other to uphold their outlooks on life and governance, a story about star-crossed lovers who could not be together due to power imbalance embedded in social structures, a story about a mother who is separated from her beloved son to maintain her integrity and duty to the emperor. Each storyline evokes different emotions from the spectator. Madhubala’s, the actress who portrayed Anarkali, innocent face fits with big eyes that would exhibit sorrow and rage, perfectly to her role as she yields a sense of pity for her from the audience. Madhubala first appeared in the movie as a hunched-back figure, sitting in the dark, dwelling in the confusing feelings that were harbouring in her heart for Salim. Her fear towards feeling any ounce of emotions for the prince because of her self-awareness as a Kaneez, automatically generates support in the spectator’s heart for Anarkali.
The dialogue exchange between the downtrodden Anarkali and her sister relayed to the audience that she was aware of the consequences that would occur if she committed the mistake of acting on her feelings. This scene builds the connection between the actor and the audience, who subconsciously begins to root for the hopeless Anarkali. Further, into the movie, Anarkali’s sheer courage to stand up to the Mughal Emperor Akbar also amazed the audience as they saw the transformation of the scared kaneez to a brave lover. According to Indian aesthetic theory, a rasa is produced between the audience, who are the co-creators of rasa, and Anarkali’s character through Madhubala’s performance and character transformation.
According to Indian aesthetic theory, there are eight rasas— mental states that can be experienced by the audience.8 Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam is governed by Karuna— the rasa of sorrow, pity, and grief.8 Meanwhile, Rati (love) and Krodha (anger) are also the two rasas we see in the film’s duration. The main rasa can be determined by “‘standing or dominant emotions’–as embodied by the actors, who then serve as the primary conduit for rasa.”8 In the movie, we see that Akbar is sorrowful for not being able to cater to his fatherhood because of his duty to his governance, and Prince Salim and Anarkali are sorrowful for not being able to converge their paths once and for all. The main idea of Rasa in a film is to emancipate the audience from their lives by providing them with a “meta-experience” through the performance of actors.8
Apart from the poetic dialogue, grand mise-en-scene, relatively accurate costumes— the performance of the actors elicits emotions from the audience. During the timeless song of the movie Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kia, we see that Anarkali’s performance— through actions and Kathak— is relaying her unchangeable feelings for Prince Salim, her defiance against the King, and her willingness to go to prison for love. One of the most viscerally powerful scenes in the movie is at the end when Akbar’s courtesan asks Anarkali about her dying wish. She expressed the wish to marry Prince Salim and then had to walk away from him after intoxicating him so he couldn’t stop her. This is the point where we know Anarkali is the one to make the final compromise as she walks from her lover towards her deathbed. The following scene entails the depiction of the widespread myth where Anarkali is embedded alive in the wall, and the audience can’t help but feel fear and pity for her brutalization.
The mise-en-scène of Mughal e Azam plays an important role in the film, as it creates a spectacle of power via visual and aural signifiers that it engulfs the audience. The lyrical dialogues of the movie written by Kamal Amrohi— on which the movie relies— are in the form that are much more familiar to the generation of 21st century. The atmosphere of this film, in which space and time have become close to being absolute and ahistorical, is one of the reasons why the film has stood the test of time. Throughout the film, karuna rasa is induced effectively through mise-en-scène, particularly with the palace, the curtains, the high ceilings, the calligraphic art, etc. This cinematic spectacle produces a powerful work of representation. Aristotle and Plato were largely of the opinions that aesthetics is a way of accomplishing where the power lies5. During the film, Akbar maintains his power through aesthetics, frames, staging. Mughal-e-Azam is serves as a mechanism through which not only Akbar, but the Mughal empire attain power by creating spectacles and illusions to depict the Mughal king owns the power by presenting them, in this case Akbar, as the mythological god.
The world of art and politics legitimizes itself through spectacles and illusions, which is to say that power exists through spectacles.10 One instance of this could be that less than eight people in the movie were given the chance of speaking the dialogues, yet the presence of hundreds of side characters to announce the name of the King and conveying messages proves that they were there to exalt the people in power. Apart from the grand scale recreation of Mughal architecture, the constant implication of war breaking out and being able to fund the war with manpower in bank is also a way to manipulate spectacle to assert the power of the Mughal family. Asif has strategically used the medium thematically:
Here the very idea of the film lies, for once, in its articulation of gesture and image, not in its words, as with virtually all the other didactic films.11
While Mughal-e-Azam reflects the grandeur of Mughal’s period through the extensive sets and mise en scene, it also imitates the reality of the society and that of a common man. Asif has carefully navigated through the story to ensure that the unbalanced power dynamics of society also manifest during the extensive plotline. The unfolding of the storyline begins from the sculpture of Anarkali to imitate the quiet nature that is unable to speak for itself in front of the word of a ruler. As Benjamin Walter wrote, “Artists working mimetically create images; they represent something, not as it is, but as it appears.”12
Moreover, the Platonic critique of mimesis, where Plato’s concern was that imitation cannot represent the entirety of the Truth. Both Plato and Aristotle, in historical fiction, valued realism and veracity.5 The concept of King was mythological and was reckoned by what is right and correct. The king had to live and breathe like he is a king and is always right.5 However, Asif’s embodiment of characters shows that he wasn’t only looking to imitate the glory of the Mughal era, but he wanted to imitate the flaws of it as well through the characters. Asif’s characters are not perfect like divinity. In fact, he immediately makes it clear from the beginning of the movie when Akbar’s character fell on his knees in the act of devotion at a shrine of a divine historical figure, and in doing so, he gave away the expectations of being like God. He made a few mistakes during the storyline that are not expected of a king. And, his last act of releasing Anarkali and giving her life back to her proves that Akbar was depicted as a human figure, which before the 16th century was never seen before as the king remained “internally human.”13
In conclusion, Asif has not only successfully narrativized an epic tragedy, but has done it so effectively that it befits Aristotle’s model, evokes rasa in the audience, and establishes the power of Mughal empire through spectacle and illusions. Albeit the movie took more than a decade to get the funds to re-visualize the grand representation of the Mughal Era, it was worth it because of the intense emotions it elicited from the audience. The tragic story of Mughal-e-Azam is a classic legend that has been recurringly reimagined in Hindi cinema, but it was Asif’s insistence of achieving maximum perfect, Amrohi’s lyrical dialogues, and the breath-taking performance by the actors immerses the audience in the meta-physical experience and emancipate them for 197 minutes from their own emotions and feelings.
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9 Simmons, S. (1999). Advertising seizes control of life: Berlin Dada and the power of advertising. Oxford Art Journal, 119-146.
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11 Brunette, P. (1996). Roberto Rossellini. Univ of California Press.
12 Benjamin, W. (1935). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 193
13 Schmitter, A. M. (2002). Representation and the body of power in French academic painting. Journal of the History of Ideas, 63(3), 399-424.