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The Other: A User's Guide to Indian Cinema, Week 4

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Tuesday, Aug 22, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro


The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last fifty years. Enjoy.



Week 4: Mughal-E-Azam (“The Great Mughal”)
1960, recently restored to color, Hindi.
Dir: K. Asif


Bollywood’s definitive historical film. The war of wills between the late 16th century Emperor Akbar and his son, Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir) over Salim’s love affair with a palace slave girl, Anarkali, is the source of endless fascination in Indian cultural history. Bazaars and streets in North India are even named after the lovers. Accuracy and truth plays a modest role here, with the story of a slave girl who sought the love of a prince and dared to defy the Emperor having an irresistible, romantic allure, like the love triangles of the Arthurian legends. Not mention, the Mughal court was a haven of such opulence that it couldn’t help but unlock the imagination. This is why many directors before Asif refused to even touch a story set in such an expensive period. Asif’s meticulous attention to detail cost the studio three million dollars at the end of 1960, a time when the average Indian film cost $200,000 to make. The awe surrounding the movie’s overextended budget persists even today.  In the Indian film industry, the joke goes that whenever a movie takes longer than six weeks, the producer berates the director by asking, “What the hell are you doing here? Shooting Mughal-E-Azam?” The movie’s name has become the code word for “epic.” And epic it is. Filled with bejeweled interiors, paradiscal gardens, and sprawling battle scenes with chain mail clad warriors astride elephants, Mughal-E-Azam almost seems like a comic book fantasy of Eastern exoticism, like Disney’s Aladdin. But the strength of the film lies in Asif’s respect for a bygone era and his direction of the three charismatic stars, Prithviraj Kapoor (Akbar), Dilip Kumar (Salim), and Madhubala (Anarkali). All three breathe humanity into the fabled characters.

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