Who Will Risk A ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ Today?

It is finally curtains for Mughal-e-Azam, 62 years after it released on August 5, 1960. Dilip Kumar, who played the rebel prince Salim, died a year ago, at 98. Shapurji Palonji Mistry, who financed the film at great risk, passed away this month at 93. There is none who can talk, first-hand, about what all went into its making. Others who contributed to this film, rated as one of the greatest, if not India’s greatest-ever, left long ago.

Mughal-e-Azam has slipped into the realm of nostalgia, as part of India’s rich, century-plus, film culture. But there will always be critics and cineastes who enjoy cinema of a by-gone era. Anyone would agree that another Mughal-e-Azam cannot be made, just as you cannot re-make Cleopatra or Ten Commandments. Technology is available, but finances?

Over 80,000 feet of film footage had accumulated by the time it was completed, enough, it is said, to make four more Mughal-e-Azams. Even the current crop of the Mistry clan, though richer than it then was, would shudder at the risks involved in its re-making. And there is logic, not just nostalgia, which counsels against tinkering with classics.

Above all, where does one get a director like K Asif, nursing an unparalleled passion for the project for long years and at the end, delivering a masterpiece that generations have watched with awe?

Rare for a movie, Mughal-e-Azam is now a metaphor for those times. Six decades is a long time. The passage has changed values; more so in the recent times, sharply and divisively. It was part of the Idea of India as one has known.

That idea is being challenged now. Agreed, it is not all fact/document-based. There is history, and there is popular lore that has devolved over time. Essentially separate, but when they get enmeshed, and ideological agenda is tagged, confusion has arisen and disputes have occurred.

This is being re-written from the contemporary prism. While more information and research should be welcome, what we are witnessing are attempts to turn it into version of the victor – mind you, victory not of a king of a queen, but an electoral one in a democracy, subject to renewal every five years. Meant to suite a political agenda, it is being changed from the top, to percolate down, in the name of ‘nationalism’.

Cinema that remains India’s most popular and pervasive medium, is being co-opted in this. This is reflected in some recent films on subjects that deal with the past. They are not necessarily based on history. Even loud disclaimers that they are only ‘inspired’ or based on literature on those personalities, events and those times, have not prevented controversies, some of them turning violent.

“Hurt feelings” and “wounded pride” have been advanced among the reasons for protests. We have seen politics-laced controversies by people of one caste or community or the other.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has been among the worst ‘offenders’ or ‘victims’, depending upon how one views his films. His Padmavat (2018) angered some Rajput groups. Bajirao Mastani (2015) dissatisfied some claimants of Maratha Empire’s glory. They felt Bajirao’s wife Kashibai was short-changed to glamourize Mastani. Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Devdas (2002) hurt Sharatchandra acolytes who found the England-returned protagonist outlandish.

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Bhansali grew wiser by the time he made Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). Nobody really wanted to own up a red light district’s ‘madam’. By comparison, Ashutosh Gowarikar has been lucky to escape controversy, though unlucky with his films’ success. Critics didn’t delve deep enough into the ancient Mohenjo Daro (2016). None was ‘hurt’ by his more recent Panipat (the 3rd battle, in 1761). That battle altered the course of history to a great extent, if not as much as the Battle of Plassey (1757). Afghanistan’s Ahmed Shah Durrani dealing a humiliating defeat on the Peshwa’s Martha army went unchallenged.

Samrat Prithviraj (2022) is, perhaps, a better ‘representative’ of the changed times. Claimed to be based on Prithviraj Raso composed in praise of the king by his favourite bard Chand Bardai, it has satisfied those who had pitched for ‘purity’ in the depiction of Rani Padmini or Padmavati. But it left the film audiences cold.

This could have been box office failure of a big-budget venture, except that its director, Chandra Prakash Dwivedi, injected controversy. The man who had made that brilliant serial, Chanakya, for Doordarshan long ago, found a political alibi for his financial flop. He reportedly blamed it on the theme being about “a Hindu king”.

This brings us back to Mughal-e-Azam, but not without touching upon Gowarikar’s immensely successful Jodhaa Akbar (2008). The most remarkable thing about that film is that it put a seal of confirmation on the message of Mughal-e-Azam. Mind you, based on available records and popular lore, neither claimed perfection in historical terms.

Both celebrated the story of Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar (1556-1605 AD) the third Mughal Emperor and his Hindu Queen Jodhabai. Both films stressed on mutual respect and tolerance among the Muslim rulers and their Hindu subjects.

British academic, Professor Rachel Dwyer, author of the book Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema, says Mughal-e-Azam highlighted religious tolerance between Hindus and Muslims. Her examples include scenes depicting the presence of Queen Jodhabai, a woman and a Hindu, in Akbar’s court. Celebrating Janmashtami, Akbar is shown pulling a string to rock a swing with Krishna’s idol. Anarkali, the courtesan Salim loves and to get whom he rebels against the father, sings a Hindu devotional song.

It wasn’t ‘secularism’ as we know it today. Akbar’s move was political, driven by enlightenment and not by altruism. History calls him ‘Great’ because rather than fight the Rajputs, he had consciously struck alliances with them.

Akbar is not-so-great and Mughals are the villains today. Social media, some of it owned by major media houses, is full of calumny against them. Historical accounts of Akbar’s defeating Mewar’s Maharana Pratap in the Battle of Haldighati (1576) are being disputed. Already, some history books declare Pratap the victor.

Again, it was a significant military effort by Akbar to establish his rule across India’s North. The Haldighati battle is a case-study at the Indian Army’s College of Warfare. If Akbar had Hindu generals, Pratap had Muslims. Now, it is viewed as a clash of communities.

This type of jingoism begets extreme reaction, equally guilty of distortion. Akbar is called a ‘fake’ Muslim who blocked his son from marrying Anarkali, a Muslim, but allowed idolatry by Hindu wife Jodhabai.

Agreed, that those who control the present can rewrite the past. But as George Orwell says: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Obituary: An Ode To A Legend

By Amit Khanna

Dilip Sahab undoubtedly is one of the greatest actors we have seen, not only in India but perhaps across the world. He pioneered, what we today call the method school of acting, and generations of actors have used him as their role model.

I first met Yusuf Sahab more than 50 years ago when I had just started working with his contemporary and friend Dev Anand. Soon thereafter, when I went to Bombay to work, I used to see him at the studios and wherever he went, I would see that he was looked upon by actors and other unit members and workers with awe.

I don’t remember the exact date but in 1972, I met him again at a common friend’s residence. That was the first time we chatted and I was pleasantly surprised to see him speak with authority not only on cinema but other subjects like politics, art, and literature.

I also used to address him as Lala. Over the years, I got to know his family and you know, his brothers and sisters. Over time, I cannot claim he was a friend, but he was somebody who was warm and affectionate towards me. He would talk to me as I was a younger member of his family.

Contrary to the myth, I remember those days where Dilip Sahab, Dev Sahab, and Raj Kapoor Sahab were very warm and affectionate. Yusuf Sahab was very concerned about the pride of the film workers, he would ask all of us as to what we were doing for welfare.

He raised funds for various causes, in the mid-70s there were floods in many parts of India, he organised a film star rally, and most of his contemporaries like Dev Sahab and younger stars like Dharmendra and all the leading ladies came together.

Whenever there was a natural calamity or even after the 1971 War, he was actively involved in organising premiere shows and star nights for collecting money for the welfare of people.

We grew closer over the years. I would go to his house or drop at his film shootings and we would talk about projects. Our common friend JK Kapoor had produced a film with Dilip Sahab and Saira Ji in both Hindi and Bengali called ‘Sagina Mahato’.

One day, JK Kapoor called me and said Dilip Sahab has to do some scenes because he had written them in Urdu and he needed someone to translate them into Hindi so he asked me why don’t you do it? I said I am very busy but then I met Dilip Sahab, I translated what was written, I got one of my persons to work with him for a while.

He got to know then that I was a writer. Every time I would bump into him, he would ask me what song have you written? He behaved like someone elder in the family and when I became the producer, I started India’s first integrated media company, which did several TV shows and movies. Whenever I called him for functions, he would always come. Even if he was busy, he used to say for you I will come. Younger people in the generation looked up to him. Mr Amitabh Bachchan has always looked up to him, the same can be said for Shahrukh Khan.

When I talk about the current generation, I remember one incident related to Rani Mukherjee. Once, she had spent the whole evening sitting at Dilip Sahab’s feet and she kept on talking to him.

‘Hulchul’, ‘Deedar’, ‘Shikhar’, all these films were hits, but then came his first Filmfare Award in 1954 for ‘Daag’. The film ‘Devdas’ (1930) originally starred KL Saigal and in that film, Bimal Roy was the cinematographer.

Bimal Roy then made ‘Devdas’ in 1955 and he casted Dilip Kumar. Dilip Sahab gave such a nuanced performance that it still remains as a test book for all actors. Everyone watches that film and of course, Shahrukh Khan played Devdas in the next remake.

Yusuf Sahab has also given some powerful performances in movies like ‘Ganga Jamuna’, ‘Mughal-E-Azam’, ‘Naya Daur’, and ‘Karma’.

Yusuf Sahab was very big in public life also, he was a member of the parliament in Rajya Sabha. He was given the Padma Bhushan and later on Padma Vibhushan by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Dilip Sahab is the only actor who has won eight Filmfare Awards. Now, the number of awards has gone up but Dilip Sahab has won every possible Lifetime Achievement Award.

For the last 10-12 years, Yusuf Sahab was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He had forgotten faces and he would often forget who is there. It was sad to see him like that.

The last time I met him on his birthday three-four years ago, he kept holding my hand and he said thank you for coming. Age had caught up with him, but I must give full credit to Saira Bhanu ji, she has looked after him really well.

For me, it was more of a personal loss.

(Amit Khanna is a filmmaker, writer and industry veteran). (ANI)

Devdas, The Show Isn’t Over Yet

As Hindu epics-based television serials Ramayan and Mahabharat gather encore from Indian audiences locked-in by Caronavirus, I wondered what could come next in reach, frequency and impact. My search ended with films based on the Bengali novel, Devdas, by Sharat Chandra Chatterjee. However, they are distant second by millions of miles, understandably, because Devdas is not an epic, nor does it preach any faith, ideology or philosophy.

Of the 20 odd films, one or two can arguably be called classics. Again, together they are no match to cinema, theatre, art and literature springing from the epics and other scriptures. Cinema and Devdas are but a century-old. None compares to, say, Hollywood’s Ten Commandments. But that would be digressing.

The novel or the films have not attained mass popularity because they end tragically. Readers/viewers find that depressing. Chatterjee who wrote this semi-autobiography in 1900 did not publish till 1917. He was embarrassed, as per his son, having written under alcohol’s influence. He thought it lacked maturity, although it remains his most famous work.

Devdas is a tragic triangle. Temperamental and timid by turns, the protagonist baulks when childhood love Parvati (Paro), entering his bedroom at night, proposes marriage. Blaming himself, but also her, for the ‘mistake,’ he takes to booze and to Chandramukhi, a courtesan. She loves him hopelessly but he, unable to forget an unattainable Paro, dislikes her, even as he depends upon her.

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Devdas dominates child-Paro, even strikes her on the eve of her marriage. Class and caste divides of the 19th century Bengal determine his parents’ rejection of the alliance and hers retaliate by finding someone higher and richer, even if old.

This story of viraha (separation) and self-destruction ends with a nomadic and sick Devdas, keeping the promise made to Parvati of “one last meeting”, dies at her doorsteps. There is no reunion.

Devdas’ 20 odd film versions cover the Indian Cinema’s evolution. The first by Naresh Mitra, released in 1927, was ‘silent’.  In 1935, four years after Indian cinema went ‘talkie’, its director P C Barua also enacted the lead. The very next year, he directed K L Saigal and Jamuna, captivating imagination of the pre-Partition India’s cine-goers with their acting and haunting songs. Barua was not done: the Assamese version came in 1937.

In 1953, Vedantam Raghaviah made Tamil and Telugu versions. Both had Akkineni Nageswara Rao and Savithri playhing Devdas and Parvati.  Two decades later, Vijaya Nirmala directed and played Parvati in another Tamil version (1974).   

In southern India, Akkineni’s depiction of Devdasu is considered the ultimate. Stories have it that for Bimal Roy’s Hindi version (1955), Dilip Kumar repeatedly watched the Telugu film.  Purists think no actor can surpass their performances.  

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Devdas inspired passion and continuity. Roy was Barua’s cinematographer. That it triggered several re-makes over a long period is remarkable. It laid the most significant milestones in careers of all concerned. 

It’s difficult, also unfair perhaps, to compare different versions made in different times with varying literary, technological, artistic, even financial inputs. I venture to say – and I am not alone – that Roy, by now working in what became Bollywood, getting Dilip Kumar – reportedly for Rs one lakh, a ‘princely’ sum in those times — to pair with Bengal’s Suchitra Sen, and with Vyjayantimala playing Chandramukhi, Kamal Bose’ photography and S D Burman’s music, is the most significant version.   

Devdas, following Jogan (1950), Deedar (1951) and others where Dilip Kumar played melancholic characters, sealed his reputation as the “tragedy king”. It caused him psychological imbalance. But it also inspired many a young aspirant to flock to Mumbai to act in films.

Translating a literary work on celluloid is never easy. Capturing Bengal’s countryside, providing the right musical notes from Baul to Mujhra, and of course, writing, played their respective roles. Roy, it would seem, got the combination right.  

In one of this film’s iconic scenes, Chandramukhi pleads with Devdas that he has drunk excessively and more would harm him. Surrounded by bottles, he retorts in utter despair: “Kaun kambakht hai jo bardasht karne ke liye peeta hai… main to peeta hun ke bas saans le sakun.”

I am unable to translate these lines by Rajinder Singh Bedi. But they were more or less repeated 47 years later in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 version.

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Unintended perhaps, there is continuity in the way Shahrukh Khan interpreted Devdas for Bhansali. Whether or not Kumar ‘learnt’ from Akkineni, Khan certainly emulated Kumar with whom he shares not only looks, but also ethnic/cultural roots. Think of the two Pathans hailing from Peshawar, interpreting a Bengali ‘bhadralok’!   

This ‘flexibility’ explains Devdas’ larger South Asian literary/cinematic reach, unaffected by India’s Partition. It has been filmed twice each in Pakistan (in Urdu 1965 and 2010) and Bangladesh (in Bengali in 1982 and 2013).  But it remains essentially Indian, with versions in Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and Assamese.  Most “non-Bengali” versions have been made post-Partition.

Generations have embraced Devdas. My father loved Saigal’s portrayal. Post-independence generations go gaga over Dilip’s. But my son prefers SRK’s colourful bonanza. One of the most lavishly mounted Bollywood venture, it was the first Indian film to be premiered at Cannes Film Festival.    

Sadly, I have seen only a few clips of Saigal. A Dilip admirer, I must confess to SRK’s interpretation growing on me as it were, on more viewings.

Film-makers by and large stuck faithfully to Chatterjee’s Devdas. But with the turn of the century, the current lot is taking artistic liberties. ‘Original’ Devdas went to Kolkata (then Calcutta) for studies. But Bhansali sent him to England, returning as a smoker, donning Western coat and hat. He lapses into dhoti-Panjabi ensemble when life gets tough and tragic. Incensed West Bengal lawmakers had demanded the film’s ban for its many ‘distortions’.

Among major actors of their times, besides Barua, Saigal and Akkineni, Kamal Haasan and SoumitraChaterjee played Devdas.    Parvati and Chandramukhi have been interpreted by Pakistan’s Shamim Ara and Banglaesh’s Kabori Chowdhur/Sarwar, Vijaya Nirmala (also its producer), Vyjayantimala, Supriya Chowdhury, Sridvi, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dikshit.

Vyjayantimala was known to have rejected the Best Supporting Actor nomination, insisting that her Chandramukhi, and not Paro, is the real heroine. Her view can be compared to Ramayan being viewed from Ravan’s standpoint, not always Ram’s.

On Suchitra Sen’s passing away in 2014, however, she admitted to being acknowledged at the national level and by critics after she played alongside Suchitra.

Ironically, save a brief frame, the two did not share a single sequence. While Vyjayantimala shot in Bombay, Sen’s part was filmed in Bengal.

For Madhuri who played Bhansali’s Chandramukhi with great aplomb, it was vindication. Clutching her Filmfare Award, she chided her critics who had written her off as a fading star after her marriage and migration to the United States.

Of Devdas’ five modern-day takes, in Anurag Kashyap’s “Dev D” all three protagonists are into booze and sex. The setting is Punjabi. His Chandramukhi is a hippy-like call-girl painting Delhi red. 

In “Daas Dev” (2018) Sudhir Mishra borrows not just from Chatterjee’s novel but also from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to capture the dynamics of India’s dynastic politics.

In a sense, Devdas is India’s answer to Hamlet. Both have survived generations. Life does oscillate between hope and despair.  Many would question their relevance today, though, especially their failure to rebel against prevailing norms.

The only known survivor of the 1955 saga besides Vyjayantimala, Dilip once stated that his aim was “to convey the sense of hopelessness that pervades the relationship between Devdas and the two women and others who are a part of his doomed life without leading ardent viewers to cynicism and despondence.”

The mystique continues. Gulzar’s 1980s attempt, with Dharmendra (who had reportedly financed the venture), Sharmila Tagore as Parvati and Hema Malini as Chandramukhi was aborted, nobody knows why. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI) is searching the two reels Gulzar completed, but are missing.

In early 1960s, India lost its treasure of old films, including Devdas, in a fire in a Mumbai godown. The NFAI engaged in protracted talks with its Bangladeshi counterpart to retrieve the only surviving copy of the 1936 version found with a Chittagong film distributor. It was exchanged for Satyajit Ray’s Apu Triology.

The recovery of Devdas, film analyst Gautam Kaul recalls, was aptly celebrated with a ‘premier’ held at Nandan theatre in Kolkata.   

Great story-telling on cinema may elude in this era when a film-maker must stay commercially viable. Yet, last word may not have been said on Devdas.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com