Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bombay at Lincoln Center: Mughal-E-Azam

It could be called India’s Gone With the Wind. K. Asif’s grand historical epic Mughal-E-Azam was nine years in the making, but would hold the country’s inflation-adjusted box office record until early 2009. Its heroine bears little resemblance to Scarlett O’Hara though. In fact, she is a slave who has captured the heart of the crown prince. There is also plenty of music in Asif’s enduringly popular film, which appropriately screens during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current retrospective, Social Dramas and Shimmering Spectacles: Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema.

The legendary Emperor Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar (yes, the husband of Jodhaa) has ruled over Hindustan for many years without the blessing of an heir. Unfortunately, when Prince Salim finally arrives, he turns out to be a major problem child. Shipped off to fight in the desert, the bratty Salim eventually becomes a man, but he still has a bit of an attitude problem when Akbar finally recalls him home.

Frankly, the headstrong Salim is a chip off the old block Imperial block. This leads to serious father-son friction when Salim falls in love with the slave girl Anarkali, whom Akbar deems scandalously unworthy. How does this family conflict work itself out? Well, let’s just say one of them is the all powerful emperor and the other one is not, at least not yet. Naturally though, it is poor Anarkali who suffers the most, chained up in the dungeon when not performing her plaintive musical numbers.

At the time, MEA was the most expensive Bollywood production ever. As color photography became more commonplace in Indian cinema, Asif wanted to reshoot the entire picture, but had to settle for filming two color sequences, the effect of which are a bit jarring in an otherwise gorgeous black and white feature. In 2004, the entire MEA was digitally colorized and released for yet another popular run in Indian theaters. Nevertheless, some of the film’s best scenes, like those involving the mysterious sculptor and his eerily powerful statuary seem best rendered in black-and-white.

MEA definitely has everything one could want in a sweeping epic. There are battle scenes, romantic yearning, courtly intrigue, and of course singing and dancing. Considered one of the greatest Bollywood soundtracks of all time, MEA actually might not be as accessible to neophyte Bollywood ears as the ghazals of Mirza Ghalib. Still, the dancing definitely has the grand spectacle of the great MGM and Busby Berkely musicals.

Ill-fated on and off-screen, Madhubala was perfectly cast as Anarkali, effectively handling both the musical and melodramatic aspects of the role. Conversely, while these might be fighting words on the subcontinent, Dilip Kumar just does not make a convincing romantic hero. However, some of the best work in MEA are memorable supporting performances that flesh out the hothouse palace world, like M. Kumar, intriguingly eccentric as the sculptor. Likewise, Nigar Sultana makes a great screen villainous as Bahar, the jealous slave girl who relishes in the suffering of Anarkali and Salim. As Akbar and Jodhaa, Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote look more like Fred and Ethel Mertz than the impossibly good-looking Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan, but they have some memorable dramatic moments.

MEA is an undeniable milestone of world cinema. Epic in scope and classically tragic in its sensibilities, it is a perfect selection for the FSLC’s retrospective of socially conscious and artistically ambitious Bollywood films. It screens at the Walter Reade Theater tomorrow (5/21) and Monday (5/24).