Mughal-e-Azam: Truly a wonder to behold

Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam

Mughal-e-Azam is one of the most iconic films of all time. I had the distinct pleasure of watching it for the second time a few days ago.

But for those of you who have never heard of it, here you are.

Mughal-e-Azam is a Hindi language film. As one of the most iconic films in Bollywood (the largest film industry in the world) history, it is known to millions of people today.

It remains an enduring tale much like Romeo and Juliet as it depicts the struggle of the love of Prince Saleem (who would go on to become Emperor Jehangir of Mughal India) and Anarkali (a courtesan – a dancer in the Mughal court). The antagonist in this film is the Prince’s father, Akbar the Great – the finest Emperor that the Mughal dynasty ever produced. Akbar struggles to allow his son the freedom to love as he is bound by duty as Emperor to never allow Saleem to marry a woman of low birth. Such is Mughal custom.

And yet their love endures. The greatest love in Mughal history.

Now, in history, it is not known if Anarkali ever existed, but Mughal-e-Azam firmly imprinted her identity in the minds of millions of Indians.

Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya

It was originally made as a black and white film with a few colour scenes, notably the song of Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya:

The song is a song that strikes the heart of many for its powerful meaning. Translated to English, the song’s title roughly translates to ‘Having loved, why fear.’

In the film, it is a powerful image of the defiance of Anarkali to the customs of Mughal India as she overtly challenges the Mughal Emperor himself. In one part, she even lays a knife at his feet, daring him to kill her – not fearing death for she has loved.

The song is made even more powerful by its set. As one of the few scenes shot in colour, the set of the song was made with no expense spared. Displaying what would have been the full splendour of the court of Akbar the Great, it forms an eye-pleasing set that matches the grandeur of Anarkali and her love for the Mughal Prince. The set was so iconic that at the film’s premier in Mumbai, the set was installed as a feature that certain ticket paying film goers could explore. This privilege is one I would have thoroughly enjoyed. Alas it was over fifty years ago.

Madhubala

But the set aside, the song is made even more powerful by the dance of Anarkali. The valour of a poor servant aside, it depicts one of the finest actresses in Indian history in her prime – Madhubala.

Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam

A beauty unrivalled, Madhubala remains an iconic Indian actress shrouded in the tragedy of her life. As beautiful as Marilyn Monroe, she too shared Monroe’s fate when she met her untimely death at the age of 36. This would be strangely akin to her fate in the film – one left woefully unfulfilled.

James Burke, a photographer for Life Magazine called her the biggest star in the international film industry. Beholding her beauty, it is not hard to see why. Her beauty is matched by her prowess as a dancer – a skill masterfully captured by Mughal-e-Azam’s most remembered song.

As a whole, the film of Mughal-e-Azam proves to be a potent concoction. With no expense spared on its set, it tells an enduring tale in poetic verse and beautiful songs and dance, performed by the all-star caste of Prithviraj Kapoor (the progenitor of the famous acting Kapoor family of modern Bollywood), Durga Khote, Dilip Kumar, and Madhubala herself. Even in black and white, the tale is not dimmed. So much so, that even the colour reproduction done in the 1990s dims in comparison to its original production.

But for all its merit, Mughal-e-Azam appears as little more than the masterpiece made solely to show off the brilliant personality, beauty and grace of Madhubala.

It is a beauty and a grace that everyone should see, and if not in the whole film, then at least in the song ‘Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya.’ It is on Netflix (in the original black and white form) for anyone who wishes to watch it.

Dido Belle: England’s Eighteenth-Century African Enigma

Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle

The Story of England’s First Black Aristocrat: Dido Elizabeth Belle

Would you believe it if I told you that there existed a black aristocrat in eighteenth-century England? No, of course you wouldn’t because this seeming conundrum was certainly not allowed to happen. Even more perplexing was that she, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay – son of Sir Alexander Lindsay, 3rd Baronet – and great-niece of William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice for 32 years. Her blood was certainly noble, at least in the view of an English aristocrat assessing her father’s genealogy. However, look at her mother’s genealogy and she was no more than the daughter of a slave. She was also the illegitimate daughter of a slave as her parents were never married.

Yet, what set her apart from other illegitimate children was that her father accepted her as his daughter and made sure that she grew up under the guardianship of Earl and Lady Mansfield in Kenwood House. Although she grew up with the Earl’s other niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, it is not certain in what capacity she did so. Was she the little Lady’s playmate, attendant, or cousin? Since there is no definite account, most people look at the painting featured above and assert that she was a companion equal to Lady Elizabeth. Others look at it more critically saying that she is portrayed as a Lady’s companion. Either way, Amma Asante’s 2013 movie, Belle, certainly illuminates her relationship with the Earl, with John Davinier (who would eventually marry Belle), and how that all culminated in the Earl’s monumental ruling against slavery.

The Movie: Belle starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Belle meets the young Frenchmen, John Davinier, when he is under the Earl’s apprenticeship for law. Through him, she hears about the Zong massacre where insurance had been taken out on the lives of slaves as cargo. Following mistakes in navigation, there was a shortage of potable water aboard. So as to save the crew and to retain their investment on the slaves, the crew threw the slaves aboard to drown them. Doing so would enable them to get paid out for insurance because if the slaves had died of thirst then they could not be sold and no insurance could be paid out. Belle then proceeds to pass correspondence to Davinier which brings his apprenticeship to an end.

I will skip the romance and depiction of high society that frequents the movie. However, it allows the audience to see exactly how people of colour were treated in England in that era.

The End of the Slave Trade in Sight?

Eventually though, Belle rejects a most amiable proposal. One of the reasons for this was the affection that she had begun to hold for John Davinier. Either way, the story progressed as the Earl became painfully aware that his attempts to give Belle a suitable life, one in which she fitted into English society, had dismally failed. His own reluctance to rule against the crew on the Zong exacerbated this. Furthermore, he could not even rule against them without drawing criticism from every part of English society – royalty, aristocracy, and commoners – as they were too aware of his relationship with Belle. If he ruled against them, it would seem like an unfair judgement. But, realising that his wish to see Belle’s happiness in English society would never be achieved as long as people who shared her skin colour were brutally murdered and slave trade continued, he ruled against the crew of the Zong in a monumental way. As such, he became remembered for respecting the lives of slaves, and thereby as a man who was instrumental in the abolition of slavery.

It cannot be known for certain what drove him to this judgement, but, the movie certainly makes the case that Belle and Davinier were instrumental. And so, the simple story of Dido Belle becomes more fascinating when we realise that not only did she defy social conventions but she possibly played a pivotal role in bringing the English slave trade to an end.