Hundreds of artisans from the nondescript town of Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh, worked tirelessly for two years to put millions of small circular mirrors together to create the interiors of Sheesh Mahal.
Their goal was to replicate the splendour of the Mughal era in this 3ft-high, 80ft-wide and 150ft-long makeshift glass palace, where one of the finest dance sequences of Hindi cinema was filmed—Pyaar kiya to darna kya from Mughal-e-Azam (1960)— which is deconstructed in Shakil Warsi’s new, engrossing book Mughal-e-Azam: An Epic of Eternal Love.
Soon after the sets were ready came the bad news: It was impossible to shoot there because the mirrors inlaid on the walls and pillars would reflect too much light. With experts such as directors David Lean and Roberto Rossellini concurring, the producer almost considered having the film made by another director. But this did not deter K. Asif, the director.
Lovelorn: The author says Mughal-e-Azam is unmatched in technique among films of its era.
The exquisite set was not demolished, and the dance sequence not dropped. For days, the cinematographer tried to locate one spot that did not reflect light. The unit was ecstatic once that spot was located, but it took another six months before the processing laboratories in London gave the technical go-ahead. Eventually, it took no less than 8 hours to light the sets before every single shot.
The Pyaar kiya to darna kya sequence remains a reference point in the history of Indian cinema—Asif’s directorial imagination, A.K. Sayyad’s immaculate artwork, Shakeel Badayuni’s romantic lyrics, Naushad’s haunting melody, Lachchu Maharaj’s choreography, Lata Mangeshkar’s golden voice and Madhubala’s unmatched expressions and dance came together in this syncretic piece, through the lens of cinematographer R.D. Mathur.
Many details of the process of making it and the idiosyncrasies of its perfectionist director Asif come alive in Warsi’s book. Asif’s demand for a gold shoe for the prince was contested by the producer, but he argued, “When my hero will walk with gold shoes, his gait would be that of Prince Salim, not Dilip Kumar.”
Mughal-e-Azam — An Epic of Eternal Love: Rupa and Co., 168 pages, Rs795.
Asif was a merciless critic of his own work. Out of the 1 million ft of film that he shot over 15 years, he retained only 20,000ft. Since the story was a fictionalized romance set against a historical backdrop, he tried to blur the line between fact and fiction. But in the end, the film’s message was more philosophical, with a literary flavour: Love transcends fear, Mangeshkar sang.
“Asif firmly believed that the West emphasized on sex in romantic relations because it had failed to understand love,” writes Warsi. Using his unique technique, Asif shot a 200ft-long love sequence that did not contain any dialogue or physical contact, and yet remains one of the most romantic visuals ever in Hindi cinema.
Warsi writes at length about the romantic interlude between the two lovers: While Madhubala smiles sensuously at every touch of the feather, Dilip Kumar’s intense eyes convey the yearning. The erotic undercurrent, the silence, and the song contribute to make this a memorable scene.
Mughal-e-Azam: An Epic of Eternal Love is as much about Mughal-e-Azam as it is about Asif. He lived a simple life in a two-room flat in Mumbai. Once, actor Sanjeev Kumar, his close friend, asked him to buy a plot and build a bungalow on it. “I am here to make films, not bungalows,” Asif retorted.
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