How an Epic was born: the story behind Mughal-E-Azam

Dilip Kumar was Prince Salim in Mughal-E-Azam (1960), whose colorized version was released in 2004. Photo: Deepesh Salgia

A blog on the 1960 film Mughal-E-Azam, which forms the base of the play, Mughal-E-Azam—The Musical, currently enjoying a spectacular run in USA and Canada, has been written by Deepesh Salgia, director, Shapoorji Pallonji Group. Salgia has also shared the blog with us.

Deepesh has been behind the colorized Mughal-E-Azam (2004) as well as the play, that has been performing globally since 2016. With basic necessary modifications in parenthesis, we reproduce the blog:

“It is not the legal documents that drive long partnerships, it is the silent compromises that define the spirit of partnership.(Between) a young lad in (his) mid-20s bubbling with ideas, but with no past achievements, and a construction baron in his 60s—with bountiful money and experience.

The above could be a very common Founder & VC story of startups of today. But this a story of 1940s and 1950s – when partnerships was always among equals.

K Asif was an Urdu-speaking Muslim from Punjab. Seth Shapoorji Pallonji Mistry, was a Parsi from Mumbai.  So if Bambaiya Hindi was the only mode of communication, their partnership too was uncharacteristic, it was born out of a mammoth alienation – the Partition of India. With this backdrop, the two partners worked together for more than a decade to make one of the biggest works of art from India during the twentieth century.

The seeds of the partnership were sown with the original producer of Mughal-E-Azam, Shiraz Ali, and his decision to shift to Pakistan after Partition.  Asif started meeting various financiers to take over the under-production film from Shiraz Ali.

During one such legendary meeting, Asif had downed five pegs and still had not discussed the film’s script.  The puzzled financier asked, “Arey Asif, tumne paanch peg pee liye aur abhi tak film ki script shuru nahin ki (Asif, you have downed five pegs, and you have not yet started on your script)?”. Asif immediately left the room and later told the arranger of the meeting, “Jo peg ginta ho, woh Mughal-E-Azam nahin bana sakta…! (The one who counts peg cannot make a Mughal-E-Azam ).”

Meanwhile, Shiraz Ali owed money to Shapoorji towards the construction of his Famous Studio (Mahalaxmi). So, he suggested to Asif to meet Shapoorji, since he had decided to settle Shapoorji’s construction dues against the rights in the under-production film.

Shapoorji had, by then made huge monies in construction, real estate, sugar, textiles et al.  And this wealth was in addition to his partnership in the Tata Group. In Mughal-E-Azam, Shapoorji saw a gateway to his unconquered bastion—the making of a great work of art.

During their several meetings, Shapoorji and Asif realized that to achieve their shared vision, the under-production Mughal-E-Azam will have to be morphed into a new avatar—a film at a much larger canvas. With a promise from Asif to make a film that would befit Shapoorji’s unfulfilled agenda, Shapoorji agreed to fund the new film.

Shelving the under-production film meant Shapoorji’s unpaid dues as from Famous Studio were now already down the drain. He was now looking at the sunk cost as the cost of acquisition of a visionary idea. Asif was now convinced that his search for the ‘non-peg-counting financier’ was over.

Shoot commenced in early 1950s, but with the production canvas involving war scenes with 2,000 camels, 4000 horses and 8000 Indian military men, costs continuously kept on increasing. By 1956-‘57, the budget had already quadrupled. Asif now suggested shooting the Sheesh Mahal sequence in color, pushing the cost to six times the original cost.

It was often believed that at every stage, Asif had fooled Shapoorji into investing larger sums. However, what went unnoticed was the tacit communication between Asif and Shapoorji. During every budgetary revision, Asif would, through his unspoken communication, acknowledge that he was under a moral obligation to return every money that he took. For people (of) Shapoorji’s stature, moral commitment weighed far more than written documents.

Madhubala as Anarkali in K. Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam. Photo: Deepesh Salgia

But in 1957, with Pakistan banning release of Indian films, 25 percent of projected business was also lost. Accordingly, trade experts suggested to Shapoorji to shoot the Sheesh Mahal in B&W and recover whatever was possible.

While the trade saw a red bottom-line in the color sequence, Shapoorji, in it, would see the countless colors of Sheesh Mahal through the eyes of Asif. As luck would have it, the Sheesh Mahal sequence became the star attraction during the pre-promotion meets.  Not known to many, in the original screenplay, the Sheesh Mahal sequence was immediately after the interval (the first part would then end with Salim slapping Anarkali, after their split).

Asif realized that if the sequence was shifted before the interval, audience will come out completely mesmerized and will talk only of the color sequence. And it was only such a huge positive word-of-mouth publicity that would generate business enough to recover Shapoorji’s investment.

But such a big change also meant a big creative compromise, something that a great filmmaker would loathe to do. However, sacrifices and trusts are what make partnerships last.  This time, it was Asif’s turn to sacrifice. The colour Sheesh Mahal sequence was shifted before interval. The two scenes were originally in continuation, but later, the interval was added in-between these scenes.

If intentions are good, so are the results. Shapoorji’s Rs 1.5 crore investment grossed Rs 5.5 crore then or about Rs 2000 crore in today’s terms, making Mughal-E-Azam, an all-time top grosser in the box-office. Shapoorji made his money but the creator’s desire to see the full film in color, remained unfulfilled.

But in 2004, the next generation of (the) Mistry family had neither forgotten Asif’s sacrifice nor his unfulfilled desire. As a mark of respect to the creator’s vision, the next generation undertook a massive project to restore and colorize 300,000 frames and re-released the full film in color. The new version too ran for 25 weeks in cinema halls.  Good intentions again paid back, not just once, not twice, but even the third time when, in 2016, the family produced a musical play based on the film

I always wonder, had Shapoorji not decided to do the Shdeesh Mahal in color,  would Mughal-E-Azam still have been so big ?

Another big question that perplexes me is, with only a raw Bambaiya Hindi as the bridge, how did Asif and Shapoorji communicate on a subject as complex as art…..Hmmm… maybe when great men decide to communicate, language ceases to be a barrier.

The journey that two men had travelled would always be remembered in the world of cinema, in the world of art and in the world of human relationships. Shakeel Badayuni, the lyricist of Mughal-E-Azam, possibly saw this and penned, “Mar jaate hain aashiq / Zinda reh jaati hai yaad / Zindabad zindabad (Lovers die, but their memories remain alive)!”

End of blog.

The film and the play

The film, directed by K. Asif and starring Prithviraj Kapoor as Emperor Akbar, Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim and Madhubala as Anarkali, had music by Naushad. Feroz Abbas Khan has directed the play, Mughal-E-Azam—The Musical, with additional music by Piyush Kanojia. The film stars Nissar Khan, Dhanveer Singh and Priyanka Barve or Neha Sargam in the respective roles of Akbar, Salim and Anarkali. The last two are also singing the evergreen songs live.

My detailed review of the play, Mughal-E-Azam—The Musical, which I watched again after 2016 during its repeat performances in Mumbai, has appeared in, November 14, 2022.





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