Recently, the Bollywood epic Mughal-i-Azam celebrated the diamond jubilee of its release. Starring the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor, the then tragedy king Dilip Kumar and the ravishing Madhubala in lead roles — as the mighty Mughal emperor Jalauddin Akbar, Prince Salim aka Shaikhu and the kaneez Anarkali, respectively — Mughal-i-Azam is considered one of the greatest films to have emerged from Bollywood.
A flag-bearer for unrequited love, Mughal-i-Azam is blessed with an evergreen soundtrack, elaborate and ornate sets, a powerful screenplay, dramatic character confrontations, realistic battle scenes, impressive costumes as well as mesmerising dialogues.
It is rightly considered a cinematic classic and masterpiece in every sense of the word. Although six decades have passed since its release in 1960, its foundations were actually laid 75 years ago.
It was the year 1944, and Devika Rani, the first lady of Indian cinema, had sold the shares of Bombay Talkies to Shiraz Ali Hakim, owner of Famous Cine Laboratories and Studios and Famous Films.
Shiraz Ali Hakim or Seth sahib, as he was known, was a reputed producer, distributor and financer in undivided India. Shiraz Ali had influenced several stars-in-the-making to move over to Bombay (as Mumbai was then known), which included director Shaukat Hussain Rizvi (from Lahore), actress Leela Chitnis, singer K.C. Dey, screenwriter/director Phani Majumdar and director A.R. Kardar (from then Calcutta).
The ‘greatest story ever told’ in Indian cinema had an equally great story behind how it came to be made and the man who made it possible
He had several regional hits to his credit, and was behind India’s biggest ‘Muslim social’ hit, Zeenat (1944), starring a young Noor Jehan and directed by her then-husband Shaukat Hussain Rizvi. Shiraz Ali’s next venture, Phool, had an ensemble cast comprising of Prithviraj Kapoor, Durga Khote, Surayya and the famous dancer Sitara Devi.
The leading man of films during the ’40s, and later one of the pioneers of Pakistan’s film industry, actor Nazir, requested his long-time friend to accomodate his nephew in Phool. Shiraz Ali offered Nazir’s nephew a directing job under his supervision. The world now knows Nazir’s nephew as Karimuddin Asif a.k.a. K. Asif. Considered the first multi-starrer from India, Phool became the highest grossing film of 1945.
With 95 percent shares of Bombay Talkies, back-to-back blockbusters to the credit of Famous Films and an upcoming director by his side, Shiraz Ali decided to finance Anarkali — K. Asif’s adaptation of Imtiaz Ali Taj’s play of the same name.
The title was later changed to Mughal-i-Azam, and it began with actors Chandramohan, Nargis and Veena in lead roles. Actor D.K. Sapru was cast after K. Asif rejected a young actor already employed by Bombay Talkies, to play the role of Shehzada Salim. Durga Khote was Jodha Bai while the up-and-coming actor Himalaywala’s name was also among the cast.
Anil Biswas was signed on as the music director and four writers — Aman, Wajahat Mirza, Kamal Amrohi and Ehsan Rizvi — were brought in to write the dialogues. Mughal-i-Azam was an all-in-all Bombay Talkies’ production and work on it began in 1946. But because of the turbulent times in the Subcontinent, which led to the Partition of India, the film could not see the light of day. Over a dozen reels of raw material went to waste. The Mughal-i-Azam we now know had a major change in cast but the dialogues and the screenplay remained the same.
In 1947, the Partition of the Subcontinent occurred and it affected people from every walk of life. A new country called Pakistan was born and all was in disarray. The situation halted the mega-production and then veteran actor Chandramohan died in 1949, leaving the project without the actor for its title role of Mughal-i-Azam.
Just months before Partition, Shaukat Hussain Rizvi had turned producer with the Dilip Kumar-Noor Jehan starrer Jugnu. It was the filmmaker’s first major hit. “Dilip sahib had just wrapped up Milan for Bombay Talkies when he was approached by Shaukat Rizvi, who was looking for a male lead against his then wife, Noor Jehan,” recalls Saeed Shiraz, son of Shiraz Ali Hakim. “As Bombay Talkies was [then] making Mughal-i-Azam without Dilip Kumar, my father allowed him to do Jugnu.
“Dilip sahib returned with the signing amount of 25,000 rupees and handed it to my father, telling him that money belonged to him. My father allowed Dilip sahib to keep the money, as well as the salary he drew from Bombay Talkies. Such was the mutual level of respect.”
Interestingly, a year earlier, Dilip Kumar was the same young actor K. Asif had rejected for the role of Shehzada Salim, as, according to him, he looked too ‘young’ to play the role of the handsome prince!
The dynamics of the Indian film industry were changing too. Shiraz Ali Hakim was associated with Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Bombay Muslim League, and had to migrate to Pakistan from India because of pressure from the Congress party.
“My maternal grandfather, Aziz Ghafoor Kazi, was also associated with the All-India Muslim League and was quite close to Mr Jinnah,” says Saeed Shiraz. “He produced Humjoli and jointly produced Phool under the banner of Famous Films, although it carried my maternal uncle K. Abdullah’s name as producer. He also distributed a number of films directed by A.R. Kardar, including S.M. Yusuf’s Naik Perveen.”
Shiraz Ali Hakim left India heartbroken after his laboratory, in the Tardeo area of Bombay, was set on fire amid communal riots. Himalaywala, who also left India, continued his ‘acting’ innings in Pakistan and eventually played the role of Emperor Akbar in Pakistan’s version of Anarkali (1958).
After the migration of Shiraz Ali Hakim, the Famous Cine Studios and Laboratory in Bombay were left without an owner, just like the many film studios in Lahore. Ironically, Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, a one-hit producer and an ex-employee of Bombay Talkies, got Shori Studios in Lahore and turned it into Shahnoor Studios, whereas Shiraz Ali Hakim became a distributor of Indian and Pakistani films in Pakistan.
When K. Asif restarted work on Mughal-i-Azam in 1951, Shiraz Ali arranged a meeting with his friend and business tycoon Shapoorji Mistry. Mistry had built the Famous Cine Studios at Mahalaxmi, Mumbai, in the ’40s for Shiraz Ali Hakim, who was producing Mughal-i-Azam at the time. However, when Shiraz Ali Hakim had migrated to Pakistan, he had handed over the film rights of Mughal-i-Azam to Mistry’s Shapoorji Pallonji Group, in lieu of the construction cost of the Famous Cine Studios and Laboratory.
Mistry took on the project because of his fascination with and admiration for Mughal emperor Akbar. Mughal-i-Azam took nine years to complete but the effort was worth it, because it created new box office records upon its release.
Shiraz Ali Hakim was asked to attend the film’s premiere in August 1960. “When my father went to attend the premiere of Mughal-i-Azam, he was arrested by the Indian authorities for tax evasion, after they collected data on him for a month,” remembers Saeed Shiraz. “Surprisingly, since migration, he had visited India innumerable times but there had been no notice issued to him for tax evasion.
“He was rescued by none other than Dilip Kumar, who had immense respect for Shiraz Ali ‘Seth’, despite the latter having left the country [India],” Saeed Shiraz elaborates. It is also interesting to note that Dilip Kumar skipped the premiere of Mughal-i-Azam because of differences with K. Asif, who had married the actor’s sister without his consent.
It was an altogether different world back then. The Pakistan cricket team, on its second tour to India, was scheduled to play the first Test at the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay. Special packages were announced by Pakistan International Airlines for the trip, in which one could watch Mughal-i-Azam in addition to the Test match.
While Shiraz Ali remained busy with court hearings in Bombay, his son Saeed Shiraz travelled to India by sea to watch the Test match as well as Mughal-i-Azam.
Shiraz Ali died in August 1972 in Karachi. K Asif, considered a legend despite making only two films in his life, left the world in 1971. Incidentally, Shiraz Ali Hakim bankrolled both the projects that made K. Asif famous.
Shiraz Ali Hakim had gathered the greatest team of writers for Mughal-i-Azam and it is because of this that people still remember each and every dialogue from the magnum opus.
If one starts the count from the very first moment K. Asif and Shiraz Ali went public with the idea to make Mughal-i-Azam, the epic would now be nearing its platinum anniversary rather than diamond jubilee.
Published in Dawn, ICON, October 25th, 2020