It was Prithviraj who eventually gave ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ and thereby to the popular image of Akbar a magical authority. —File Photo
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Soviet troops frequently picked up a rich haul of mujahideen from cinema halls in Kabul where they would be obsessively watching Indian movies.

One of the films popular among the guerrillas in 1981, when I spent a few days in Afghanistan with Indian ambassador J.N.Dixit, was a murder mystery called 'Jaani Dushman'.

The title translated as 'the mortal enemy' but that had more to do with a murderous evil spirit on the loose than with godless communism being the villain. I was told many a big fish were caught just when the mujahideen were riveted to the cavorting actresses.

A perennially popular Indian film in Kabul was 'Mughal-e-Azam', which seemed strange since its protagonist was a Mughal emperor. Pashtuns had (in common with today's Hindu zealots) a pathological hatred of the great Mughals, heirs to the legendary Mongol rulers of yore. The lacerating Afghan-Mughal rivalry found its denouement in Panipat, a battlefield just north of Delhi. The ethnic feud continues to borrow from history in the form of Pashto and Dari speaking rivals in the ongoing Afghan imbroglio.

One of the fascinating features of 'Mughal-e-Azam' was that its main actors were Pathans with jumbled names. For example, Prithviraj Kapoor who played the magnificent Mughal emperor, Akbar was a Hindu Pathan. The hero was Dilip Kumar and his beloved in the film was his old flame Madhubala, both Muslim Pathans with given Hindu names - names by which they became popular across the movie-going world.

It is not casual to assert that 'Mughal-e-Azam' did for ordinary people of India and Pakistan what their leaders failed to deliver. Many amazing films have been made about the tragedy of India and Pakistan in both countries but the one that brought the two people together in a cultural embrace as no other event has done had no link with the Partition. Or perhaps it did.

Trainloads of Pakistanis thronged the movie halls in India just to watch 'Mughal-e-Azam'. There was no technology to pirate the film and visas, I am told, were not an issue in 1960, the year it was released. It ran in packed movie halls often for well over a year. Since then it has been re-released several times, including in colour and with improved music quality.

I just got hold of Shakil Warsi's authentic looking account in a book called 'Mughal-e-Azam' - an epic of eternal love. Compared with Cecil B. DeMille and David Lean, its director K. Asif comes across as an obsessed seeker who searched and abandoned a few projects on the theme - an emperor's effort to rein in his lovelorn son which results in an epic battle between the two - before he took another 15 painstaking years to complete the magnum opus.

'Mughal-e-Azam' fans will treasure some of the facts dug up by Warsi. It all began, according to him, with the Urdu novelist Imtiaz Ali Taj, who had written a novel based on the love story of Prince Salim and his love for the beautiful courtesan, Anarkali. The story was adapted into a stage play titled 'Anarkali'. Those were the days when film producers sought out plays for material, observes Warsi.

The pioneering Ardeshir Irani first brought the story of Anarkali to the silver screen in 1928 in which Ruby Myers, a Jewish beauty with a screen name of Sulochana, played the lead role. This was still in the silent movie era. D. Billimoria enacted Prince Salim. Interestingly, at about the same time, Great Eastern Film Corporation (Delhi) started a movie on the same theme. They named it 'Loves of a Mughal Prince'. An Anglo-Indian actress Renee Smith, screen-named Sita Devi, played Anarkali while Imtiaz Ali Taj also played a role in this version.

Encouraged by its success, Irani re-made it in 1935 as a talkie. The entire star-cast of the silent Anarkali was repeated. Anna Saheb Mayankar was the music director. Zillu, who acted in both the versions, was later cast by Asif in 'Mughal-e-Azam' as Anarkali's mother. Sulochana who played the lead role in both of Irani's versions went on to be cast by Filmistan as Rani Jodhabai in their version released in 1953. Sulochana (Ruby Myers) commanded an astronomical figure fee of Rs 75,000 per month after the success of Anarkali, almost twice the salary paid to popular male leads back then.

The tale of Anarkali had fascinated the builder of Cine Laboratory, Shiraz Ali Hakeem, who joined hands with a young Asif. They re-christened the project 'Mughal-e-Azam' and Asif engaged four top Urdu writers of the time to put together a script Aman (father of the 1970s actress Zeenat Aman), Wajahat Mirza, Ahsan Rizvi and Kamal Amrohi.

Meanwhile, Amrohi had planned a film titled 'Anarkali'. The lead pair - again coincidentally, according to Warsi - Madhubala as Anarkali and Kamal Kapoor as Salim even adorned the cover of May 1951 issue of the popular Film India magazine. The project remained incomplete but when re-launched it had dusky Meena Kumari as Anarkali and Ajit (another popular Pathan hero) as Salim. Asif told Amrohi to choose between his film and the other version. Meanwhile, S Mukherjee of Filmistan Studios launched his version of Anarkali with Pradeep Kumar and Beena Rai as the ill-fated lovers.

Missing in all these versions of the love story was the focus on Emperor Akbar as the main protagonist of the narrative as it came to be best known. When Asif chose Prithviraj Kapoor to play Akbar, the tall and handsome veteran actor with a baritone voice fitted the dream role perfectly. It was Prithviraj who eventually gave 'Mughal-e-Azam' and thereby to the popular image of Akbar a magical authority. He was at once patriarchal as he was secular. There was something Nehruvian too about the emperor's appeal, a glimpse of an aura perhaps of an agreeable form of nationalism.

Once, according to Warsi, Dilip Kumar fell ill during the shoot and retired to his make-up room to rest. Feverish and indisposed, he fell asleep. When he woke up, he saw to his astonishment that Prithviraj Kapoor was sitting by his bedside massaging his head and shoulders. It wouldn't be difficult to digress here to assert that Emperor Akbar's healing touch is missing from our midst just when it is so badly needed today - in South Asia even more than anywhere else.

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