Mughal-E-Azam and an example of American movieviewing 2005

‘It’s gotta be some sorta camp fest, right?’

Or so I thought as I received the invitation. Good friend Vic, enthusiast for many things in life including film, had been insistent that Mughal-e-Azam was an absolute must see in its theatrical run. All I immediately knew about it was that it was from India, where Vic’s parents came from, and that it apparently was a film classic of the country, maybe something like Gone With the Wind over here — historical epic, cast of thousands, something everyone knows even if they’ve never seen it because, well, you just know. Nothing wrong with that!

But of course I thought it would be Bollywood-like. I didn’t fancy myself an expert (and if I ever do fancy myself an expert without demonstrable proof, please feel free to hollow out my head, as it will be malfunctioning at that time). I had this, well, general idea of what to expect, because that’s what I learned about Indian cinema in a mainstream American sense, ie not much. There’s going to Indian restaurants that are playing loops and clips and bits from any number of productions, old and new, there’s memories of seeing further images of films and excerpts in documentaries years ago (if I can ever find out more about this short documentary called Juggernaut I’d love to see it again, because it was really fascinating, made quite an impression on my ninth grade self), there’s the occasional Smithsonian-style “Well here’s what it’s all like and then there’s the Sayjayit Ray stuff which is apparently much more serious” piece I’ve read. I didn’t pretend to know more because I couldn’t and wouldn’t know where to start these days, but I figured something would be up.

Vic, though, he’s a smart and proud guy, friendly and intense (very good combination), and knew that we’d be thinking of Mughal-e-Azam that way, so over lunch beforehand he took the time to tell myself and Arthur about what to expect, a bit of background and explanation. And like me, when he finds there’s a lot to say, he will, because he wants you to know about it. Much of it I could only initially file away in my memory for later reference, but the key point was that this was NOT a Bollywood film as one could generally think of it, rather that Bollywood, like any other ‘tradition,’ was as much invention as anything else. Turns out that the role model for Bollywood films resulted from the smash success of a mid-seventies movie in India that was the equivalent of Star Wars for the subcontinent, something so overpoweringly popular that the entire industry reset its sights. And similarly, the impression of what Indian movies were like to everyone else also changed, almost becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But that didn’t change what had already happened, and what was already a thriving industry, and already beloved by millions — and so Mughal-e-Azam.

“Mind-blowing epiphanies”

As Vic said to me later, much of what he had learned and to note about the film he cheerfully plagiarized (to use his own word!) from this study hosted at the University of Iowa, so by all means read that through. In brief, Mughal-e-Azam is a blend of fact — it is set in the time of the Mughals, rulers of much of the subcontinent, specifically during the reign of Akbar the Great (the title of the film refers specifically to him) — and fable, something like how the real George Washington is conflated with the cherry tree incident, or Alfred dealt with the cakes, something well known, widespread and tied up with a certain kind of national identity, however one wants to consider it. Akbar’s son falls in love with a dancing girl, scandalizing his father, resulting in much strife and an ending which, alas, is not happy.

As Vic described it, though, the importance of the film was not so much in the surprise of the story — because, indeed, nobody would be surprised in the expected audience — but the telling of it. On the level of artists trying to follow their dreams it’s an irresistible tale about how the director, K. Asif, worked for nine years — I’m not kidding, nine! — from start to finish to get it all made, how it was his last work, how he reserved technicolour for two astounding set-pieces, how it never quite lived up to what he had hoped before he died. And, frankly, the money, time and talent is all on the screen, though I jump ahead a bit. The music became as legendary as the movie (equivalent — “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca, say?), the screenings were uncounted…it was just one of those films that hit and hit hard, and stuck with everyone or so it seemed.

So I was already intrigued, but now more so. But part of the intrigue was going to be how and where I was seeing it — namely some place I’d not been to yet. One reason why I love LA is how many people from all over the place are here, which combined with the weather brings the world to your doorstep but without snow. It’s my kind of life, I admit. So after a false start with one theater, Vic found that a copy was being screened at the Naz 8 in Artesia, one of three such complexes in California specifically catering to an Indian and South Asian and South East Asian film market, and in this case located in a strongly Indian immigant community in both Artesia and Cerritos. And so we went, and in a theater where the popcorn was good and cheap, the posters were to my untrained eye a wonderful difference from the expected (doubtless to more regular filmgoers it was all too familiar, maybe!) and it seemed like only Arthur and I were the sole non-Indians and Indian Americans, we watched the three hour film — and I should note as well that when there’s no series of blaring commercials and ten minutes of “In a world…” trailers preceding a film, there’s simply a dimming of lights and the film begins, then I’m already in a much better mood to enjoy something.

“u can never guess how ppl are going to react to them ‘foreign cultures'”

Or so Vic said later after Arthur and I had talked about and heartily approved of the whole good time we had. He was almost apologetic beforehand, you see — at one point saying that he wouldn’t be surprised if we laughed a bit at some of the more melodramatic moments. But there was nothing to laugh about at the film since it was so easy, so involving to enjoy — as was the whole experience in the theater as the film started.

Surrounding me were people of all ages, generally an older crowd but by no means entirely — and some certainly had to have been old enough to have seen the film the first time through. Something I don’t like in general at movie screenings, namely audience chatter (or at least the audible kind — quiet whisperings between friends and all, that’s more than cool), made perfect sense here, because it was mostly near the start, and was gentle, considering — it projected comfort. How many people were seeing it for the first time like I was, I don’t know, but doubtless many were used to where things would go and were perhaps talking about past memories, familiar scenes or lines or perhaps simply some more prosaic about daily life, a quick last question or catching up before things fully settled down. As the movie was subtitled, this perhaps helped — I didn’t think I was losing anything to the conversation, instead I was getting the basics of the opening narration down while enjoying what was beyond the movie on a tactile level.

Cultural tourism, I must admit. Hopefully not negative, maybe that act is by default if you talk about it that way, but I was perhaps consciously enjoying the experience of something generally OUT of my experience a little too much, I don’t know. But I hope not, because I simply wanted to enjoy the sensation as it stood, a combination of interest in the movie, in the people, in the atmosphere I found myself in. It was heightened by the words on the soundtrack, as the narrator, taking the voice of India as an entity, depicted geographically on the screen, introduced the story after the opening credits. That nationalism should have played a specifically strong role in the movie I perhaps shouldn’t have been too surprised by, given how recent the colonial past would have been in everyone’s mind upon its creation and release, but certainly it’s no requirement for a historical film.