Apr 05


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‘A movie about glorification that criticizes itself’

Such was a random phrase that came to my mind about the film afterward. This was thanks to the sculptor character I mentioned, who perhaps could have been a stand-in for the director or screenwriter or who knows what, but could just simply have been a functionary in the original story who groused a bit there too — thus does the problem of unfamiliarity with the source material kick in for me. But the thing that crossed my mind as the film progressed was how a scene with the sculptor earlier, where he dismisses his work as basically detailing how wonderful a ruler always is and how thousands could die to serve such a ruler’s greater glory, ends up informing the massive battle sequence towards the conclusion. Given that thousands do end up dying over star-crossed lovers who themselves are clearly glorified by the film, it’s an interesting case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too, and I admit I wasn’t totally sure if it succeeded.

But the glorification of the lovers certainly is handled with astonishing aplomb at points. There’s one scene in particular where the prince and the servant meet at night, near where a sitar player sings and plays seemingly all night. According to Vic, this person was in fact a historical figure, one of the great musicians and codifiers of the traditions of raga, so featuring him in this context might almost have an equivalent to, say, where an Elizabethan-era movie might feature a duke and a barmaid in a hot clinch near where Shakespeare recites some of his sonnets. But the point, of course, in Indian cinema is that hot clinches will never happen as such, the codes of filmmaking at the time forbidding it. So all the screen shows appears to be a lot of mooning over each other in the night.

That is, that’s all it shows if you have no soul or sense of what a good filmmaker can do. It’s one of the most astoundingly passionate sequences ever filmed; Vic mentioned it’s considered the high point of erotic cinema from that time and I’ve no doubt that’s the case. The two lovers lie near other, there are smouldering looks that might as well completely melt the celluloid, and one part where the prince gently draws a flower across the servant’s face that had to have been the cause of a huge amount of heavy breathing then and nowadays…well, really should cause the same thing. Without a word, if you don’t count the singer’s voice on the soundtrack, the whole sequence is the type of thing that you want to imagine all such situations in one’s own life could be like — the seduction of such a powerful artform at its best, but who can blame one for thinking that way?

In conclusion

Mughal-e-Azam, for all the praise I have heaped on it, isn’t quite perfect — I think the concluding hour, though good for high drama, become more than a little repetitive, as the son continues to insist for his love to be recognized and the father refuses, and so on…it’s one thing to explore the nuances of the two people caught up in a fierce struggle who still feel great love to each other (as is seen in one strong, effective sequence before the battle), but another when the majority of the scenes in that vein feel like restatements, admittedly in varying contexts. The loss of the sassy sister of the lead actress is also felt as well, though arguably it’s a role she couldn’t have maintained without destroying the atmosphere as it builds up. Finally, the concluding dance/visual overload sequence, though shot through with a core dramatic subplot, eventually starts to drag, almost as if the closer the movie gets to the conclusion the longer the filmmakers wanted to take to get there.

But in sum, no question — damn, what a film. What a good time had overall. It was one of those excellent afternoons of friendship, of a new experience, of something reminding you that there’s more in the world than you can ever hope to know, see, read, hear, but that you can catch what you can and make new discoveries, on your own or with the help of others. More Sunday afternoons should really be spent that way.

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