In the history of Indian cinema, one film appears at the top of every list: “Mughal-e-Azam,” originally released in 1960. Renowned for its poetic dialogues, iconic soundtrack, authentic choreography, expensive sets, and star-studded cast, it tells the love story of Prince Salim and Anarkali, a court dancer.
Still called the greatest Bollywood film of all time, it captivates audiences of every generation with themes of loyalty, honor, and love, and a setting as rich as the 16th-century Mughal Empire. But what are we to make of the women of “Mughal-e-Azam”?
The women in this classic film make this epic tale memorable and could merit an entire film of their own. The portrayals of Anarkali, Empress Jodhabai, and her attendant Bahar represent various archetypes that we can understand from a modern woman’s perspective 50 years later.
Anarkali: She Will Survive
The object of Salim’s affections, Anarkali (Madhubala), is a dancer in the court of Emperor Akbar. When Anarkali and Prince Salim fall in love, they change the course of Mughal history.
Anarkali is often remembered as a delicate and weak character — after all, her name translates to “pomegranate blossom.” But she survives verbal and physical abuse, as well as cruel manipulation and public shaming. Most remarkably, she overcomes the crimes committed against her and tells her story to the world.
Anarkali starts off as one of Emperor Akbar’s favorite dancers. See her dance in the song “Mohe Pangat Pe Nandala.” But when Akbar finds out that the Prince has fallen in love with Anarkali, he conveniently uses her profession to shame her. He calls her an insolent slave girl and threatens to ruin her life if she doesn’t end the affair.
Anarkali, however, remains devoted to Prince Salim. She claims that she would never do anything to tarnish his reputation or disgrace him in any way. She offers to trade her own life so that Salim may live. Her loyalty makes her vulnerable and lands her in jail — twice. She sings about her suffering in the lyrics of “Mohabbat Ki Jhooti Kahani.”
First, Akbar sends her to jail when he learns of her affair with the Prince. Akbar then bullies Anarkali into convincing Salim that she never loved him. He promises to release her and send her away from Salim, just so long as she makes Salim fall out of love with her.
When Anarkali is unable to lie and disobeys Akbar, he incarcerates her again. Heavily chained, she sobs her way through another song. Anarkali spends a good portion of the film in tears.
But she has good reason to cry. Between the Emperor and Salim, Anarkali always seems to be disappointing someone. Akbar will not let her be with Salim, while Salim will not let her live peacefully without him.
Both of these men use Anarkali as a pawn for their own advantage. Akbar manipulates her in order to control his son’s life, whereas Salim emotionally blackmails her in order to prove his autonomy to his father.
Salim also bullies Anarkali. At one point, he eerily imitates Akbar when he screams that Anarkali is weak, that her love isn’t genuine, and that it was a mistake to have ever trusted her. He then slaps her across the face.
This is where it gets interesting. For the first and only time in the film, Anarkali stands up for herself. The timid and withdrawn girl disappears. A bold and confident woman takes her place.
Instead of convincing Salim that she does not love him, she does the opposite: she publically declares her love for him. In lyrics stinging with sarcasm and laced with double meanings she sings,
“When you have loved, then why be afraid? I fell in love, I didn’t commit a crime. Why should I hide and sigh? When you have loved, then why be afraid?”
Whereas Anarkali’s love originally seemed to be her weakness, here it turns out to be her strength. Anarkali sings of love in “Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya.”
Anarkali suffers great heartbreak and injustice, and she is forced to make substantial sacrifices. But she is also the only character who can make the Emperor feel threatened, which is no small feat.
In the face of cruelty, Anarkali shows only compassion — even to those who have wronged her. Akbar comes to realize his mistakes when he asks for Anarkali’s forgiveness in the final scene — perhaps the only scene where an Emperor apologizes to a mere “slave girl.”
While she may not get her happy ending, Anarkali is, in many ways, the voice of the film. Her words highlight the film’s most important themes, and teach us about the power of love. In this iconic song, she is no longer a victim, but rather a survivor who is unafraid to speak up for herself, regardless of the consequences. And for that, she is remembered forever.
Empress Jodhabai: Struggling to Juggle those Roles
Jodhabai (Durga Khote) is queen of the Mughal Empire, wife of Emperor Akbar, and mother of Prince Salim. Jodhabai’s internal struggle lies between her roles as queen and mother. As a devoted mother, she only wants her son’s happiness. She also made sacrifices as a mother in order to secure the empire’s future.
Like many women today, Jodhabai is torn between professional obligations and personal ones. She is trying to have it all, with the additional pressure of being Empress of the Mughal Empire.
Circumstances force her into playing peacemaker. When Salim and Akbar argue over Salim’s decision to marry Anarkali, she does her best to convince her son of his princely duty. When she realizes that he won’t budge, she tries to convince Akbar,
“Give him his Anarkali. By letting Anarkali become his, Salim will become ours once again. Then you’ll see what he is capable of.”
In response, Akbar chastises Jodhabai, telling her that she is only fulfilling the role of mother and reminding her not to forget her duty as queen. Jodhabai replies that she can do anything for her child and that Akbar is only acting as king, forgetting his duty as a father.
Of course, Akbar doesn’t listen. When Salim refuses to stop seeing Anarkali, Akbar declares war against his rebellious son.
Before he leaves for the battlefield, as is tradition, Akbar visits Jodhabai’s chambers to receive his sword. When she refuses to give it to him, Akbar reminds her that if she doesn’t, he will not be victorious in battle.
He questions her intentions and wonders whether she even wants him to be victorious. Jodhabai replies,
“There is no victory of mine in this. From both sides, I lose. On the one end is my wifehood, on the other hand my motherhood.”
Akbar threatens her and gives an ultimatum: to choose between her husband and her child. Jodhabai chooses her husband, and dutifully gives him the sword while stating,
“If the price of my wifehood is the bloodshed of my child, then take your sword and go and kill my son. I will not stop you.”
From a modern perspective, Jodhabai’s struggle seems all too familiar. She constantly questions her actions and wonders whether she is doing right by her son, or right by her husband and the empire. In trying to balance her so-called “work life” with her home life, she faces criticism from both husband and son, and neither seems to be fully satisfied.
Bahar: Not Just a Gold Digger
Bahar (Nigar Sultana) is an attendant of Empress Jodhabai. From the beginning, she knows what she wants — the throne. More specifically, she wants to marry Salim and become queen. Bahar doesn’t want to be a “nice girl” because she’s too busy trying to fight for her place at the table. Perhaps she was born a few centuries too early.
In one scene, Bahar sneaks into a royal chamber and models the crown. Another attendant looks on worriedly and asks her if she is afraid. The ambitious Bahar replies,
“Afraid? The crown does not sit on the heads of those who are afraid.”
Unlike Anarkali, Bahar is not in love with the prince, but rather with his status. She tries to charm him and earn his affections, but only because she is in love with power and is willing to do anything to wear the crown.
When she realizes that Anarkali threatens her plans, she tries to put her down. She invites Anarkali to a lyrical duel to be judged by Prince Salim with the hope that her poetic skills will draw his attention. However, the song that follows simply highlights the differences between the determined and ruthless Bahar and her arch-nemesis, the soft and sensitive Anarkali. The two battle it out via song in “Teri Mehfil Mein Kismat.”
Despite her best attempts, the affair between Prince Salim and Anarkali continues. When Bahar catches them meeting secretly, Salim becomes angry and nearly kills her. Enraged at the Prince’s disrespectful and rude behavior, Bahar divulges Salim’s secret affair to Emperor Akbar, who is furious that his son is in love with a mere palace maid.
Even when Bahar knows that Salim will never love her, she doesn’t stop trying to win his heart; she is fully aware that this is the only path that leads to the throne.
The night before Anarkali is to die, Bahar performs in front of Anarkali and the Prince. In the song’s chorus, she raises one eyebrow and asks, “When the night is so intoxicating, then what will the fate of morning be?” reminding Anarkali that she is never going to get her happy ending. (“Jab Raat Hai Aisi Matwali.”) However, the film unfairly paints Bahar as an evil, cunning woman who causes Anarkali and Prince Salim’s unhappiness. While she may not be as soft-spoken and delicate as Anarkali, Bahar’s ambition is not wickedness.
Her fault is not that she is trying to make a better life for herself, but rather her inability to accept that Anarkali has taken the place that she wanted for herself. Bahar is quite hardworking and very intelligent. She knows how to go after what she wants — a trait that ought to be celebrated, not demonized.
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While these characters were written for the screen over 50 years ago, many of their experiences hold true today. The reality is that these women still exist in our generation.
Women still face abuse, assault, public shaming and victim-blaming. We are still trying to find a balance between our responsibilities in the home and the work place. We still face criticism when we try to ask for what we want. We are still trying to get our half of the seats at the table. We are still asking ourselves whether we can have it all.
So, when it comes to the ladies of “Mughal-e-Azam,” perhaps we have more in common than we thought. The question is, will we write new characters for the next generation?
Vaidehi Joshi is 23, and lives in Richmond, Virginia. She studied English at Barnard College in New York City and will be joining the movement to end educational inequity as a 2013 Teach for India fellow in Mumbai. You can see more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vaidehijoshi.