August 5: A tribute to the values of the Republic
As the triumphant narratives of August 5, celebrating the bhoomi pujan that marks the beginning of the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya get recorded in history, they will inaugurate a new majoritarian identity for a Republic that was hitherto proudly upheld as a secular, democratic polity where all religions of the nation and their followers had equal rights. Some of us, however, would like to remember this date for a different reason that is cause for celebration as well.
August 5, also marked the 60th anniversary of K Asif’s dream project, the magnificent Mughal-e-Azam, that released on this date at Maratha Mandir in Bombay to massive crowds, eagerly awaiting a film that had been 15 years in the making.
The difference between the two events — equally popular — could not be starker. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders who were present at the bhoomi pujan, and others who were not in attendance, were instrumental in initiating and encouraging imaginaries of a majoritarian Hindu India. For them, the destruction of a monument such as the Babri masjid, which they claim was built on a site that was the exact birthplace of lord Ram, was crucial to overcome centuries of humiliation at the hands of “foreign rule”. This dream project is now set to be realised, and with it, we will see the birth of a new Republic that goes against the founding principles of this nation.
So how does Mughal-e-Azam represent a different imaginary of the Republic? Can a film that has its roots in a play that was written in 1922 in Lahore — Anarkali by Imtiaz Ali Taj; that was read and appreciated by several luminaries all over north India, including Rabindranath Tagore; that was realised on screen several times; and that colonised the imagination of K Asif when he first encountered it in 1944 as a 20-year-old, embody different imaginaries of nationhood, law, governance, the role of the intellectual, the place of dissent, and the power of a self-sacrificing poignant, beautiful legendary romance?
Mughal-e-Azam realises on screen not only all these resonances, but also represents an India that respected talent for itself and not for the identity of those involved in creative acts. It recognised that the nation that was born in 1947, with its roots in centuries of pluralism and mutual coexistence of multiple faiths, was equally constituted by the bhakti imaginaries in the bhajans and thumris in praise of Krishna and Ram as it was by Sufi ideas articulated in the qawwalis imbued with conceptions of ishq that brought human and divine love together, without a thought to the sacrifices that this love would demand.
Akbar’s court in the film powerfully brings together these traditions. It is a court in which the Janmashtami festival is celebrated with fervour, with Akbar receiving prasad from Jodhaa Bai and performing the ritual of pulling the cord of Krishna’s cradle gently. As a finale of the celebrations, Anarkali dances to the Benaras thumri, mohe panghat pe nand lal ched gayo re. The mise-en-scene and performance forms, including her kathak, are in the tradition of the Rajput courts. Her other kathak performance, articulating the challenge that her love for Salim is to Akbar’s patriarchal and imperial authority, pyar kiya toh darna kya, is, on the other hand, in Islamicate registers in mise-en-scene, lyrics, and performance codes.
Jodhaa Bai maintains her Hindu identity, one that Akbar respects. This is indicated not only in the Janmashtami sequence, but also in his desire that his queen sends him off to battle with the customary tilak and handing over of the sword representing her wishes for his success as per Rajput custom. That Man Singh has a prominent role in the upbringing of Prince Salim is another indication that in Akbar’s court, Rajput Hindus had significant functions to perform.
However, these are not the only reasons why Mughal-e-Azam embodies a vision of India that is different from the one that is being realised in Ayodhya. Along with its articulation of the poignant tale of Anarkali and Salim’s doomed love in deeply poetic, spiritual and emotional terms, the film is also a statement about how the right to challenge authority should be an individual right.
As Anarkali sings of her fearless love in contravention of the diktats of the emperor; as Salim states his freedom to love when he says that his heart is not Hindustan over which the emperor can claim autocratic rights of rule; or as the poet, artist and sculptor, Sangtarash, asserts the right and freedom of intellectuals to critique authority and power and attempt to awaken authoritarian figures to the destructive implications of their actions, the film can be seen as articulating a vision for a new post-colonial democratic India. This is a vision in which the right to dissent and critique ought to be recognised as a fundamental right. That the Indian Constitution guarantees this right, along with the right to practise and believe in non-Hindu faiths, and that Mughal-e-Azam embodies these and celebrates an India that made such a vision possible, is a value that we need to cherish and preserve as a new India is born.