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Anarkali – Fact or Fiction ?

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Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

It is now believed that Anarkali was in her forties or older when she was suspected of having an affair with the heir apparent, Prince Salim, who was then in the thirtieth year of his life and father to at least three sons from numerous wives. Salim’s father, the otherwise enlightened Emperor Akbar, found out and ordered Anarkali to be buried alive.

Why? Because she was Akbar’s concubine too, and the mother of 27-year-old Danial (Salim’s youngest brother) — at least according to the British traveller William Finch, who visited Lahore in 1608, three years after Prince Salim ascended the throne as Emperor Jahangir. “The King (Jahangir), in token of his love, commands a sumptuous tomb to be built of stone in the midst of a four-square garden richly walled, with a gate and diverse rooms over it,” wrote William Finch. His travelogue survived, along with accounts by fellow travellers and later historians. So did the tomb itself.

Finch probably didn’t make up the story by himself, because the basic incident is corroborated by other sources, too. However, he almost certainly messed up some details, because there are two discrepancies in his account. Firstly, Akbar was not in Lahore in 1599, the year when Anarkali is supposed to have been executed. Secondly, the court historian had already recorded several years ago that Danial’s mother had died a natural death. The honorifics bestowed upon her should indicate that she didn’t fall from grace. Could it be that Finch’s imagination was tainted with preconceived notions of that East as the land of arbitrary punishments, forbidden love and weird feelings all incomprehensible to a foreigner? There seems to be some interplay between fact and fiction here, and this is how semi-historical legends come into being. Historical evidence in such cases calls for a careful evaluation.

How come it is commonly thought that there is no historical evidence whatsoever for the Anarkali incident? This is a valid question. Ironically, the historical side of this incident got eclipsed in the 1920s due to a mistake of dramatist Imtiaz Ali Taj, who was at that time a student in Government College Lahore and a participant in the activities of the college dramatic club. He had seen the tomb of Anarkali (not very far from his college), but by his own confession never looked into a book of history containing references to this incident — which should mean that he didn’t get hold of the standard English translation of the Akbarnama and certain other primary sources. It is not a cardinal sin for a playwright to be ignorant of history, and Taj was more honest than judgmental in his preface where he stated that as far as he knew, the story had no foundation in history and that he didn’t have a clue about its historical sources. That the preface to a stage play overshadowed the primary sources of history is a sad comment on a society where intellectualism is usually left in the hands of pseudo-intellectuals.

The playwright’s imagination transformed this bizarre tale into a story of youthful love. The stage play Anarkali, which was first printed in the 1920s and reprinted a decade afterwards with some revisions, gave birth to the legend that culminated many films later in the unforgettable Mughal-i-Azam (recently re-released in a full-colour version). Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, Taj’s play raised a hue and cry about historical inaccuracies but was saved by a lukewarm felicitation from Allama Iqbal (an old friend of the playwright’s father Mumtaz Ali) and a ferociously witty essay by the playwright’s senior college friend, Patras Bukhari.

Noor Jehan in Anarkali (1958)

Taj deprives the story of its Mughal complexity and interjects elements of a college boy’s fantasy. In this drama, a young prince takes fancy to a girl far below his rank, and the girl’s jealous friend starts blackmailing the prince with nothing more than a threat to inform his father. One can understand that such blackmails could be a harrowing thought for college boys (and one shouldn’t be surprised if Taj originally found the plot for his drama in the common room gossip at his college), but a Mughal prince could certainly not have to worry about threats from a slave girl.

The Akbarnama, the official court history of Akbar, records an incident where Akbar became angry with Salim for some reason and sent a noble to admonish him. Salim, however, complained that the noble spoke too harshly and Akbar ordered the tongue of the noble to be cut off, disregarding the fact that the unlucky man was acting on the orders of Akbar himself. If such could be the fate of a high-ranking noble caught in crossfire between the king and the prince, then imagine a slave girl.

Between the play of Taj and its cinematic offshoots, we achieved a glorious oversimplification of our history. Akbar and Salim, who each had at least 20 wives and over a thousand concubines in recorded history, become strictly monogamous in these modern-day fantasies (Taj came from the family that pioneered feminism in the Muslim society of Northern India). Anarkali, as portrayed in the play named after her, is a concoction of the girl next door, a virtuous housemaid and some kindhearted nautch girl from Lahore’s red light area. The crown prince behaves unmistakably like a college student confused about defining his personal problems against the ambivalence that was in the air of South Asian cities like Lahore during and after the First World War.

Taj himself never flaunted his script as an outstanding achievement — in his preface to the second edition he makes an uncanny remark to the effect that he feels ashamed of his product when he looks at the plays written in other languages, but proud when he compares it to what exists in Urdu. The plot itself is such stuff as bad films are made of, and indeed the two earlier movies by the same title, while trying to follow Taj closely, make unbearable viewing today despite their irresistible soundtracks. Who can remain untouched by such remarkable songs as Yeh Zindagi ussi ki hai, by Lata or Sada hoon apne pyar ki by Noor Jahan, but then who can suffer the old-timer Sudheer trying to act out a wimp.

Pradeep Kumar and Bina Roy in Anarkali (1953)

A third treatment of the Anarkali legend comes down to us in the 1960 film Mughal-e-Azam. Completely breaking away from Imtiaz Ali Taj, the makers of the film used the Anarkali incident to serve a well-defined political agenda. By projecting Akbar as an example of a Muslim king who didn’t subscribe to the two-nation theory, they apparently hoped to lure the ruling majority of modern-day India into taking a more sympathetic view of Muslim history. This agenda also moderates the subtext. If Akbar is identified with the spirit of unification in India and Salim is a hasty but well-meaning entity who endeavours to break away, then the conflict between them mirrors the inherent political tension dominating the region, especially around the time when the film was first conceived in the late 1940s.

In terms of pure drama, the film evokes a powerful intrigue about contradicting passions between larger-than-life characters. A believable palace intrigue by a conniving vamp replaces the blackmail plot of the earlier films. A mild flavour of Mughal brutality is introduced where, in the course of the story, both Salim and Akbar attempt arbitrary executions — although in the tradition of the Indian cinema the victims are saved by chance. Salim’s intended victim is the jealous vamp, who survives when Salim’s dagger misses her. Akbar’s intended victim is none other than Anarkali, whom Akbar secretly leads out of her grave because he is honour-bound by an earlier promise to her mother. Such generosity would be very unbecoming, if not congenitally impossible, of the historical Akbar, but it is consistent with the character in the movie, gels with the rest of the plot as well as with the political agenda and therefore comes out well in the theatre.

The contemporary William Finch didn’t mention any effort on part of Salim to save Anarkali’s life. Any such thing would have been not only unlikely but also highly inappropriate on Salim’s part, given his background. Taking up arms against father is no way for a son to prove his love for a woman in the feudal patriarchy where these characters were coming from. It would be dishonour, and worse than death, for a woman to be known as the cause of combat between father and son. However, these values would not appeal to the young men and women in a civilized world, and hence in Mughal-e-Azam, Salim wages a full-scale war against Akbar in order to save the girl. The ensuing battle has no roots in reality but originates from the need to absolve the guilty male conscience. Of course, Anarkali eventually offers her own life to save her man who doesn’t even know about this bargain, hence making it more convenient for him to have a clear conscience. At the level of subtext, the war in the film represents the larger than life conflicts in the modern Indian society.

The dramatic achievement of Mughal-e-Azam is that it brings out the major confrontations from within the characters themselves. However, the priorities all belong to the male cast and the only woman who has a mind of her own is the vamp. Anarkali, the heroine, doesn’t have a life of her own, she is confirmed as inferior to the vamp in wit and literary refinement, and at no point gives us reason to suspect that her intelligence matches that of her lover. Her crowning grace is an extraordinary moral courage to stand by her man even at the risk of her own life. In fact, risking her life seems to be her usual mode of existence. She is the perfect toy — a female robot intricately programmed to please her man, and she comes with an in-built self-destruct menu in case things get out of hand for the user.

Here is the ultimate male fantasy, then. The mature woman from the harem of Akbar, who risked death for a fling with a younger man almost the same age as her grown up son, is eventually transformed into a nubile young girl. Her moral eccentricities are removed; her daftness stays though she must place it at the disposal of her man.

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