K Asif has been described by many who worked with him as a perfectionist. He conceived the idea of ‘MughaL-e-Azam’ when he was twenty years old and worked on it for twelve years until its final release in 1960. The film achieved instant success at the box-office and broke many records along with winning the appeal of the audience who memorised and repeated the film’s evocative dialogues on the streets, mentioned the writer Rajkumar Keswani.
Asif’s film took inspiration from the Urdu play ‘Anarkali’ by Imitiaz Ali Taj written in 1922. K Asif conceptualised the film in 1944 and Amanullah Khan, Wajahat Mirza and Kamal Amrohi were to help him to write the screenplay at that point. In the background of the events of the Partition of India, his original Producer Shiraz Ali Hakim migrated to Pakistan after the Partition but he recommended Shapoorji Pallonji Mistry before he left. It was not conceivable that Pallonji and K Asif would have many fights in the future as the Director painstakingly attempted to express his vision, but it was also significant that Pallonji stayed with Asif till the very end.
Chandra Mohan, DK Sapru and Nargis were initially casted in the pivotal roles whileDurga Khote was signed on as Akbar’s Rajput wife and Salim’s mother, Jodha. Upcoming actor Himalaywala, who played a key role in Mehboob’s Humayun (1945), was chosen for the role of Salim’s Rajput friend Durjan Singh, who sacrificed his life for the prince.Film posters were made and shooting began; but Chandra Mohan passed away in 1949 and Kesawani mentioned that Asif had to abandon two years of work. An advertisement was published in ‘Screen’ on 8th February 1952 looking for a young 16-22 year old to play the role of Anarkali. The finalised right women could not convey the essence of the role and of them, only Sheela Deyala was chosen to play Anarkali’s sister Suraiya. When Anarkali’s role was offered to Nutan, she suggested that Madhubala or Nargis would suit the character better. While Nargis herself had refused to play the role, and Asif was reluctant to cast Madhubata initially, the latter came forward herself and offered to play Anarkali. Subsequently, the roles were conferred on Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala.
Asif had also initially thought Dilip Kumar, who had also auditioned, to be unsuitable to play Salim as he lacked the stature required for a Mughal prince and mentioned that he would only cast him if he wrote the script ten years later. For the role of the younger version of Salim, he considered a young Ustad Zakir Hussain, but ultimately it was played by a young Jalal Agha.
The composer Naushad’s son Raju Naushad recalled that Asif had asked Naushad and lyricist Shakeel Badayuni to compose a song to be performed by Anarkali before the court, something which was already done in Filmistan’s recently released ‘Anarkali’ which both the musicians were not to fond to recreate. Nevertheless, Asif persisted and the two musicians sat up all night in vain trying to compose a mukhda. As Badayuni was leaving, Naushad mentioned, ‘Kya karein Asif sahib se pyar kiya hain to darna kaisa, we will tell him in the morning we are still working’ and Badayuni turned and said, ‘Mukhda mil gaya.’ Other narratives say that Naushad recalled a folk song from Uttar Pradesh whose lyrics were ‘Prem kiya, kya chori kari hai’ leading to Shakeel giving the lines, ‘Pyaar kiya to darna kya’ and completing the mukhda.The song underwent 105 drafts before it was finalised.
The film itself took nine years to shoot and was the first black and white film to be colourised in India in 2002, forty-four years after its release. It is impossible to not notice the carefully designed set and costumes of the actors. Numerous stories exist about his perfectionism which resulted in such elaborate designs on a grand scale. The costumes were stitched in Delhi and embroidered in Surat, the jewellery made in Hyderabad, the crowns were crafted in Kolhapur, the weapons brought from Rajasthan and the shoes made in Agra. Moreover, a pure gold statue of Krishna was created, which made it seem as if Asif desired to convey the opulence not only of the Mughal Empire, but India itself with materials from everywhere.
The attention Asif gave to detail is evident upon his discussion of the choice of expensive footwear worn by Dilip Kumar, “If I give normal footwear, he will walk like Dilip Kumar and if I give expensive shoes, he will walk like Salim.” Asif has been criticised by many for the expenses he incurred during production. Keswani, who researched for fifteen years to write his book ‘Dastan E-Mughal-e-Azam’ mentioned that Asif had been subject to jokes in magazines about the unending shoot of the movie, but it only seemed to deepen his obsession.
The Art Director MK Syed wanted to replicate the Sheesh Mahal at Lahore Fort and imported glass from Belgium and Firozabad artists working on it for the making of the film’s Sheesh Mahal which took two years to complete. An artist called Agha Shirazi was also employed to work on it, and finally the Mahal was 150 feet long with thousands of coloured mirrors, which caused the cinematographer RD Mathur having to attempt at reducing the glare trying the bounce lighting technique. The set was up in Mohan Studios for over three years, allowing visitors entry.
After the long production, Asif’s film was released on 5th August 1950, in the Maratha Mandir Theatre in Mumbai which had been constructed by Mehtab Chand. The two met in 1946 and became friends, which led to Chand wanting ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ to be the first film to be released in the theatre. However, due to the long production, Maratha Mandir was inaugurated with BR Chopra’s ‘Sadhna’ in 1958. No expenses were spared for the premiere and film reels were sent to Maratha Mandir on the backs of elephants. Dilip Kumar, however, did not attend the premiere due to a rift between him and Asif because the latter married Dilip’s sister Akhtar, much against her family’s wishes.