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‘Mughal-e-Azam’ and a starry Bafta night with the Akhtars, Irrfan Khan and other special guests…

‘Mughal-e-Azam’ and a starry Bafta night with the Akhtars, Irrfan Khan and other special guests…

Regarded as one of the greatest Indian films ever made, ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ was back in the limelight in London as a coterie of stars and the granddaughter of the man who made it came to relive its past glories and its possible lessons for today’s filmmakers…

By Suman Bhuchar

IT WAS A NIGHT of constellations – as Bollywood old and new came together at BAFTA to celebrate the masterpiece that is ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ (1960).

Culture organisation Baithak UK put together a bash to mark Indian Cinema: Yesterday and Today – a tribute to K. Asif, director of the iconic love story, that celebrated the romance of Prince Salim with a court dancer, Anarkali.

The idea was to use the film as peg to discuss the evolving nature of Indian cinema and to help us with this we had veteran poet, lyricist and screenwriter Javed Akhtar (top right), his wife the iconic Indian actress Shabana Azmi (top middle) and Bollywood pin-up Farhan Akhtar (top left and son of Javed) to show us the way.

K.Asif’s granddaughter, Haya Asif, introduced the evening which had many luminaries in the audience, including theatre (and occasional film director), Feroz Abbas Khan, who has produced a stage play on the timeless classic which has been shown in India and, is reliably informed will make its way to the UK, next year.

Filmmaker, Anup Singh, whose new film, ‘The Song of Scorpions’ will premiere at Locarno Film Festival in Italy at the Piazza Grande on August 9, was present along with his lead star, Irrfan Khan (and his wife Sutapa Sikdar) – the story is shot in the desert of Rajasthan and is a tale of love, revenge and redemption.

Actors, Ayesha Dharker and Sagar Arya (both lately in ‘Holby City’), along with Professor, Rosie Thomas from University of Westminster were among the guests. Others included, Alka Bagri (Bagri Foundation), Pushpinder Chowdhry (London Asian Film Festival/Tongues on Fire), author and film journalist and producer, Nasreen Munni Kabir.

As is customary, Javed Akhtar regaled the audience with his anecdotes from Bollywood recalling going to see ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ as a young man at Bharat Talkies in Bhopal and then faultlessly reciting the Urdu dialogue from memory saying it was “almost Shakespearean”.

He explained that it was a long-awaited film that took fourteen years to make – it had begun in 1946, and then Indian Partition happened, the original lead had died and one of the financiers had migrated to Pakistan after Independence. These were just some of the mishaps that befell the production before the film could be completed.

Farhan revealed that he was part of the “unfortunate generation” to first watch this film on VHS cassette during the 1980s – which basically translated as he didn’t feel his father’s passion for it – but could appreciate the dedication and technique that had gone into creating such a masterpiece.

Shabana Azmi posited that the film featured the most erotic scene of all time, picturised on a moment when Prince Salim is with his lover in the gardens – it is evening and he is brushing her face lightly with an ostrich feather while the song, ‘Prem Jogan Ban Ke’ sung by the Hindustani classical vocalist, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was playing in the background.

Farhan Akhtar live on the Red Carpet at BAFTA

(Getting him to sing it for the film was another Rubicon crossed by the director, as no classical musician worth his salt wanted to sing for a base form of entertainment which is what cinema was thought to be at the time). Look it up on You Tube you won’t be disappointed!

This led on naturally to a discussion around ‘romance’ with Akhtar putting forward the argument that romance developed in pining and longing – and that modern technological advances had ruined romance. Would Romeo or Sohni (of Sohni Mahiwal) ever have eloped if they had been able to text or snap chat or Instagram their beloved? We’ll leave you to present a dissertation on this subject later…

The audience were given a quick romp through clips from a few films featuring Azmi and Farhan Akhtar including the forthcoming ‘The Black Prince’, ‘Bhaag Milka Bhaag and Deewar’, discussed item numbers and “surrendering to the male gaze”, the dislike of melodrama by today’s independent filmmakers and other nuggets around cinema.

At one point, Irrfan Khan was asked a question and he got up to make an intervention about acting and why he opted to appear in Anup Singh’s film, ‘Qissa: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost’(2013).

Javed Akhtar read some of his poems from his publication, ‘Tarkash’ (‘Quiver)’, in Urdu and then were read in English by Azmi and Farhan.

Later, Farhan Akhtar strummed his guitar and sang a couple of English pop numbers and for the second one he was accompanied by British musician Soumik Datta on sarod.

It was an entertaining evening and a bit like having a front row seat on a comfy sofa at the Akhtar family home and listening to all the inside family film talk.

Periscope (live interview) with Farhan Akhtar

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture