Representing Mughals in Bollywood movies

SYED ALI NADEEM REZAVI

ONE can hardly deny the importance of images – even still images as well as cinema – in shaping public opinions and perceptions. Cinema does change, and has often been used, to influence public opinions. I will discuss only two films which were made by the Bombay film industry (Bollywood) with focus on Akbar, the emperor who founded the Mughal Empire. The two movies which we take up for analysis are the Bollywood greats, Mughal-i Azam of K. Asif, and Jodhaa Akbar of Ashutosh Gowarikar.

Mughal-i-Azam as a film was conceived by K. Asif way back in 1944. Asif based his film not on any historical account, but on a novel written by Imtiaz Ali Taj. Taj was a dramatist who wrote an Urdu play entitled Anarkali in 1922 which had been staged hundreds of times before it was picked up by K. Asif. The film when made by Asif highlighted the role of two women characters, Anarkali and another Jodhabai, the first as courtesan, the second, as the wife of Akbar and the doting mother of Prince Salim. Incidentally we have no record to show that Imtiaz Ali Taj ever consulted any historians, or got his script checked for facts.

Jodhaa Akbar, which was developed as a story by Haider Ali, a screen writer and an actor in his own right. However, unlike Mughal-i Azam, the makers of this film took the help of professional historians of Medieval India, like Irfan Habib, Satish Chandra, Shireen Moosvi, and some others. The film was released in the theatres in February 2008 with a disclaimer displayed prominently before its beginning that it was movie based on characters inspired from history but was an imaginary story.

On both the films, much has been written and I would try to minimize repetition.1 However, certain important details are to be mentioned even at the cost of repetition.

Mughal-i-Azam, as a film was conceived way back in 1944, a time when Indians were hunting for icons of their own to counter the threat of the British rule and British historians and administrators were trying to prove that the history of the country, before the British, was a period of communal strife as well as religious ‘othering’ of the non-Muslims. The excavations of a vibrant civilization by Daya Ram Sahni at Harappa and Mohanjo Daro by R.D. Banerji had provided the nationalists pride that we too had a brilliant history before the colonial rule ‘civilized’ us.

Just before these discoveries, Vincent Smith had introduced Akbar to the people by the publication of his book Akbar the Great Mogul in 1917 (Oxford, Clarendon Press). Political leaders like Gandhi and Nehru emphasized the role of religious tolerance and its crucial significance in national unity. In Gandhi’s words, ‘It was Hinduism that gave Mahomadanism its Akbar, who, with unerring insight, recognized the tolerant spirit and adopted it himself in ruling India.’2 

Mughal i Azam, which turned out to be the most important and well received film on Akbar, was completed in 1960, during the Nehruvian era, when the common heritage of the Indians and the so-called ganga-jamuni tahzib was the order of the day. The film Jodhaa Akbar, on the other hand, was produced at a time when India was passing through an entirely different phase. The rathyatra of Lal Krishna Advani, the consequent riots throughout the country and ultimately the 2002 Gujarat pogrom had entirely fractured the Indian society, which was screaming for a healing touch.

Like Mughal i Azam, it too was basically a love story. But if the former was a love story of Prince Salim and a courtesan, Anarkali, the latter was a love story of a young Akbar, a Muslim king, and Jodha, a Rajput/Hindu princess. If Asif’s movie was set in the last decades of an ageing emperor, the second one was set in the first decade of the fifty-year rule. In both these films set during the reign of Akbar, despite the differences in their time and purpose of making, both have certain historical truths and allusions to factuality embedded within them.

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The central theme of both these movies invoke two historical facts from Akbar’s reign. Both films, in their own way invoke the policy of Sulh i kul, the Absolute Peace, which attempted reconciliation and understanding between different faiths. One may argue, if one reads Iqtidar Alam Khan that the policy of sulh i kul was initiated only from 1580 onwards, and before that Akbar revealed streaks of intolerance, religious bigotry and discrimination.3 This was also perhaps alluded to in the book by Vincent Smith on Akbar.4 However, we know from these writings that even before Akbar had initiated the policy of sulh i kul, he had begun the policy of  matrimonial alliances with the Rajputs. In 1562 itself, Akbar married the daughter of Bharamal Kachhwaha of Amber (Jaipur).5

In a paper, written in response to an article by Iqtidar A. Khan, Shireen Moosvi elucidated that actually Akbar’s liberal policy and approach cannot be compartmentalized in the manner Khan had done: Akbar might have officially formulated sulh i kul as a state policy from 1580 onwards, but had revealed an inclusive nature from the very beginning; he did not only start marriages with Rajputs,
but also abolished jizya and the pilgrimage tax much before the declaration of the policy of sulh i kul.
6

Thus, the fact that both the films showed Akbar marrying a Rajput princess was no fallacy. History proves that not only Akbar, but even after him, this trend was to continue. Second, the researches in Medieval Indian history also shows that from 1562, or at least from 1564, Akbar’s nobility comprised a significant number of Rajputs, along with Turanis and Iranis.7 This trend, like the inter-religious marriage alliance, had become a hallmark feature of the Mughal Empire.8 So much so that it continued even during the reign of Aurangzeb.9 Both Mughal i Azam and Jodhaa Akbar have scenes where Rajput nobles are depicted holding high positions, and always ready to sacrifice their lives for the Mughals.

This is not a mythical trope invoked by the directors of these films. Many important Hindu nobles of Akbar served for the survival of Mughal rule and were appointed to very high offices. In 1572-73 Akbar made Bharmal wazir al-mutlaq (minister with absolute powers) of Agra while he himself was going for the Gujarat campaign. Similarly, Raja Durga Sisodia was appointed subadar (governor) of Ajmer. In 1595 when Prince Murad was made subadar Deccan, Raja Suraj Singh Rathor was sent as his naib (deputy).10 Such examples can be multiplied. Thus, the characterization and role of Raja Man Singh and other Rajputs in these two films is not mythical or inspired to tell a story.

Further, the fact that the Rajput women taken in marriage were allowed to profess their religion is well attested by our sources, both written and material. In fact, the architecture of some of the palaces, both at Agra and Fathpur Sikri, where some of these women were lodged, also testify to this fact. The carvings on the so-called Jahangiri Mahal at Agra Fort, and the so-called Jodhbai Palace at Fathpur Sikri are there for all to see. Till date the Khwabgah (bed-chamber) of Akbar at Fathpur Sikri, as well as some other buildings which were in personal imperial use, have painted, as well as sculptural depictions of temple scenes, and even Hindu deities. On the Sunahra Makan, situated between the Jodhbai Palace and Daulatkhana, we have a carved figure of Ram and Hanuman, as well as a sculpture of a goddess.

There are some other kernels of ‘truth’ as far as these two movies are concerned. In the beginning of Akbar’s reign, and soon after he got rid of the influences of Bairam Khan and Maham Anaga, his wet nurse, the nascent Mughal Empire did experience some serious challenges to the throne. In 1562, soon after Akbar had Adham Khan thrown from the ramparts of his palace, virtually ending the political influence of Maham Anaga and her group, the empire did experience a series of serious revolts led by some senior Turani nobles. Some of them challenged Akbar’s continuance as king. An attempt to murder Akbar in the bazar of Delhi was also made, and this episode has been captured in the form of a miniature in one of the illustrated manuscripts of the Akbarnama.11 The first of these revolts was led by Mirza Sharfuddin, a very senior Turani and a sympathizer of Maham Anaga. And this is what has been shown by Ashutosh Gowarikar in Jodhaa Akbar.

We know that because of these revolts Akbar was constrained to initiate recruitment of Rajputs and Iranis in sizeable numbers. Jodhaa Akbar does show Akbar getting the support of the Rajputs to put down Mir Sharafuddin.

We also know that the political role the women of the harem played in this period was also quite significant. Baburnama is full of references to the fact that whenever Babur would venture out for an expedition or campaign, he would take the advice of the senior women of the family. No step would be initiated unless the advice of mothers, aunts and even sisters had been taken. Even under Akbar, the political role of the women apparently did not diminish. Even when it was decided that Abul Fazl would compose the official history of the reign, amongst others, Gulbadan Bano Begum was also given the charge to compose her version of the past, so that it may be used to write the official account. We have already commented on the religious freedom which these women of the harem enjoyed.

The fact that Akbar was quite reckless, and would mount rogue mast elephants, as shown in Jodhaa Akbar, and the fear for the life of the young emperor too is not a fantasy or cinematic liberty – only the dialogues put in the mouth of Bharamal, come to prospect his future son-in-law, are! Not only does the recklessness of Akbar find mention in our sources but is also illustrated for us in an Akbarnama manuscript now housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. it was a favourite pastime of Akbar, even in early years, to tame and ride rowdy elephants and unruly horses.12 Actually elephant fights too were a common sport under Akbar. It not only finds itself depicted on certain wall paintings at Fathpur Sikri, but Fr. Monserrate also mentions a specific location for these fights at Sikri.13

The only cinematic liberties taken by the makers of this film are (a) the incident is shown taking place within the palace compound, rather outside the fort as depicted in the double page illustration referred above; and (b) this occasion of elephant mounting the rogue elephant is chosen in the film as the time when Bharamal arrives to meet his future son-in-law. We know Akbar’s marriage took place much after the revolt of Mirza Sharfuddin, and not before it. But to be light on the director of the film: we know that Akbar often indulged in such daring sport, and possibly the director could not stop himself from such a scene of bravery, which in his view would have overawed the incumbent father-in-law.

Coming back to Mughal-i Azam, a revolt has been shown there as well: the revolt of Prince Salim. During the final years of Akbar’s reign, his eldest son did rebel. At a time when Akbar was unwell in 1590, all his three sons – Salim, Murad and Daniyal – started to mobilize support to stake their respective claims.

In 1599, Salim revolted against his father and stationed himself in Allahabad.14 So K. Asif is not very historically incorrect when he places his story within a son’s rebellion against his father. Where he is wrong is in the reasons of the revolt.

The reasons why Prince Salim (Shekhu of Mughal i Azam) revolted, were entirely political. It was not only a result of his political ambitions, but also due to Akbar effectually undermining his political networks.15 If we ask Jahangir himself, we find him blaming ‘short-sighted men’ within
his own princely circle, a problem which within a matter of time he surmounted.
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This takes me to discuss the historically incorrect depictions in these two films. Let us pick up the two most contested characters of these films, which have caused much heated debate amongst historians. Both Jodha Bai, as the wife of Akbar, and Anarkali as the love interest of Salim appear to be based on myths, rather than facts of history. No doubt that without these characters, these movies were not possible: their success rested on these two controversial characters. Unfortunately, both characters, Jodha and Anarkali, howsoever romantic, are possibly mere figments of imagination. Anarkali was a figment of imagination of two European travellers to the Mughal court during the reign of Jahangir, while the legend of Jodhabai was created by an English surveyor of Rajasthan, and the over enthusiastic 19th century villagers of Sikri, who had had come to occupy the palaces after they were abandoned.

Let us first take up Jodha Bai, the wife of Akbar. No contemporary Persian source so much as even mentions ‘Jodhbai’, let alone as a wife of Akbar. It is only during the 19th century that James Tod, and then Mountstuart Elphinstone, both English surveyors and writers, become the first to mention Jodhabai as the wife of Akbar.17 During the same time, the villagers of Sikri and Agra started identifying three structure with her name, viz., the ‘Jodhbai Palace’ in the palace complex at Fathpur Sikri, a small red sandstone tomb on Agra-Sikri road identified by them as ‘Jodhbai Tomb’ (it was demolished by the English after the Mutiny), and a platform tomb near Sikandara, now known as ‘Mariam’s Tomb’, as the possible resting place of the so-called Akbar’s wife. Ultimately the legend of Jodhbai, wife of Akbar, gained popularity and wide acceptance after Mughal i Azam, so much so that when Jodhaa Akbar was being made, many ‘Rajputs’ agitated that how come one of their queens was being shown as the wife of a Muslim king! Some even doubted her Rajput origins, and claims were made that she was a slave girl.

Amongst the modern historians, V.S. Bhatnagar, a highly rated historian of Rajasthan history, in mid-1960s, based on some primary Persian sources went on to claim that the Rajput princess, Jodhbai, was in fact the wife of Jahangir, and thus a daughter-in-law of Akbar. Her maiden name, according to Bhatnagar, was Manibai, and it was she who after her marriage to Jahangir, was given the title of Jagat Gosain.18 Later on, another scholar of Rajasthan, G.N. Ojha tried to fill the missing gap in Bhatnagar’s assertion by assuming that Manibai, who is said to have been married to Jahangir, being from Jodhpur, ‘probably’ came to be known as Jodhbai. Ojha however did not cite any source for his contention unfortunately.19

The last historian of repute to write on this topic was Satish Chandra. He opined that quite contrary of her depiction in the two films under discussion,Jodhbai’ was not the daughter of Raja Bharamal of Amber. To him, there was ‘reasonable certainty’ that she was Mani Bai, the daughter of Mota Raja Udai Singh of Jodhpur. Further, according to him too, if this identification was correct, then she was not the wife of Akbar, but, if at all, of Jahangir.20

Similarly, the authenticity of the character of Anarkali, the beloved of Prince Salim, due to whom difference grew between Akbar and Salim, is also a mythical creation. 21 It was a fictional character first brought to light in the account of William Finch, who came to India along with William Hawkins in 1608.22 He mentions her as wife of Akbar, with whom Salim fell in love, and her name was ‘Immacque Kelle or Pomegranate kernel’ and that on discovery of this scandal, Akbar had her ‘enclosed within a wall in his Moholl’ where she died.23 This story was repeated a few years later, by another European visitor, Edward Terry. Terry says that Akbar due to this scandal, had ‘disinherited’ Salim for some time.24

This story as narrated by Finch and Terry is analysed by Shireen Moosvi in one of her articles in which she found, in the light of primary evidences, that this was but a fragment of imagination on the part of these travellers.25 According to her, this legend tells us ‘something about the rumour mill that worked because of the huge veil of seclusion surrounding the imperial harem.’ Harem seclusion obviously generated all kinds of beliefs about what could possibly have happened within it. To her, this legend survived – in fact developed over time – because ‘it was simply a good story.’26 However, in the first place it developed due to a ‘European gaze’, with which the travellers tried to perceive the Orient. Salacious stories like this, or those related with Jahanara Begum or Roshanara Begum, were all creations of the European travellers who had no access to the court but depended for their stories of bazar gossip to write back home. In most European accounts, most women around the Mughal Emperors were either conspirators or seductresses.

In Jodhaa Akbar if there was no Anarkali in the role of a seductress, the story writers picked up the character of a foster mother as the ‘other’ and a manipulating villain. History does tell us that Maham Anaga, the wet nurse under whose care Akbar had grown up, was politically conscious and allegedly manipulated the situation to control the young king. We have already cited V. Smith for the existence of a ‘Petticoat Government’, with her, her son and some close confidants being able to oust Bairam Khan, the Vicegerent and running the government on behalf of Akbar for a few months after her return from Kabul. Between 1559 to early 1562, she and Hamida Bano Begum not only enjoyed political power but also had Akbar married off to the daughter of the Central Asian noble.

In 1562, due to her son’s transgressions, Akbar had him thrown to death and subsequently assumed direct powers of sovereignty. The marriage of Akbar to the daughter of Bharamal of Amber took place only after Maham Anaga lost her political power, and only after the seriousness of the Turani revolts dawned on Akbar. Thus, when Jodhaa Akbar depicts Maham conspiring against the Rajput princess, and manipulating Akbar against her, is just a story created by the makers of the film. Probably such manipulatory twists in the story were given just to make the story sellable and a little interesting: a touch of the famed Bombayya film masala!

Another set of misrepresentations, in both the films are the buildings which have been chosen to be shown: they do not represent the period in which these films are set in.

The structures of Akbar’s period knew no cusped arches, baluster columns, buildings embellished with white marble, expansive halls, or mirrored hammams. All these building types are creations in the period after Akbar. The first white marble building does date back to the period of Akbar, but it was only a religious structure: the tomb of Salim Chishti. Akbar preferred red sandstone for his structures. In fact, Ebba Koch has argued that the red stone was reserved for imperial use during the reign of Akbar. Second, if the structures of Fathpur Sikri are any guide, permanent buildings under Akbar were transformations of temporary wooden and cloth and hide tents into stone structures. Third, there was hardly any concept of large, enclosed halls: most palaces were just cordoned off open spaces with a centrally located aiwan (pavillion) or a hujra (small, enclosed chamber with hardly any window). And these small rooms were used generally for storing things or household goods. Aiwans and verandahs, as well as courtyards, provided with awnings were places where most of the time was spent. Covered halls, marble structures, baluster columns were all used only from the reign of Shahjahan onwards. The covered Diwan i Am structures too belong to the period of Shahjahan. Under Akbar, as at Fathpur Sikri, one only had enclosed open courtyards with an emperor’s seating pavilion to one side. Even the grand mirrored hall in Mughal i Azam, the setting of Akbar’s throne and the venue of Anarkali’s dance, is something which is alien to Akbar’s reign. with all its mesmerising effects, were started being built from the period of Shahjahan.

The sets of Jodhaa Akbar are comparatively closer to truth – if we ignore the multifoliated cusped arches, which are Shahjahani. And then, at least one court scene is set in a large quadrangle, where the song azim us shaan shahanshah is asserted for good effect. Probably this improvement over Mughal i Azam, is not because the makers of the movie were paying much closer attention to appear authentic. If
K. Asif ordered his sets to be made to awe and enthral the audience, which had been earning bask in the glory of a spectacular past, Ashutosh had to content himself with what had been hired for him – the Ambar palace and the buildings of the Jaigarh Fort, some of which date to the period of Akbar and Jahangir.

If the above discourse is to be summed up, one can easily conclude that unfortunately a real historical film, or cinematic endeavour, which may faithfully have recorded or imparted the history of the Mughals, is sadly missing. The job of satisfying the demands of factual representation, to some extent, has been fulfilled by ‘documentaries’, rather than films or serials. A movie like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, or even serials like The Crown or Resurrection Ertugrul shown on Netflix, can never be imagined to be possible in India. However, one has also to remark that if we started with the robust Akbar in Mughal i Azam who over awed the people, we ultimately ended up with Babur of The Empire who at least looked human.

Footnotes:

1. See for example, Goldie Osuri, ‘Secular Interventions/Hinduized Sovereignty: (Anti) Conversion and Religious Pluralism of Jodhaa Akbar’, Cultural Critique 81, Spring, 2012, pp. 70-99; Shahnaz Khan, ‘Recovering the Past in “Jodhaa Akbar”: Masculinities, Feminities and Cultural Politics in Bombay Cinema’, Feminist Review 99, 2011, pp. 131-46; Muhammad Huzaifa Zulfiqar, ‘The Depiction of the Mughals in Indian Cinema: Revisiting the Story of Mughal-e-Azam and Jodha Akbar’, online publication on June 2020 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341901737; Moupia Basu, Anarkali and Salim: A Retelling of Mughal-e-Azam. Juggernaut Books, Delhi, 2020.

2. A lecture which Gandhiji delivered at Johannesburg on 11 March 1905, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. IV, pp. 375-77. Cf. Farhat Hasan, ‘National Representations of the Mughal State: The Views of Tilak and Gandhi’, Studies in People’s History 6(1), 2019, pp. 52-62.

3. Iqtidar Alam Khan, ‘The Nobility under Akbar and the Development of his Religious Policy, 1560-80’, Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 100(1), 1968, pp. 29-36.

4. Vincent Smith, Akbar: the Great Moghul. Oxford, 1917.

5. See amongst others, S. Inayat A. Zaidi, ‘Akbar’s Relations with Rajput Chiefs and their Role in the Expansion of the Empire’, Social Scientist 22(7/8), July-August 1994, pp. 76-82.

6. Shireen Moosvi, ‘Akbar’s Enterprise of Religious Conciliation in the Early Phase, 1561-1578: Spontaneous or Motivated’, Studies in People’s History 4(1), 2017, pp. 46-52.

7. See Iqtidar Alam Khan, ‘The Nobility under Akbar’, op. cit.; Rafaqat Ali Khan, The Kachhwahas under Akbar and Jahangir. New Delhi, 1976; Afzal Husain, Nobility Under Akbar and Jahangir: A Study of Family Groups. Manohar, New Delhi (reprint), 1999.

8. M. Athar Ali, The Apparatus of Empire: Awards of Ranks, Offices and Titles to the Mughal Nobility, 1574-1658. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1985.

9. M. Athar Ali, Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001 (reprint).

10. For details, see Inayat A. Zaidi, ‘Akbar’s Relations with the Rajputs’, op. cit.

11.llustration ‘An Attempt to Assassinate Akbar at Delhi in 1564’, artists Madhav, Bhawani Kalan & Jagan, MS Akbarnama, IS.2:33-1869, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. For popular writings on this episode see Lubna Irfan, ‘The Woman Whose Downfall Nearly Killed Akbar’, The Wire, 16 July 2018 (https://m.dailyhunt.in/news/india/english/the+wire+english-epaper-wireng/the+woman+whose+downfall+nearly+killed+akbar-newsid-92435191)

12. For this see Abul Fazl, Akbarnama, text vol II, pp. 50-53 (tr. Beveridge, vol. II, pp. 232-34); also see Jahangir, Tuzuk i Jahangiri, text, pp. 24667 (tr. II, p. 41). For the Akbarnama miniatures, see the double page illustration, ‘Akbar’s Adventure on his Elephant Hawai’, artists Basawan & Chitar, Akbarnama, Ms., V&A Museum, London. The whole episode from Abul Fazl has been translated by Shireen Moosvi, Episodes in the Life of Akbar. National Book Trust, Delhi, 1994, pp. 23-26.

13. See Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Fathpur Sikri Revisited. Oxford University Press, 2013.

14. See, for example Munis D. Faruqui, The Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504-1719. Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 181-234.

15. Ibid., p. 195. See also chapter 4.

16. Jahangir, The Jahangirnama: Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India, tr. WM Thackston, New York, 1999, pp. 55-56.

17. James Tod, Annals and Antiquity of Rajasthan. London, vol. II, 1824, p. 965; Mountstuart Elphinstone, History of India, Hindu and Mohammadan Period. London, 1857, p. 441.

18. V.S. Bhatnagar, Marwar and the Mughal Emperors (AD 1536-1748). Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1966, pp. 58-59.

19. G.N. Ojha, Jodhpur Rajya ka Itihas (Hindi), Ajmer, VS., vol I, 1995, p. 358.

20. Satish Chandra, ‘Jodha Bai – Who is She?’, Indian Historical Review 35(2), 2008, pp. 237-39.

21. See for example Alain Désouliéres, ‘Historical Fiction and Style: The Case of Anarkali’, The Annual of Urdu Studies, University of Wisconsin, vol. 22, 2007, pp. 67-98.

22. Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimes, vol. IV. Haklyut Society, 1907, p. 57

23. Ibid.

24. Foster (ed), Early Travels in India (1583-1619). London, 1927, p. 330.

25. Shireen Moosvi, ‘The Invention and Persistence of a Legend: The Anarkali Story’, Studies in People’s History I(1), 2014, pp. 63-68.

26. Ibid., pp. 67-68.