Anarkali, 1953

Directed by: Nandlal Jaswantlal

Quick confession, I love the 50s in Indian Cinema a million times more than I love the 70s. Ok, that may not be exactly true since I love them for completely different reasons. The 70s for the crazy and the paisley and the bellbottoms; the 50s for the absolute art form of film making. Watching a 50s film is like watching the most exquisite poetry come to life. It’s just so beautiful, the storytelling is so profound.

Anarkali is the story of the love between Emperor Akbar’s son, Salim, and a poor gypsy girl. Call it an ancient Cinderella/Romeo and Juliet…etc.

Apparently it really happened.

Apparently it didn’t really happen.

No one seems to know, but I’m content enough not to quibble over such small matters, since I’m talking about a film and not ancient Indian folklore. Also, if you’ve seen it Anarkali it is the same story and came before Mughal-e-Azam.

The plot is rather straightforward: Anar (Bina Rai) is a nomadic gypsy who meets and falls in love with Salim (Pradeep Kumar), the crown prince of the Mughal empire and under disguise as a common solider. Caught singing by Emperor, Anar wins his favor and is bestowed with the title of “Anarkali”. Called away on military duties Salim deserts Anar and she is captured by enemies and enslaved. She is forced to perform songs and dances in hopes of winning a man who will buy her. She is bought by a tall and handsome stranger who keeps his face hidden (how she knows he’s handsome is beyond me). She protests his suggestion of marriage and effusions of love until he unwraps his face and is revealed to be Salim.

The lovers blissfully live for a while until Salim is injured and sent back to his palace. Distraught that his son may not recover, Emperor Akbar calls for Anar to sing at the prince’s bedside in hopes of waking him from his fever? coma? something.  She does so and in the process realizes who her Salim really is.

Anarkali is made a concubine and her and Salim continue their affair until Akbar finds out and orders the lovers to death. The country revolts and disapproves of the death sentence but the Emperor remains firm, his justice is sure and will not even waver for his own son. After much waffling Akbar determines that Anar and Salim must be forgiven. Salim runs to where Anarkali is being buried alive but arrives just as the last brick seals her tomb. He collapses on her grave and dies himself.

This film is shot so beautifully. I couldn’t help gasping and sighing at every turn. There is something about black and white and soft lighting that just makes things seem much more romantic and unworldly. The sets were so detailed and intricate. Every detail was meticulously set and perfected so that the picture on screen was a perfect representation of the grandeur of the Mughal rule and the richness of the love story being presented.

Anarkali as a character caught me off guard. She was so feisty! She refused to let the Emperor push her around when she first met him, was sensibly disgusted and angry at Salim when he refused to show his face after he “purchased” her and took Salim to task and verbally told him what’s what when he repeatedly refused to stand up for himself and make his love for her known to his father. She rejected the idea that he could do these things to her because she was lower class, claiming that it was the same as any injustice. I loved this woman.

Bina Ria is an effortless actress. She’s just one of those artists who knows how to become a character and easily portray them on screen. She fought well, flirted spectacularly, got catty as the best of them and  stole the stage from anyone else in the scene. This might have been intentional, since all of the other characters were down played so dramatically in reference to her, even Pradeep Kumar’s character was typically shown with a shadow over his face. The spotlight, quite literally, was all for Bina.

The music–and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who is going to hate on old Filmi music–was so spectacular. It was haunting and touching and soulful. The songs translated seamlessly to the action in the film and were effective in portraying the right mood and emotion for the scenes.

And in case you’re wondering what a good measure for what makes love fun, look no further:

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