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While we still debate the details of Anarkali’s story as being fact or fiction, there is no doubt she is perhaps the most interesting character in Bollywood’s history. Moupia Basu’s retelling of the cult-classic has versions of Akbar, Salim, and Anarkali, but mostly focuses on why Anarkali did what she did. She is the anti-hero here who played games to reach Akbar’s harem but genuinely falls for his son Salim. It is a recreation of the tragic tale of love and separation like no other! To mark 60 years of the cult-classic that everyone has watched (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?) Mughal-e-Azam, this week we spoke to Moupia about what her favourite thing about Anarkali is and why she chose the period of Akbar’s reign.

Q. What’s your favourite thing about Anarkali’s character?

M: I was a little bored with the successive portrayal of Anarkali as a suffering, vulnerable, and lovelorn tragic heroine. So, I decided to give a twist to her character and make her more human – she is vulnerable yet displays quiet aggression and courage and stands up for what she believes in even if it is against one of the most powerful men of the time.

Q.Why did you make Anarkali Persian?

M: According to historian Alain Désoulières, Anarkali is a ‘quasi-mythical’ concubine of unknown origin and dubious identity. Since there is no mention of her place of birth or how she landed up in Akbar’s harem, and in the absence of any official record of Anarkali’s presence in Akbar’s court, I have presented Anarkali as Persian, who having fled her war-torn country, seeks her fortunes on foreign shores. Given the political equations between Persia and Hindustan at the time, as well as the rapidly changing political conditions of Persia, this could be a fair possibility as there were extensive commercial as well as cultural exchanges between the two countries and a constant influx of Persians into Hindustan.

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Q. While there’s no mention of Anarkali in any Mughal literature, how did you build the narrative?

M: I’m not a historian, so for me, the cinematic adaptations of the legendary love story provided the premise and as I dug deeper into the myth, I stumbled upon a treasury of information around the love story. Anarkali has been mentioned in the reports of contemporary chroniclers and travellers of the time. Anarkali’s identity has sparked off endless debates among historians. Moreover, the tomb in Lahore that is supposed to be Anarkali’s has a strange inscription that has puzzled historians and tourists alike. And, then there is local folklore that has done the rounds for over four centuries that prompted Taj Imtiaz Ali’s stage drama in 1923. I sourced my information from all these accounts.

Q. You could have picked any time in history? Why did you choose Akbar’s time?

M: It wasn’t about choosing Akbar’s time. Though Emperor Akbar’s reign was an interesting period in Indian history, and Akbar was a very powerful ruler, I wanted to explore this rather unusual, conflict-ridden father-son relationship. Though bound together by a common bloodline and laws of kingship that neither could ignore, they were forever at loggerheads.

The fact that there could have been an oedipal conflict between Akbar and Salim” as author Ebrahim Eraly points out, over a common objet d’affection, aroused my curiosity.

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Q. What was your impetus to write this retelling? 

M: For years, I have seen people all wide-eyed at the very mention of Mughal-e-Azam, a film that depicts a love story that has acquired cult status with successive generations of people and remains firmly entrenched in the collective psyche of an entire subcontinent for over four hundred years. Frankly, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the film, though people swore by it. But, the character of Anarkali intrigued me. Was she a romantic fantasy of writers and poets? Or, a foreigner who travelled to Hindustan to seek her fortunes? Or, was she the slave girl who shook the very core of the Mughal empire and almost brought the emperor of Hindustan, the Mughal-e-Azam, down on his knees? And, also the fact that despite contemporary travellers mentioning her in their accounts, she has been wiped off from the official hagiographies of the Mughal dynasty, surprised me. Was it deliberate on the part of the royal chroniclers to erase her name from all official accounts and thus from public memory? Why? Besides, this whole idea of the lovers, and the archetypal jealous rival, in this case, an angry father who is also the formidable emperor of Hindustan was exciting. Taj Imtiaz Ali, who wrote the story of Salim and Anarkali as a historical drama for the stage for the first time asked a pertinent question:

“Is this a tragedy about Anarkali and Salim, or is this about Akbar the Great?” I wanted to know the answer to that. So, given the fact that it happens to be the diamond anniversary of K Asif’s epic film Mughal-e-Azam this year, I thought it was a good idea to revisit and explore this controversial love story.

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