Monday, April 7, 2008

Ah, the Middle Ages! When love always ended with an execution...

Midway through the laziest Sunday I've had maybe EVER-- which included both blowing off laundry and falling asleep on the couch before 2 p.m. -- I woke myself up with another pot of coffee and Mughal-E-Azam, a super-lavish historical epic from 1960. Quick realization: it's easier to tolerate colorization when you've never seen the original black and white movie. If you know, it tends to jar and seem wrong. But if you never knew...

Personally, I spent so much time oohing and aahing over the incredible set decoration and saying things like, "Oh my God, look at that door!" that I've had to create a new film category: Architectural Porn. I'd add the recent Bhool Bhulaiyaa's incredible haunted mansion, and of course Suspiria is an all-time hall-of-famer.

The plot of Mughal-E-Azam has been filmed a billion times as a quintessential tragic romance, based on real historical figures. The Great Moghal, Akbar, realizes the heir to the throne is growing soft and decadent as a young boy at court, so he sends him to war to make a man out of him. Once young Prince Salim has proven his mettle, he gets to come home, where he promptly falls in love with an unacceptable woman, and things end up tragically for everyone. Let's just say that Shakespeare obviously never heard this story, because it would have been right up his alley.

Early on, there were idle references to the evil eye, which can be a consequence of too much happiness or luckiness, and I couldn't help but think that Anarkali's story is kind of a cautionary tale about the evil eye. She's just a pretty dancing girl who agrees to pose as a living statue for a special event. That wins her the favor of the Emperor and a place at court. Her beauty catches the prince's eye, and before you know it, her entire life is ruined, although this version of the story elevates her and Salim as heroic figures, martyrs to love.

An aside on Anarkali: I really liked her characterization (as played by the lovely Madhubala). She's a modest, shy girl, who resists the prince's love because she understands her lowly place in her world. During the confrontation scenes, she quakes in front of the Emperor, and can't even look at him. But when she's singing and dancing, it makes her bold and forthright, even impudent and defiant. Her abilities give her a kind of power to stand up for herself that's harder to access when she's not on stage, which seems true enough.

Now I've got a bunch of other versions to watch for compare-and-contrasting, some with drastically different endings. (My subject line isn't really a spoiler, because people keep getting arrested and threatened with death, but there are various topsy-turvy plot turns, so I'm not really giving anything away). Someone needs to institute a movie-watching grant, which would pay me to, well, watch movies. Hey, I took more pointless classes in college...

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