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On Monday Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sangeet Som called the Taj Mahal a blot on Indian history. “What type of history? Is this history that the person who built the Taj Mahal imprisoned his father? Do you call it a history when the one who built the Taj targeted many Hindus in Uttar Pradesh and Hindustan?” said the Member of Legislative Assembly from Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh (UP). Som is no stranger to controversy: Popular among right-wing Hindu groups and a long-time anti-beef campaigner, he is also one of the accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. While the BJP state government immediately distanced itself from the statement, it, too, is guilty of dropping the 17th century Mughal monument from its tourism brochure recently.
While some Hindutva groups have always claimed that the Taj Mahal was a temple that was destroyed to construct the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal — there is no historical evidence of this — the renewed hatred towards a monument almost synonymous with India, as the Eiffel Tower is with Paris or the Statue of Liberty is with New York, only points to unease of the ruling party, which has suffered a series of serious social and economic downturns. Facing a crucial election in Gujarat later this year — the dates for which have, curiously, not been declared yet — some elements of the BJP are happy to resort to the kind of divisive and hateful rhetoric that has won them elections in the past.
Seeking some solace from all this, last week, I re-watched Taj Mahal (1963). With a stellar cast and extraordinary music, this critically and commercially successful film harks back to the golden era of Bollywood, but is quiet likely to be unfamiliar to most of us, except for the song “Jo wada kiya woh nibhana padega...” The narrative of this film revolves around a fictional retelling of the love story of Shah Jahan/ Prince Khurram (Pradeep Kumar) and Anjumand Bano/Mumtaz Mahal (Bina Rai). But, more than the dalliance of the lovers, choreographed like Mughal miniatures, the narrative is about politics, power, courtly intrigues, and succession struggles that later would prove to be the bane of the empire.
Very early in the movie, is a scene where Emperor Jahangir (Rehman) and Noor Jehan (Veena) play a game of chess. A brief shot of the chessboard reveals intricate ivory figures that the emperor and the empress move across the black and white squares. Noor Jehan loses the game — whether on purpose or not remains ambiguous — but immediately afterwards, the power she exerts over the emperor becomes evident. “Hum toh mohabbat ki bazi jeet kar bhi aapse sab kuch har chukey hai (Even having won the game of love, I have lost everything to you),” says Jehangir, in response to her threat that she would extract vengeance for her defeat. She reminds Jehangir of his promise of getting his favourite son, Khurram, married to her adopted daughter Ladli Bano. Jehangir says he remembers the promise but might have to break it for the sake of justice, if Khurram does not agree to the match. This is a cue for Noor Jehan to embark on a murderous conspiracy to get her daughter to be the empress.
A little detour is in order. Taj Mahal was made barely three years after K Asif’s groundbreaking Mughal-e-Azam. Naturally, the later movie is conscious of its more glorious predecessor and there are constant references to it. In an exchange between Noor Jehan and Anjumand Bano, both evoke Emperor Akbar and how he had tried to dissuade the former from marrying Jehangir. Later, Jehangir tells Noor Jehan that he cannot force Khurram to marry against his will, as it would spark a rebellion: He would know; he had rebelled against Akbar when denied union with Anarkali. A delightful cinema history coincidence in the 1953 film Anarkali, which had the same theme as Mughal-e-Azam and the same romantic cast as Taj Mahal, with Pradeep Kumar playing Salim/Jehangir and Bina Rai playing Anarkali. Pradeep Kumar played the fourth Mughal Emperor also in Adl-e-Jehangir (1953), where Meena Kumari plays Noor Jehan.
Unlike, however, the Salim-Anarkali story, in Taj Mahal, the lovers manage to defeat the politicking of Noor Jehan and a rather comical Prince Shahryar (Jeevan). In the film, Noor Jehan — though a woman in an exclusively masculine court — has enormous influence over Jehangir. In an economic yet effective mise-en-scène, director M Sadiq places her right behind Jehangir in the court scenes. Like a puppeteer, she is hidden by a veil and whispers in the Emperor’s ears, influencing his decisions — significantly, to send off Khurram to quell rebels in the Deccan. To achieve her ends, she is determined to go to any ends, even to get Khurram and Jehangir to war against each other. Of course, all this is par for the course in the game of thrones — much like the way the rhetoric of Sangeet Som and his ilk are in contemporary electoral politics. Much later in the film, defeated and captured in battle, Noor Jehan stands tall in Shah Jehan’s court and declares that all that she did was fair in the game of kingship. But, in the end, even she is won over by the love of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal.
The film — filled with old-fashioned battle scenes and evocation of Mughal and Rajput bravery — is a cry against militarism and violence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the song: “Khudai-e-bartar teri zameen par” Written by Sahir Ludhianvi, with music by Roshan and sung by Lata Mangehskar, it is shot with Bina Rai’s Mumtaz bemoaning war, even as her lover fights the rebels in the Deccan. Madhulika Liddle, in her essay on the film, finds similarity between this song and A R Rehman’s “Ishwar Allah tere jahan mein, / nafrat kyon hai, jung hai kyon”. Used in Deepa Mehta’s 1947 Earth (1998), the song is a prayer against communal violence that led to the genocides of Partition. One can only hope that the hateful rhetoric currently in currency will not lead to another.