Taj Divided by Blood director Ron Scalpello talks about how his series is different from Mughal-e-Azam even though the two tell the same story.
The recent Zee5 show Taj: Divided By Blood retold the legend of Salim and Anarkali, marrying it with the succession politics during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar. The tale of Anarkali has been told time and again in Indian entertainment, most notably in the 1960 classic Mughal-e-Azam, considered one of the greatest Indian films ever. In a chat with DNA, Taj director Ron Scalpello opened up on the comparisons, breaking the language barrier to direct a Hindi show, and his take on the saga.
The British filmmaker has made sports documentaries and dramatic fictional stories earlier. The catch is that they were all in English, his native tongue. Taj was different. When asked if he was familiar with the story of Anarkali and the Mughal Empire, Ron says, “My wife is Indian so I have been to India a few times and I was familiar with the Mughals and their stories. I wouldn’t say it was exhaustive knowledge but then I was raised on big historical dramas myself. I liked films like El Cid and Spartacus, all these great battles with morally complicated lead heroes and heroines. When I approached Taj, I wanted to bring that history of storytelling to this story of a family feud.”
Ron says that despite him not understanding Hindi and Urdu, he was able to direct the ten-episode series without much hassle. “Directors work all over the world in different languages, which allows us to make stories on universal emotions. You just want to do a great piece of entertainment with emotional connection,” he says.
Just how did he manage this though? Ron explains, “We had English versions of all the dialogue. From there, I would break it down scene by scene and build my emotional blocks. Mostly, there would be a Hindi translation and there were translators around. It helped that all the actors spoke English very well so there was no communication gap. And once you begin to understand the emotions, the words almost become immaterial.”
Taj presents a fresh take on the legend of Anarkali and her love affair with Prince Salim, the future Emperor Jehangir. It also delves deep into the final years of the reign of Akbar and the succession politics that pits his sons against each other. Talking about comparisons with history and other adaptations of the story, the director says, “Everyone tells a version of history in accordance with the time they are in. You can’t be entrapped with the legacy of what’s gone before but you have to respect it as well as people’s emotional investment to it. I wanted to tell a story to the modern audience with none of the history of how those stories have been told in the past. Otherwise, you end up repeating it.”
And, of course, the spectre of Mughal-e-Azam hung above the production right from the casting phase. Aditi Rao Hydari initially said no to playing Anarkali because she felt only Madhubala could be her. She was eventually convinced but many other actors were daunted by the prospect too. Ron says, “Mughal-e-Azam is a part of India’s storytelling DNA. Everyone has it in their heads. I watched some of it, not all of it. I can imagine the actors would have been intimidated about playing these big historical characters that have been imprinted in our imaginations. I wasn’t invested in the past and I didn’t have that baggage to say we can’t do this. To me, I just saw them as modern contemporary characters.”
But Ron says he respects Mughal-e-Azam and its impact on the Indian storytelling even if he isn’t as invested in it as the Indians are. “Mughal-e-Azam was made in the late 1950s (it was released in 1960). It was a long time ago. That it is still a benchmark shows the power of that great film and Indian filmmaking. You need to have complete respect for that and what it means to so many people,” says the filmmaker.
Taj: Divided by Blood stars Naseeruddin Shah, Aditi Rao Hydari, Aashim Gulati, Taha Shah Badussha, Shubham Kumar Mehra, Sandhya Mridul, Rahul Bose, Zarina Wahab, and Dharmendra. The show began streaming on Zee5 on March 3.