How Mughals Turned Into Hindi Cinema’s Newest Villains

From “Mughal-e-Azam” to “Jodhaa Akbar,” Bollywood has long been fascinated with the stories and extravagance of the Mughal empire. But in recent years, films have reduced the Muslim rulers to caricatured villains.

Meher Manda

October 22, 2021

How Mughals Turned Into Hindi Cinema’s Newest Villains
Ranveer Singh's portrayal of Alauddin Khilji in "Padmaavat" (2018)

Large, sweeping chambers cloaked in luxuriant drapes of gold, green, and red; royal courts flanked by walls buried in delicate ornamentation; expansive courtyards surrounded by lush spring gardens, bulbous domes, and monstrously large elephants; and — at the center of it all — a ruler, evoking fear and admiration in equal measure.

From Prithviraj Kapoor’s disciplinarian-in-deep-baritone depiction of Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam (1960) to Hrithik Roshan’s younger, hunky Akbar in Jodhaa Akbar (2008), Hindi cinema has long held a deep fascination with the Mughal Empire — a period of rule over the Indian subcontinent that stretched from 1526 to 1857, when the British East India Company effectively dissolved it. Filmmakers have explored and reimagined this era in elaborate, fantastical detail, often telling stories of sweeping romance within the empire, such as that of the rebellious love of Prince Salim in Mughal-e-Azam or the interfaith marriage of Akbar and Jodha in Jodhaa Akbar

Yet, curiously, the depiction of India’s Muslim rulers has shifted in recent years. Extravagant backdrops to support stories of doomed and forbidden love have now turned into politicized retellings of history, reimagining the Muslim rulers as barbaric invaders in films such as Padmaavat (2018), Kesari (2019), and Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020). These narratives only serve to play up the us-versus-them narrative that has taken over contemporary Indian society, instead of acknowledging a more nuanced, syncretic past.