K.Asif first launched this film in 1944 with financier Shiraz Ali, casting Sapru, Chandramohan and Nargis in the roles later done by Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. But Shiraz's migration to Pakistan after Partition, the communally-sensitive atmosphere after Independence and finally Chandramohan's death in 1949 made him drop the project.
K Asif wanted to start the project once again in 1951 but no financier was interested in this film. It was Shapoorji Pallonji, the construction magnate, came on board in 1951. K Asif was interested to make this film in colour but the financier refused to finance further. Ultimately he did so in the song Pyar kiya to darna kya and the climax. The film was finally completed at a cost of about Rs 1.5 crore in 1960.
Asif had planned to make Mughal-e-Azam in three languages - Hindi, Tamil and English. While the Hindi version became a super hit, the Tamil-dubbed version came a cropper at the box-office and he subsequently dropped the idea of dubbing it in English in the voices of British actors.
For the picturization of the song, Pyar kiya to darna kya a grand set of Sheesh Mahal was constructed. The grandeur was incomparable: the mirrors for the dance sequence on the Sheesh Mahal set were coated with a thin, transparent wax layer to prevent reflection from studio lights. The set was 80 feet wide and 150 feet long - and 35 feet high. And cinematographer R.D.Mathur would sometimes take up to eight hours to light a single shot! Sometimes, 14 cameras were used when the norm then was just one or two, and unlike the normal 60 to 125 shooting days, MEA thus needed 500, with more than a million feet of negative being used.
The song Pyar kiya to darna kya costed Rs 10 lakh to shoot, which was equal to the production cost of a big film! This Lata chartbuster's graph was perfected by Naushad and Shakeel in a marathon session from four in the evening to daybreak the following day on the terrace of Naushad's bungalow. Neither ate food during this period.
Music director Naushad composed many more than the 12 songs finally seen in the film, and Lata Mangeshkar sang eight solos and the duet Teri mehfil mein with Shamshad Begum. The hits were led by Mohe panghat pe and Mohabbat ki jhoothi kahani.
For Rafi's song Ae mohabbat zindabad a chorus of 100 singers were used.K Asif wanted 2 songs to be sung by Bade Ghulam Ali khan. Since Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan did not want to sing for films and quoted an exorbitant sum to discourage Naushad and Asif, they agreed to the sum (in multiples of the topmost playback singer's fees) and the maestro had no choice but to render Shubh din aayo and Prem jogan banke as he had no excuse left!
The war sequences used 2000 camels, 4000 horses and 8000 men, most of the latter being real soldiers from the Army. Prithviraj wore real armour, real weapons were crafted and real jewellery used. The best tailors, embroiders, jewellers, shoemakers and other craftsmen from across the country were employed. The chains worn by Madhubala in prison were also real. Even the statue of Lord Krishna was in real gold.
Tailors were brought from Delhi to stitch the costumes, specialists from Surat were hired to do the embroidery, goldsmiths from Hyderabad designed jewellery, craftsmen from Kolhapur worked on the crowns, ironsmiths from Rajasthan made the weaponry and shoemakers from Agra produced the royal footwear.
When completed, Asif is said to have got Rs 17 lakh per territory for the film when the going rate was Rs 3-4 lakh. The premiere invite was written in Urdu on red velvet and "stamped" with the seal of Akbar's royal court.
The premiere of Mughal-e-Azam was held at the then new,1,100-capacity Maratha Mandir cinema in Mumbai, The day before bookings for the film opened, a reported crowd of 100,000 gathered outside the Maratha Mandir to buy tickets. The tickets, the most expensive for a Bollywood film at that time, were dockets containing text, photographs and trivia about the film, and are now considered collector's items
This premiere was shown as a live event in Navketan's film Kala Bazar where Dev Anand does black marketing of the premiere shows tickets.
The film ran for 100 weeks, was the biggest grosser of the 1960s and was finally beaten by the 1975 Sholay.
There had been three screen versions of the same story earlier also. Two starred one of Indian cinema’s top female stars, Sulochana, as Anarkali – in 1928 as a silent feature and then in 1935 as a talkie.