Mughal-E-Azam: Feroz Abbas Khan’s audacious Broadway-style adaptation of the K. Asif classic

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Rome wasn’t built in a day. This famous adage unpins the importance of time needed to create great things. And, just like Rome, the moniker ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ too is synonymous with greatness. After all, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great is also known by the sobriquet Mughal-E-Azam, But those who are acquainted with Hindi cinema would know that the name Mughal-E-Azam has actually become synonymous with cinematic grandeur, thanks to filmmaker K. Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-E-Azam (1960), which starred stalwarts like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Murad,  and Durga Khote. The film, one of the most ambitious projects in the history of cinema, suffered from endless production hurdles and ultimately took about two decades to complete. Mughal-E-Azam follows the story of the Mughal Prince Salim who openly declares his love for a lowly court dancer named Anarkali and leads a rebellion against his mighty father, Emperor Akbar, who disapproves of their relationship. The monumental film was produced by Shapoorji Pallonji. More than five decades later, the renowned Indian playwright Feroz Abbas Khan, known for plays like Mahatma vs Gandhi and Salesman Ramlal, brings to the capital city the same old saga of love in the new avatar of a Broadway-style musical, after enthralling the Mumbaikers with as many as 57 housefull shows.  

Stage adaptations of cinematic epics are somewhat rare and perhaps that’s what makes Feroz Abbas Khan’s Mughal-E-Azam so unique. Clocking at 2 hours and 15 minutes, the play made its debut at Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) back in October 2016. So far, the play has enjoyed four successful seasons in its original form but the latest presentation in Delhi will have a new segment. Staging the play in Delhi was always a top priority for Khan. In words of Khan himself, “How can you not show a play like Mughal-E-Azam in Delhi with its great Mughal history?” But it took him a very long time to realize. The biggest challenge was to find a place grand enough to stage something as ambitious as Mughal-E-Azam. When he couldn’t find a suitable place he zeroed in on a weight-lifting auditorium in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and took it upon himself to completely revamp it according to his requirements. Co-produced by NCPA and Shapoorji Pallonji, the musical comprises a cast and crew of over 350 persons including 30 classically trained Kathak dancers.  The costumes are designed by Manish Malhotra. The real icing on the cake is the fact that the play features live singing. The hectic schedule and the fact that the lead actresses have to both sing and dance simultaneously is bound to take a heavy toil. And that’s precisely why Khan has not one but two actresses, Priyanka Barve and Neha Sargam, play the part of Anarkari, alternatively.  

Although, Khan’s Mughal-E-Azam is been described as a modern interpretation of the classic, it is mostly faithful to the K. Asif classic. The play’s resplendence is marked by the lavish sets, colorful costumes, flowery verses, soulful music, and the brilliantly choreographed dance sequences, all seamlessly weaved together through an elaborate mise en scene, sublimely orchestrated by Khan, which makes Mughal-E-Azam an immersive theatre experience. The acting department, however, is a major letdown with the actors lacking the screen presence during some of key sequences. The male actors, in particular, fail to capture the nuances, especially with regards to the language and diction. But that’s something for the connoisseurs to notice, for the average viewer may not pay much heed to these inconsistencies of language. Having said that, it is definitely one critical area that Khan and team ought to have worked on more!

Mughal-E-Azam, the stage musical based on the K. Asif film, will be performed at the Jawaharlal Nehru Auditorium from 9-17 September. Tickets, ranging from INR 500 to INR 10,000, are available online.

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