Forget Salim. Aziz Quraishi’s play finds a different love interest for the legendary slave girl.

New Delhi’s Kamani auditorium was packed for three consecutive days, as the audience watched Akbar Ki Mehbooba Anarkali, an unusual stage version of K. Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam. The play, written and directed by veteran playwright and actor Aziz Quraishi, stoked controversy by portraying Anarkali as a Venetian belly dancer and Akbar’s favourite concubine, gifted to him by the Sultan of Turkey. Enamoured by her ‘pomegranate’ complexion, Akbar christens her “Anarkali”. When Akbar presents her in the royal court, she performs a seductive belly dance and tempts Salim. The smitten prince bribes the sentinel of Akbar’s harem to meet her and then lures her with dreams of making her queen. An ambitious Anarkali responds willingly.

The rest of the story broadly conforms to the popular version. When Akbar discovers the treachery, he sends Salim to Afghanistan and puts Anarkali to death. An infuriated Salim rebels against his father, and kills his beloved official biographer Abul Fazl. Finally, Akbar’s mother Hamida convinces Salim to stem his revolt, lest it herald the death-knell of the empire.

However, the most controversial part was the dialogue between Rani Jodhabai and Salim. As Salim gets ready to go Afghanistan, Jodhabai rebukes him, saying he was after all of Mughal blood, which reeks of “treachery, deceit and womanising”. She goes on to say Salim would never have been born had she succeeded in her plan to kill Akbar on her wedding night. Salim retorts that her father Bharmal gave her away to Akbar in return for protection against his ambitious nephew Soojamal.

The 90-minute-play tended to confuse the audience as narrator Danish Husain (of Dastangoi fame) presented several historical versions of the tale. While the whole play was in Urdu, the narrator spoke in English.

The “fairly lavish” stage — as veteran actor Farooque Sheikh put it — was designed by Naresh Kapuria using multimedia images of the royal court of Akbar, Salim’s luxurious room and tents at Afghanistan. The costumes by yesteryear Odissi danseuse and actor Shonali Bedi, and the perfect Urdu-Persian dialogues spoken by veteran actors set the atmosphere. The play had its quota of titillation, like the ‘Bollywoodised’ belly dances by scantily-clad dancers, probably to reel in those with a fleeting interest in theatre.

While some thought the play got away from the theme of Anarkali, others t It could have carried on with that theme and could have talked about the condition and status of such bought concubines in that period, it would have made more “humane” drama; a few viewed the love between Anarkali and Salim wasn’t believable as it wasn’t given enough time to develop. For some others, “it was the best play in the last 30 years.” Said an admirer, “I saw “Aakshiri Shama” by IPTA 30 years ago. This play is the best after that. Its script was tight, its dialogues were excellent, and the intense characters like Hazrat Salim Chisti and Hamida Bano were the pillars of the play.” Vinod Dua, a seasoned journalist and theatre lover opined that “song and dance sequences could be shortened and the interpretation of history was misconstrued by some in the audiences as comedy due to which some impact was lost.” Calling it an eye opener Dua says Aziz quotes from history so there is no reason why he should be dragged into controversy.

History teachers and students however had problems with the “distortion of history”, while some Muslims couldn’t accept the way Akbar was portrayed. Professor Qazi Obaid-ur-Rehman Hashmi, former HoD of Urdu Language and Literature in Jamia Millia Islamia reacted strongly, “Readers know that Anarkali was a fictional character. Jodhabai gives a distorted image of the Mughal period as a whole. Aziz seemed to have an agenda in mind.”

Aziz clarified, “The story of Salim’s seduction of Akbar’s favourite concubine Anarkali was first mentioned by an English merchant William Finch who visited Hindustan between 1608 and 1611 — 11 years after the supposed death of Anarkali. My play is a result of research from many sources, including Italian historian Niccolao Manucci — a native of Venice and writer of the well-read series Mogul India and Dirk Collier, Belgian historian and visiting Professor at the University of Antwerp and British Historian. My creative world is free of religion-infested writings. I am a secular Muslim and most of my actors are Hindus who can speak chaste Urdu. I am not here to please or displease anyone”

Seasoned actors like Vishnu Sharma who played Akbar, Suchitra Gupta who played Hamida Bano, and Amitabh Shrivastva, who played the characters of Hazrat Salim Chirti and Khwajasarah, the gatekeeper of Akbar’s harem, garnered thunderous applause.

Danish Husain as the narrator and Abul Fazl, Anurag Arora as Salim and Anila Khosla as Jodhabai surprised the audience with their deft handling of long Urdu dialogue.

The capital rarely sees plays treated with chaste yet understandable Urdu and refreshing historical themes. In that sense, Akbar ki Mehbooba Anarkali is praiseworthy.