Mughal-E-Azam: Coming soon, to a stage near you

The feisty Anarkali and rebellious Salim are all set to relive their legendary romance as director Feroz Abbas Khan recreates the 1960 film onstage

On the fourth floor of Mukti Culture Hub in suburban Mumbai, a group of over two dozen Kathak dancers is practising a dream sequence embodying Anarkali’s hidden desire to marry Prince Salim. Director Feroz Abbas Khan occasionally whispers his observations to lead choreographer Mayuri Upadhya. Mughal-E-Azam (1960) was shot over 500 days and took nine years to complete, while Khan’s play based on the classic was set in motion in January this year, and will premiere later this month. “We know we can’t measure up to the film,” says Khan. “But we’ll surely create a new theatre experience,” he declares.

The musical is the biggest production Khan has ever handled. When the veteran director and playwright started directing plays, he was fascinated by large productions and musicals. But he soon found his comfort in minimalism. His plays were simpler; be it the epistolary drama Tumhari Amrita featuring Shabana Azmi and Farooq Shaikh, or Saalgirah, which saw the return of actor-turned-politician Kirron Kher to acting. His films, too, like Gandhi, My Father, were not on the same scale as the classic romance.

Mughal-E-Azam is clearly out of Khan’s comfort zone, but he says his instinct, which is to have minimum elements onstage, is in peril of becoming a dogma. “I felt the need to challenge that.” And what’s more challenging than Mughal-E-Azam?

Recreating the film onstage has been a dream for Khan, ever since he saw the black-and-white film re-released in colour in 2004. But it was only in January that he dared to actualise it. He approached the chairman of National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) Khushroo N Suntook with the idea. “He was so kicked that we immediately approached Shapoorji Pallonji, the producers of the film, for the rights,” recalls Khan, adding that the producers didn’t just agree to share the rights, but also offered to be partners in producing the play along with the NCPA.

The musical core

Khan explains that in several ways, the original film is already a musical with theatrical aesthetics. “It has songs, vocals, sufi, and qawwali. Its roots are also in theatre. The film was even inspired by a play called Anarkali. says the director, who has retained all original songs from the film, barring two.

Since music is at the core of Mughal-E-Azam’s popularity, Khan put forward a non-negotiable condition while finalising the cast, that the actors must also be singers. “My Anarkali should be able to sing. Madhubala couldn’t.” Khan firmly believes that a true musical involves live music and singing, and not lip-syncing to pre-recorded songs.

However, names of the production’s lead actors have been kept under wraps to prevent comparisons with the film’s stalwart actors. Khan says that going against expectations, he didn’t cast any film actors, since the production requires strict discipline in terms of rehearsals. Taking a cue from his earlier works, the filmmaker says he had roped in Shabana Azmi and Farooq Shaikh in the popular Tumhari Amrita as veteran theatre artistes and not as film actors. “Besides, what’s the point of getting smaller film stars when you can’t get the big ones? Because then you just reduce the experience,” says Khan, who is an avid admirer of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala’ s performances in the 1960 classic.

Adapting for the stage

Having directed both films and plays, Khan has learnt over the years that the two art forms differ broadly in terms of their aesthetics and language. Taking a close-up, for instance, is unattainable onstage. “If I had a close-up, Anarkali’s eyes would say everything,” smiles Khan, who created a dream sequence to convey the same emotions. “She’s imagining her marriage to Salim, they’re dreaming together, and then it goes into dialogue to supplement it.”

According to Khan, he has successfully translated most of the classic to theatre language. But in the process, he trimmed the three-hour, 18-minute film to a two-hour, 15-minute play.

As daunting as that may sound, Khan wasn’t too nervous. “I’ve done a substantial amount of theatre, so for me, it’s part of my evolution as a director,” he says, while eagerly awaiting the audience’s response to the musical. According to Khan, there’ll be two kinds of audiences in the auditorium: those who have seen Mughal-E-Azam and those who haven’t. “I’m more excited to hear from the former,” he says.

Striving for the best

Mughal-E-Azam is best known for its grandeur, scale and record-breaking budget. To match that, Khan knew he had to get a strong technical team onboard. Striving to achieve Broadway-style lighting for the play, Drama Desk Award-winning light designer David Lander has been roped in. Projection design has been done by John Narun, whose experience includes working on Madonna’s concerts and handling productions at the Radio City Mega Hall, New York. Designer Neil Patel, a recipient of the Obie Award and Helen Hayes Award, has worked on production design for the play.

Fittingly, to match up to the elaborate costumes used in the classic, Bollywood favourite Manish Malhotra was called in to design the clothes. “The costumes cost more than the entire budget of the play,” says Deepesh Salgia, director of the Shapoorji Pallonji Group.

With a budget of around Rs. 1.5 crore, Mughal-E-Azam was the most expensive film made in its time. Unwilling to divulge the budget for the play, Salgia says that “when it comes to the classic, we don’t talk of budget”. However, he says that “the play is very expensive and made with a budget which is more than that of any other play till date”.

Despite the lavish budget at his disposal, Khan was aware that he could not overshoot it, however tempting the opportunity may be. “It’s not a bottomless pit,” says the director, who found himself negotiating with lighting and production designers to keep the grand production he envisaged within the budget.

As word about the play spreads, Khan is often approached with requests to stage the play in cities apart from Mumbai and Delhi, a request he politely declines. “A play like this requires a certain kind of infrastructure,” says Khan, who believes other cities lack well-equipped spaces like NCPA in Mumbai and Kingdom of Dreams in Delhi. “That request follows with, ‘why don’t you stage a scaled-down version of it then?’” laughs Khan, adding that Indians love to bargain, even when it comes to theatre.

When the curtains are finally raised, the play will be a walk down memory lane for some, while for the others, it will be a novel opportunity to live the tragic romance for the first time.

Mughal-E-Azam will be staged at the b NCPA from October 21 onwards

BOX: Trivia

The classic, which was the highest-grossing film of its time, has been admired and discussed by generations. Here are some lesser-known facts about the film.

Mughal-E-Azam is the only Indian film which ran for 25 weeks in theatres twice, once in 1960 and again in 2004.

• 150 carpenters, decorators and painters worked for more than 10 months to construct the Mughal Darbar sets for the film.

• In the 1950s, owing to the absence of electronic effects to provide for the reverberation of sound, music director Naushad asked Lata Mangeshkar to render the song ‘Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya’ in a studio bathroom.

• To ensure that the dialogues were nothing short of perfect, director K. Asif hired all the top four dialogue writers of the day: Aman, Kamal Amrohi, Ehsan Rizvi and Wajahat Mirza.

• In 2004, during Diwali, Mughal-E-Azam was re-released against Shah Rukh Khan’s Veer Zaara. Both films ran for 25 weeks.

• The statue of Lord Krishna used in the film was made of pure gold.

• For the 1960 premiere, the film’s prints were brought to Maratha Mandir on elephant back.

• The song ‘Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya’ was rewritten 105 times by lyricist Shakeel Badayuni before music director Naushad could approve of it.

• The colours of the costumes in the song ‘Mohe Panghat Pe’ have been inspired from Geet Govindam of Jaidev and Kangra paintings.

• The cost of making ‘Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya’ was itself more than the cost of making an entire film in those days.

• In 1960, after the film was released, there was an exhibition displaying various artefacts used in the film at Jehangir Art Gallery.

• A whopping 2,000 camels and 4,000 horses, as well as 8,000 jawans of the Indian Army, took part in the epic battle scene between Salim and Akbar.

• In the 1950s, one or two cameras were considered enough to shoot feature films. But Mughal-E-Azam required 14 cameras.

• It is the only film where Dilip Kumar plays a Muslim character.

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 9:23:23 PM |

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