Theatre

Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical: A paean to the syncretic culture

Aesthetic appeal Feroz Abbas Khan   | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

At a time when a section of society is getting offended even by imagined history, Feroz Abbas Khan is back in Delhi with his magnum opus, “Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical”. An adaptation of K.Asif’s timeless tale about Mughal emperor Akbar who becomes a villain in the love story of his son Salim and courtesan Anarkali, the story continues to draw audience across generations. Like “Padmaavat”, “Mughal-e-Azam” also has historical characters woven into a fictional narrative. Khan says sometimes the line between history and hysteria gets blurred. Citing the example of Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, Khan remarks, “When truth could have five dimensions, imagine how many dimensions can history have. People become emotionally attached to certain figures. It almost becomes like I will decide what my daughter will wear. But once a constitutional body has decided, everybody should accept. Contesting ideas should be welcomed but all protests should stop short of violence. The maryada of debate has to be maintained.”

Cultural legacy

Referring to continued protests against “Padmaavat”, Khan says, “See, politics narrows the idea of imagination and a shrill voice is not always the right or majority voice. There were shrill voices earlier as well, but now they get amplified. All governments have pandered to these voices. And when everybody is a beneficiary of violence, nobody wants to find a solution.”

There is a section which is busy re-imagining the role of Akbar as well. “Many in the government have watched the play and everyone praised it. The story has been well accepted as part of cultural legacy and the way ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ does it, it doesn’t hurt anybody’s history, assumed or real.” Also, adds Khan, no matter what anybody does, there is something very fundamental about our civilisation. “If we have people who want to stop something, there will be more people rising in support of it. It may be at the political level but at the social and cultural level we haven’t reached a stage where a part of history could be erased.”

Nissar Khan and Dhanveer Singh as Akbar and Salim respectively in “Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical”

Nissar Khan and Dhanveer Singh as Akbar and Salim respectively in “Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical”  

Khan gives it to K.Asif and the writers of ‘Mughal-e-Azam’, which included Kamal Amrohi and Wajahat Mirza, for presenting the syncretic culture in all its beauty on screen.

“When Akbar goes to war, he kisses an amulet and applies tilak on the forehead. He sits through Janamashtmi celebrations. There is Man Singh and Durjan to present all shades of characters. The writers were very clear while writing that they were creating a narrative that was very inclusive. There is no literal reference but you can see strands of Akbar’s faith in Din-e-Ilahi. In 16th century, he thought of bringing together the best of all the religions under one umbrella.”

That’s not all. The voice of the Sangtarash (the sculptor who narrates the tale ), says Khan, is the voice of the progressive writers.

“He challenges the imperial power. When the film was being written, the resistance against the imperialistic forces was very strong. The writers took advantage of the atmosphere. Suggesting Salim would be a democratic ruler was certainly ridiculous, but the fact is when you listen to the song ‘Zindabad Zindabad’, you feel as if Salim would be the voice of the voiceless. I think they were creating a great entertaining story but they were also putting these little things to make it very inclusive.”

Class struggle

He reminds how “Kagaz Ke Phool” was blown away by “Mughal-e-Azam”. “People at that time could not understand the angst of a writer. They identified more with class struggle. All the successful films of that time had an element of class struggle – It’s the common man who had aspirations, it was the common man who won. It was perhaps because they were the ones who were watching cinema. There were no multiplex audience to cater to.” Even in Anarkali’s love, Khan sees an element of class conflict. “In a way, she asks why a common man cannot aspire to love, why a common person is expected to live within boundaries or limits. And she pays a price for breaking the shackles.”

Khan has augmented the character of sculptor, and describes it as a sort of “Brechtian device” to caution against growing hegemonic tendencies in the power structure. “But I could not have made him go beyond the structure of the narrative. Within the structure of ‘Mughal-e Azam’, we have layered it a lot. ” Talking about the acting style and language, Khan says, in the film there were four different styles at play. “If Prithivraj Kapoor as Akbar was bombastic, Dilip Kumar underplayed as Salim. Madhubala’s face was enough to convey the pain her character went through and then there was Durga Khote as a nice, elegant foil to Kapoor. We haven’t diluted the language but bombastic acting can’t work now. Youngsters makes fun of that. So our Akbar is not loud. I wanted him to be more intimate. Also, one need not not have a booming voice to be powerful. The powerful people don’t even speak loudly. It is a misconception created by popular culture.”

Neha Sargam as Anarkali in a scene from “Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical”

Neha Sargam as Anarkali in a scene from “Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical”  

Khan makes it clear that he never wanted to do an imitation of K.Asif’s “Mughal-e-Azam”. “We are doing an interpretation; carrying the legacy forward in a different medium.” The majestic projections play an important part in creating the medieval ambience on stage. Working in sync with his New York-based production designer Neil Patel, Khan visualised the whole play on paper. “I have a voluminous book with me now. I gave Neil and the light designer a scene-by-scene break down and the thought behind the emotions. If the intensity of light goes up even slightly, you can’t see the projection. All of it has to be very precise.”

Against the image?

This Broadway kind of production doesn’t go with the image of Khan, known for his content-rich plays like “Tumhari Amrita” and “Salesman Ramlal”. “I don’t agree with the perception that everything that is big has to be shallow. “Mughal-e-Azam”, the film, is a fine example of this. According to me, its screenplay is a piece of literature. Every scene has a conflict and has one rasa or the other.” It works the other way as well. Referring to “Tumhari Amrita”, Khan reminds when he was doing ‘minimalistic’ work, people told him that audience would doze off watching two persons read letters for two hours. “One thing you should be careful about is that the form should not overpower the content. That balance is extremely important. I have tried to manage that in all my work.” Also, he adds, some people think he only works for himself. “Then there are some who now feel that I work for the audience. My thinking is that I must be doing it for the audience and I must be doing it for myself as well. One must be aware of both – and I don’t pander to the audience,” avers Khan.

But in a musical, it is hard to find the subtext that he is used to work with. “In ‘Mughal -e-Azam’, the characters say a lot,” he laughs. “We had no problem in finding the subtext. What would you add to a potent line like Janaze ko rukhsat ki ijazat dijiye...”

The “Padamaavat” episode also indicates the growing self-censorship among creative people. “The threat keeps coming when political groups try to consolidate a constituency by spreading prejudice. I don’t think it will work. I made ‘Dekh Tamasha Dekh’, a political satire, without any problem. When I was doing ‘Tumhari Amrita’, people raised doubts about how it will be accepted by a section of the society. It worked. Majority of people in this country don’t believe in divisive ideology.”

Having said that he adds one must keep in mind that freedom of expression also demands responsibility. “I believe in thorough research and once I am sure of my facts, nothing can stop me. When I was planning to shoot “Gandhi, My Father” in Porbandar in 2005, people were apprehensive about my credentials to make a film on their beloved leader. But once they saw my preparation, all the doors were opened for me.”

Looking for his next challenge, Khan says, he constantly keeps asking himself whether he is becoming stagnant, whether he has stopped growing. He is returning to entertainment in education with “Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon” which spreads the message of family planning. “It is very dear to me.” And yes, he is returning to the kind of plays that made him one of the stars of theatre world. “I am reviving ‘Salesman Ramlal’ with Satish Kaushik. It is very dear to me. And then I am mounting an original play called ‘Masiha Tonight’. It is about a television anchor who believes that he has all the answers. I have been dreaming about it for a long time and hopefully I would be able to execute that,” signs off Khan.

(“Mughal-e-Azam:The Musical” will be staged till 11th February at Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium, New Delhi .)

Making of a magnum opus

Deepesh Salgia on the emotional connect of Shapoorji Pallonji with “Mughal-e-Azam”

Once K.Asif convinced Shapoorji Pallonji to invest in his dream, the company committed itself to the project for generations. Feroz Abbas Khan says he went to the company for the rights, thinking it has nothing to do with theatre production but was surprised to find them eager to back the play. Deepak Salgia, one of the directors of the company, who has provided creative and strategic vision to the production, says after the colour version of the film, the company was looking for newer ways to keep the classic alive in public imagination. “Though we have nothing to do with film production, but when it comes to ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ we don’t give even its distribution rights to anybody. There is an emotional connection with the film. This is perhaps the only film which is centrally distributed.”

Khan says Salgia, who played a crucial role in the colour version of the film, was integral in imagining the contours of the play as well. “Also, the kind of logistic support that is required in Delhi, is possible only because of the company. We had to start from scratch at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The stage is double the size of the one in Mumbai. So it required a new and bigger set, double the dancers and other infrastructure.”

A product of IIT Madras, Salgia has full faith in the reach of ‘Mughal-e-Azam’. “When we coloured it in 2004, I had an idea to showcase it at my alma mater. So I decided to create a subtitled version so that all the students could understand.” As subtitling was not as common, there remained some glitches and Salgia discovered during the screening that 15-20 minutes of the film ran without subtitles. “Still there was pin drop silence in the auditorium. Such is the power of its dialogues”

The Delhi experience

Though infrastructure was a problem in Delhi, Khan loved the response of audience in Delhi. “I could see three generations of a family watching in Delhi. The response from the youth was amazing. Also, the familiarity with the language meant that Delhi audience understood the nuances better than the Mumbai crowd. They clapped at places where the actors didn’t expect them to. Like Neha Sargam, who plays Anarkali, says she was surprised when the audience clapped when she said, ‘kanto ko murjhane ka khauf nahin hota!”


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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 11:44:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/mughal-e-azam-the-musical-a-paean-to-the-syncretic-culture/article22623013.ece

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