'Mughal-e-Azam is great theatre'

Oct 09, 2016, 11:03 IST | Benita Fernando

The stage adaptation of Mughal-e-Azam hopes to mix spectacle with a whole lot of soul

Dancers at a rehearsal of Mughal-e-Azam last week at Mukti Cultural Hub, Andheri Wes
Dancers at a rehearsal of Mughal-e-Azam last week at Mukti Cultural Hub, Andheri West

You know you are in entertainment when, on a warm afternoon, you are asked what you'd like to drink — green tea or water. Our caffeine and adrak chai-fuelled nerves politely refuse and we gaze at some 30 dancers in a rehearsal studio at Mukti Cultural Hub, Andheri West. Some girls are stretching; some winding yards of ghunghroo round their ankles; the rest recall the steps for the song Teri Mehfil Mein Kismat Azmakar.

This song from the iconic 1960 film Mughal-e-Azam, we will remember, put two courtesans — Anarkali (Madhubala) and Bahar (Nigar Sultana) — in a qawwali duel, watched over by Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar). Sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Shamshad Begum, the song preluded a jealous Bahar who will rat out on Salim's affection for Anarkali to Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) and begin the ruinous path for the young lovers.

A still from the iconic 1960 film showing Salim (Dilip Kumar) and Anarkali (Madhubala). Pics/Satej Shinde
A still from the iconic 1960 film showing Salim (Dilip Kumar) and Anarkali (Madhubala). Pics/Satej Shinde

Now, for the first time, Mughal-e-Azam — the juggernaut among Bollywood productions on which director K. Asif spent R1.5 crore — will be brought to stage as a musical under Feroz Abbas Khan's direction. With shows running from October 22 to November 1 at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), how is a three-hour-long film being made into a two-and-a-half-hour-long musical?

Keeping it grounded
Khan, who has earlier directed plays such as Tumhari Amrita and, more recently, Dinner with Friends, says that bringing Mughal-e-Azam from screen to stage has been a very daunting experience. He wasn't just dealing with an epic but that "memories passed on from generation to generation" were at stake. "While we have introduced modern elements into the play, we have to respect people's memories of the film. There has to be a blend of nostalgia and the modern," he says.

Choreographer Mayuri Upadhya in discussion with the musical's 30 dancers
Choreographer Mayuri Upadhya in discussion with the musical's 30 dancers

So, Khan is staying faithful to the original plot, without attempting to modernise it or re-vision it. It is one of those situations where you know exactly how the story ends, and you draw comfort from it. And there's no bigger sentimentalist than Khan in this regard, who watched the film as a child in one of the single-screen theatres dotting Grant Road. "Mughal-e-Azam was the staple of Eid celebrations when it was screened repeatedly," recalls Khan.

Khan had approached NCPA with the idea of turning the film into a live performance. "NCPA suggested that I throw open the idea to the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, which holds the original rights to the movie. They loved the idea and said that it ought to be made the way Mughal-e-Azam ought to be made," says Khan, whose first experience with directing musicals was in 1991 with Eva Mumbai Ma Chal Jaiye, a Gujarati adaptation of West Side Story.

Deepesh Salgia
Deepesh Salgia

Khan is certain that Mughal-e-Azam makes for great theatre, even when it was made into a film. "In those days, cinema came from theatre. Dialogue was powerful and performance techniques were like those of theatre," he says. A few scenes and songs have been cut, but Khan is hopeful that it won't affect the spirit of the film. Three new songs have been composed by Piyush Kanojia.

Khan doesn't want to reveal the cast. Why? There is double-casting to keep up with the momentum of shows and, therefore, there are just too many names. We are not particularly buying it. Likewise, we are sworn to secrecy about costumes by Manish Malhotra. He adds that finding people who are "a looker, a singer, an actor and a dancer" — the way you see it at Broadway — is hard to come by in India.

Feroz Abbas Khan
Feroz Abbas Khan

Grand yet intimate
Unable to resist, Khan escapes into the dance studio, his feet moving to the rhythm of the songs. The modern elements that the director refers to are in the form dance interpretations and production. Leading the choreography is Bengaluru-based contemporary dancer Mayuri Upadhya, who recently did work for this week's Bollywood release Mirzya. Carefully observing each dancer, Upadhya draws our attention to a dance interpretation of how the brat Salim becomes a more responsible prince. "There is a change — from nothing to something. We have devised the same through Kathak," she says.

Deepesh Salgia, the director of Shapoorji Pallonji Group, joins us to watch the rehearsal, knocking off his shoes and leaning against the mirrors. For the company, known to have big stakes in construction and real estate, Mughal-e-Azam is one of its only two film investments, along with Ganga Jamuna (1961). How many times has he watched Mughal-e-Azam? "It has three lakh frames," says the man who led the 150-personnel strong team for the colouring of the film in 2004.

He says that Mughal-e-Azam isn't about the spectacle but rather about two questions that continue to be relevant even today: A person's right to love and the choice between public and private interests. Swiftly quoting from the movie, Salgia knows that the company landed a big buck not because of the box office, but because love and empires never go out of fashion.

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