“Not a misplaced word”

Feroz Abbas Khan Mughal-e-Azam The Musicalan adaptation of K Asif’s classic 1960 film, is back on stage after a gap of almost three years. The last time the lavish production hosted a show was in January 2020, but it was then forced on hiatus by the coronavirus pandemic.

Mughal-e-Azam The Musical is in its sixth year. Produced by Shapoorji Pallonji Group, which also financed K Asif’s hugely expensive film, the visually spectacular piece stays true to its source material.

Lighting design by David Lander, three-dimensional sets and costumes by Manish Malhotra bring Asif’s lavish vision to the stage. At the same time, the melodious cadences of the original Urdu dialogue, Naushad’s timeless score and Shakeel Badayuni’s deep lyrics have been retained. The role of Anarkali is alternated between Neha Sargam and Priyanka Barve. As the actors twirl to choreography by Mayuri Upadhay, they perform songs made famous by Lata Mangeshkar.

The play returns to a time of rampant Islamophobia and vigorous attempts by the Hindu right to deny and recast the contributions of the Mughals to Indian history. The period epic of Asif is based on the legend of courtesan Anarkali, who captures the heart of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s son, Salim. Akbar’s refusal to accept Anarkali, his gentle defiance, and Salim’s rebellion against his father set up a three-way contest punctuated by fiery dialogue and song-and-dance sequences.

Asif’s film, adapted from the 1922 play by Imtiaz Ali Taj Anarkali, had been in development since the late 1940s. Mughal-e-Azam contains the narrative conventions of the Parsi theatrical tradition, which includes declamatory dialogues and musical interludes, said Feroz Abbas Khan, a theater veteran whose plays include Tumhari Amrita, Saalgirah and Seller Ramlal.

For Khan, the musical represented an opportunity to return to film’s roots in theatre. Asif’s labor of love contains every element a musical needs to succeed, Khan said Scroll.in.

Mughal-e-Azam The Musical. Courtesy of Shapoorji Pallonji Group.

What gave you the idea to convert “Mughal-e-Azam” into a stage production?
When I thought about doing a production like this, I felt that Mughal-e-Azam just fits this bill. It’s got a terrific story, it’s got great writing that’s almost a piece of literature and then it’s got a scale.

More importantly, the film has its roots in theatre. The game Anarkali has already been adapted several times for the cinema. The structure and performances of the film came from the Parsi theater, where the dialogue is for the effect of the dialogue, for example. It was quite easy to adapt the film into a play. But it still needed the scale of a production in terms of imagination and impact. I had to be somewhere close to the original, even though you can never be close to the original.

The storyline is extremely dramatic. It reads beautifully even in text form, but it also has everything you need in theatrical writing. It’s the perfect word. There is not a word that is useless or out of place or shocking. It’s one of those magical things that only happens once in a decade.

The other most important thing is the lyrics and music, which are just awesome. It’s the perfect album. All the songs are unforgettable and are beautifully integrated into the narrative, which was also the case in the Parsi theater. Nowadays, the stories have changed and the music is no longer inherent in the films.

The music, the lyrics, the dream cast of Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote – that’s why the film remains an all-time great.

Mughal-e-Azam The Musical. Courtesy of Shapoorji Pallonji Group.

What explains the enduring appeal of “Mughal-e-Azam”?
The film, which I don’t take literally as a story, has eternal themes. He did several things. This made Salim an almost representative voice of the masses. People were marginalized and wanted a share of the country’s resources that had been squandered by colonial powers or other interested parties. Akbar only has room for duty, while Salim says love is greater than anything else.

You have Anarkali challenging the power of an empire. She is one of the strongest and most empowered female characters. And you have Jodha as Akbar’s wife, whom he deeply respects – all of this at a time when we were a young nation that had just moved away from colonialism.

Jodha and Akbar are together in a nation shortly after the partition, which seeks healing. The film tackles secularism, gender, colonialism and the voice of the masses. He does it very intelligently, so that the audience can identify with his themes.

For example, the writers created the character of the sculptor, who is a rebel. In my play, he is the narrator who connects the play. K Asif did another interesting thing – he gave the story a happy ending. Mughal-e-Azam is a wholesome film that excludes no one. You don’t come back depressed. Maybe Salim and Anarkali will meet again, who knows?

Mughal-e-Azam The Musical. Courtesy of Shapoorji Pallonji Group.

The play retains original Urdu dialogue written by Kamal Amrohi, Wajahat Mirza, Ehsan Rizvi and Amanullah Khan.
Among the attractions of the film is the purity of the language. The movie has chaste Urdu dialogue, which can be a challenge, but I didn’t want to water it down. We have also provided English translations which are projected onto screens on either side of the stage and provide the gist of the dialogue.

There is something in the magic of the sound of language. For example, it is not necessary to understand many spiritual chants, whether they are Vedic chants, Gregorian chants or Azaan. Sound alone can have a profound impact.

There’s also a lot more going on in the show. It’s extremely modern in its presentation, so it works.

Feroz Abbas Khan.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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