Rome wasn't built in a day. This famous adage unpins the importance of the fact that it takes time to create great things. And, just like Rome, the moniker "Mughal-e-Azam"—the Great Mughal—often used in connection to Emperor Akbar too is associated with might and grandeur. And not just the emperor's greatness either—those who are acquainted with Hindi films would know that the name Mughal-e-Azam has actually become synonymous with cinematic grandeur, thanks to filmmaker K. Asif's magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam (1960), which starred stalwarts like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Murad, and Durga Khote. The film, one of the most ambitious projects in the history of Indian cinema, suffered from endless production hurdles and ultimately took about two decades to complete. Mughal-e-Azam follows the story of the Mughal Prince Salim who openly declares his love for a lowly court dancer named Anarkali and leads a rebellion against his mighty father, Emperor Akbar, who disapproves of their relationship. The epic film was produced by Shapoorji Pallonji. More than five decades later, the renowned Indian playwright Feroz Abbas Khan, known for plays like Mahatma vs. Gandhi and Salesman Ramlal, brings to the capital city the classic saga of love in the new avatar of a Broadway-style musical, after enthralling Mumbaikars with as many as 57 house-full shows.
[T]he play is mostly faithful to the K. Asif classic, and complete with lavish sets, colourful costumes, flowery verses, soulful music and brilliantly choreographed dance sequences...
Stage adaptations of cinematic epics are somewhat rare and perhaps that's what makes Feroz Abbas Khan's Mughal-e-Azam so unique. Running for 2 hours and 15 minutes, the play made its debut at Mumbai's National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) back in October 2016. So far, it has enjoyed four successful seasons in its original form but the latest presentation in Delhi will have a new segment. Staging the play in Delhi was always a top priority for Khan. In words of Khan himself, "How can you not show a play like Mughal-e-Azam in Delhi with its great Mughal history?" Yet it took a while to happen. The biggest challenge was to find a place grand enough to stage something as ambitious as Mughal-e-Azam. When he couldn't find a suitable place he zeroed in on a weight-lifting auditorium in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and took it upon himself to completely revamp it according to his requirements. Co-produced by NCPA and Shapoorji Pallonji, the musical comprises a cast and crew of over 350 persons including 30 classically trained Kathak dancers. The costumes are designed by Manish Malhotra. The real icing on the cake is the fact that the play features live singing. The hectic schedule and the fact that the lead actresses have to both sing and dance simultaneously is bound to take a heavy toll. And that's precisely why Khan has not one but two actresses play the part of Anarkali, Neha Sargam and Priyanka Barve, alternatively.
The acting department is a major letdown with the actors lacking stage presence during some of key sequences.
Although it has been described as a modern interpretation of the classic the play is mostly faithful to the K. Asif classic, and complete with lavish sets, colourful costumes, flowery verses, soulful music and brilliantly choreographed dance sequences, all sublimely orchestrated by Khan to create an immersive theatre experience. The acting department, however, is a major letdown with the actors lacking stage presence during some of key sequences. The male actors, in particular, fail to capture the nuances, especially with regards to language and diction. But that's something for the connoisseurs to notice—the average theatregoer is likely to be quite satisfied with the overall experience.
Mughal-E-Azam, the stage musical based on the K. Asif film, is being performed at the Jawaharlal Nehru Auditorium from 9-17 September. Tickets, ranging from ₹500—10,000, are available online.
A version of this review was first published in A Potpourri of Vestiges.