It’s a brave and potentially risky move to recreate a classic that has set a benchmark in cinematic excellence. History hasn’t been kind to such feeble regenerations, with ‘Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag’ — the director’s antagonising spin on the western classic ‘Sholay’ — often landing the top spot on a list of worst films in Bollywood.
Remind Feroz Abbas Khan of this little known fact and the theatre director and playwright doesn’t deny the responsibility one must shoulder when undertaking such a project. In fact, in an attempt to bring filmmaker K Asif’s iconic ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ to the stage in 2016, Khan found himself unable to handle the pressure.
“I still haven’t been able to get over the fact that three days before the first show, I almost had a nervous breakdown; and I am not saying this for effect,” Khan told Gulf News tabloid! from Mumbai.
The theatre veteran, who will bring the stage adaptation of ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ to Dubai this week, continued: “It was the first time it had happened to me on stage. I kept thinking I am doing such a great disservice to a great piece of work.”
Little did Khan know at the time that ‘Mughal-E-Azam — The Musical’ would go on to win seven Broadway World Awards the following year, including ones for Best Indian Play and Best Director.
As Dubai sets the stage for a three-day performance of the doomed romance, we breakdown why the musical should be on your watch list this month.
‘Mughal-E-Azam’ was originally a play
Few know that K Asif’s cinematic masterpiece, which released in 1960 after 15 years of struggle, was in fact based on a play.
“If you look at the original ‘Mughal-E-Azam’, you realise it resembled a theatrical production. So, I looked into the roots and realised the film had originated from a play called ‘Anarkali’,” revealed Khan.
‘Anarkali’ was first written by Imtiaz Ali Taj in 1922, which took readers into the Mughal Empire, narrating a love affair between servant girl Anarkali and the crown prince Salim. So incensed was Emperor Akbar when he learnt of the affair that he ordered Anarkali to buried alive behind a wall.
“K Asif sahib [sir] had been very impressed by a stage production of the original story and he decided he wanted to make it into a movie, especially when he realised that a theatrical scale would be very small and simply could not capture the imagination the way cinema could,” said Khan.
A second ‘Mughal-E-Azam’?
In his research to unearth details about the story, Khan also discovered that even before K Asif’s masterpiece released, another film on the subject had already released during the former’s decade-long struggle to bring the film to screen.
“K Asif sahib [sir] had struggled for years to mount the production. And interestingly, during this time, another film had already been released called ‘Anarkali’. But even with this setback, K Asif did not give up. He decided to give a whole new experience to his film and the rest is for all to see,” said Khan.
Recreating a masterpiece
“It was never my idea to make a film into a play,” stressed Khan. “I was dreaming about doing an Indian musical and when I was watching this movie, at a slightly more mature age, I could connect with the way the film was made.
“It struck me that it is clearly a theatre piece, written in a style of theatre writing which was prevalent before cinema came to India — a style we called Parsi theatre. It used decorative language, focused on a larger than life conflict and dared to affect with the audience’s mood.”
However, to envision is one thing, but Khan’s journey to create his own masterpiece would be as long as Asif’s own struggle to bring the theatrical piece to cinema.
“When I saw the film, I knew I wanted to make it into a play but I didn’t think India had the wherewithal or the kind of money to mount such a production. Plus, we weren’t sure if the audience was willing to spend the money to watch this kind of theatre production,” Khan said.
How Shabhana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh played a part
It was in November 2004 when ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ released once again in cinemas, this time, in full colour as part of a restoration project undertaken by the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, spearheaded by Shapoorji Mistry, who was the grandson of the original producer of the film, Shapoorji Pallonji Mistry.
During this time, Khan was in Hyderabad touring his award-winning play ‘Tumhari Amrita’ with the late Farooq Sheikh, who died in Dubai of a heart attack in 2013, along with the veteran actress Shabhana Azmi. Khan admitted that all three of them weren’t keen on the new version of the film at the time.
“All three of us had our reservations at the time because we thought the beauty of ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ was wrapped up in the black and white imagery of the film. We thought colour was going to destroy its essence but it worked,” recalled Khan. “We were deeply roused by watching it at that time and that got me thinking.”
Khan said that when he finally approached Shapoorji Pallonji with his idea, the only brief they had was to make a production as big as the film.
Tale about female empowerment
Set in a time when the Mughal Empire reigned across India, the story not only essays the tragic love affair between a courtesan and a prince, but gives voice to the common man, according to Khan.
“At its core, the story is truly about women empowerment. Here was an ordinary woman who took on the might of an empire and dared to defy the most powerful man in the country.”
Khan also stressed how important a role the story’s message played in celebrating the spirit of a woman.
“People focus on the love story or the father and son conflict, but it is Anarkali’s defiance that forms the spine of the story. At the time the film released [13 years after India’s partition in 1947], it also paid tribute to the role of women in India’s freedom struggle and the power they wielded in the world’s largest democracy. Here is a story about everyday people for who believed gender and class divides needed to be challenged. For that alone, the story was quite ahead of its time.”
Bollywood favourite Manish Malhotra roped in
Khan recalled his brief to his set and costume designers was very specific. “It had to be very big. The imagination had to be big. The production designer, the projection designer and the lighting had to support that vision,” he said.
But it was Manish Malhotra, the designer of choice to Bollywood’s biggest stars, who tied the whole project together by creating the final look of the stage production.
“If you remember the original movie, all the costumes were in black and white. The only time we saw it in colour was during the song ‘Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya’ and the climax. So, when I spoke to Manish Malhotra, I told him one thing: transport yourself to the Mughal era and into Akbar’s court. If you were the court designer, what would you do for these costumes? And that was it,” said Khan.
Malhotra went on to design the 575 costumes used in the stage production.
Reimagining the choreography
As the first chords of ‘Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya’ play out, few may resist imagining a young Madhubala staring defiantly at Emperor Akbar in the Sheesh Mahal or the Palace of Mirrors. When it was time recreate this for stage, Khan employed the ‘extraordinary talent’ of young choreographer Mayuri Upadhya to reimagine those magical moments for stage.
“I told Mayuri it needs to be authentic Kathak [Indian dance form] but within your interpretation. One of the finest pieces in the musical is the ‘Pyar Kiya…’ sequence and that’s a highly interpretative piece by Mayuri. She simply brings it alive on stage,” said Khan.
Introducing a new Salim and Anarkali
“To find my Salim and Anarkali was the toughest job,” stated Khan. “Anyone who closes their eyes even today is reminded of Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Prithviraj Kapoor in those iconic roles. They are ingrained in us.”
Khan admitted that finding his Salim was slightly easy because all he was looking for was “an actor with a personality.” He continued: “But the problem with Anarkali was that she needed to be a singer. And someone who could sing live and was a classically trained one at that. She also needed a personality, was of fine beauty and a fine actor. Bringing all that together was a tough call.”
Khan finally found them in Neha Sargam and Priyanka Barve, who alternated in playing Anarkali. Shaad Ali became his Salim, theatre actor Nissar Khan his Akbar and Sonal Jha signed on as Jodha Bai.
Understanding the millennial mindset
It’s fine to recreate a classic, but is there really a demand or an understanding of sacrificing love and life in the face of duty and valour for the millennial mindset? Khan has his own take.
“‘Mughal-E-Azam’ is a story that surpasses time and space. In the times we live in, hatred seems to have made a comeback. And it is in such times of hatred, a love story such as this once again gives you hope. No matter what it is, be it the indomitable spirit of a human being to stand up to power or injustice or something more personal, but I do think it this story of defiance bears a strong resonance for the times we live in.”
Should we read between the lines, alluding to India facing its own times of turmoil following the wave of protests sweeping across the country in defiance of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which many deem as anti-Muslim?
Khan simply laughed in response, adding: “I can say it openly but will leave it for a different time. Conflicts and concerns over identity are so sharp, arguments we should have transcended ages ago. But I know in the end, humanity will win, love will win.”
Did you know?
History has borne witness to the hurdles K Asif faced to visualise his period epic. Parts of the film were scrapped when key members from the film’s unit, including the lead actor, moved to Pakistan in wake of the partition. In the wait to sign on new actors, Chandramohan, who was to play Emperor Akbar, suddenly died.
Amid the actual film production, Kumar and Madhubala’s own love affair had reached a tragic end while her father was attempting to make a business deal of the alliance. In Kumar’s biography, the feather scene in the film — one of the most iconic moments on screen — was filmed when the two stars had stopped speaking with another.
By the end of the film production, Asif and lead actor Kumar were also not on speaking terms and the latter even skipped the film’s premiere.
Madhubala, meanwhile, was suffering from congenital heart disease and would have frequent lapses during the 10-year-long production. She died nine years after the release of the film, at the age of 36.
Don’t miss it!
‘Mughal-E-Azam — The Musical’ is being staged at Dubai Opera on January 30, 31 and February 1. Show starts at 8pm across all days, with tickets priced from Dh150. They are available online at Dubaiopera.com