Must watch: Mughal-e-Azam, the spectacular musical comes to Delhi
A weight-lifting auditorium in Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (JLN) is an unlikely place to stage a spectacular musical based on K Asif’s immortal 1960 film Mughal-e-Azam. But when film and theatre director Feroz Abbas Khan was scouting for venues in Delhi, he drew a blank. There was just nothing that could host a stage play of such unprecedented scale and complexity. When Khan finally settled on JLN, he had to refurbish it to the extent that it is literally a new place now: cleaning up, painting the walls, carpeting the floor, the works. “But everyone has been so helpful, they have been magnificent. However, our costs are colossal,” he says, waving at the smooth new walls as he gives me a guided tour of the premises. “I joked with my partners that it would be cheaper to charter three planeloads of people from Delhi to Mumbai, give them rooms in a five-star hotel and get them to see the play. Even if we have full houses here for every show, we will run at a huge loss.”
But that’s only fitting for a stage show based on a film known for its extravagance and magnificence. When Khan decided to take Mughal-e-Azam to the stage he first approached Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), known for its state-of-the-art facilities that allow complex productions to be staged. NCPA chairman Khushroo Suntook immediately came on board as a partner. Next Khan went to Shapoorji Pallonji, the business conglomerate that had produced the film in 1960, to get the stage rights. Deepesh Salgia, director at Shapoorji Pallonji, who has been handling the brand as a passion project for 20 years, not only agreed but came on as a co-producer, because, as he says, “If we were going to do a play, it had to be grand, it had to be something never seen before on the Indian stage, it had to keep up the parampara of the film.”
And that’s exactly how Mughal-e-Azam the stage musical turned out, with its cast and crew of over 350 people, with more than 200 lights illuminating the stage, 550 costumes designed by Manish Malhotra, not to mention the live singing on stage (original songs from the film, including the show-stopper Pyar kiya toh darna kya) along with dazzling Kathak sequences performed by 30 classically trained dancers. The play has already had 57 housefull shows in Mumbai (“you could never get tickets in current booking,” says Khan). Despite the cost and the challenges of finding a suitable venue in Delhi, the director and producers felt it had to be staged here. “How can you not show a play like Mughal-e-Azam in Delhi with its great Mughal history?” asks Khan.
For him, the show is a departure – or more accurately a return – to big productions (he began his theatre career with a big Gujarati musical). For the last several years Khan has been associated with minimal, successful plays such as Tumhari Amrita (which has now run for over 20 years). “But I thought if I keep making minimal productions, my style will become my own cliché,” says Khan. “As I became more and more successful, I realised it was time to go on a path where there was a serious possibility of monumental failure.”
That failure loomed large three days before October 21 last year, the opening night of Mughal-e-Azam in NCPA. “I was emotionally exhausted,” recalls Khan. “I thought everything was going wrong. I felt I needed 15 more days for the production to settle itself because it had become technically so complicated. But we were committed to opening on that day.” So Khan says he “did a few things” and magically it all fell into place. The show opened to a rapturous response. “Honestly, I felt more relieved than anything else,” says Khan. “I was just happy I hadn’t let down Shapoorji Pallonji and K Asif.”
Watch: The making of stage musical Mughal-e-Azam
As is the case with almost every Hindi film fan, Khan grew up watching Mughal-e-Azam, particularly around Eid when the film would invariably see a re-release. “It has filtered into our subconscious, our everyday life. If you delay in accomplishing some task, people will ask you, ‘Kya Mughal-e-Azam bana rahe ho?’” says Khan. But what stayed with him was the injustice meted out to Anarkali. She was the one who haunted him. “Also, the bigness of love,” he says. “Love stories are bigger when sacrifices are big. Anarkali knew the consequences of loving Salim. She was ready to die for love.”
But a personal passion for a beloved, legendary film is one thing; adapting it to stage is another. Khan was fully aware that he was stepping into dangerous territory. Where would he get another Dilip Kumar? Another Madhubala? Prithviraj Kapoor? “There should be some memories that should be left intact,” he says ruefully. “People have been burnt trying to tamper with classics. But I approached the stage show with a deep respect for the film. What writing! Because of its success in popular culture, we forget that it’s actually a piece of literature. It is art, every single word, every single line. I don’t know how this magic happened. But it did. Mughal-e-Azam is perfect.”
WHAT: Stage musical based on the film Muhgal-e-Azam.
WHEN: September 9, 10; 3pm and 7pm
September 14,15; 7pm
September 16, 17; 3pm and 7pm
WHERE: Jawaharlal Nehru auditorium.
Tickets Rs 500 to 10,000 available at bookmyshow.com
Nearest metro station: JNU stadium