In a large hall lined with mirrors, around 25 kathak dancers are recovering from vigorous warm up exercises. The entrance to the hall has a small heap of paraphernalia that provides hints to the period of the production they are rehearsing for — there are four fake shields, two wooden swords and an ornate umbrella, red with yellow tassels. The props appear incongruous with the dancers, many of whom are dressed in stretch pants paired with graphic tees. But when the music begins, the sound of their ghungroos echoes across the hall in unison. And as the familiar lyrics reach their crescendo by asking ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya‘, they conjure up instant memories of royal splendour and rebellious love, as seen in K. Asif’s 1960 film, Mughal-e-Azam.
The dancers are part of the massive theatrical production of the same name that will open in Mumbai’s National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) on October 21. With about 70 people on the cast, it is one of the largest and most expensive musicals to be performed in the country. It is helmed by the soft spoken Feroz Abbas Khan, whose career has encompassed theatre, film and television. With just a few days to go before opening night, Khan in the heart of a swirl of activity, the man who has taken on the somewhat brave task of giving a fresh avatar to a classic that everyone knows and loves.
The idea of taking the epic film starring Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim, Madhubala as the courtesan Anarkali and Prithviraj Kapoor as Emperor Akbar onto the stage had been with Khan for years. “I always felt that yeh theatre hi hai (its already very theatrical),” he said. In fact, he pointed out, the story was originally created as a play, written in Lahore in 1922, titled Anarkali. The saga had various tellings in film too, including the 1953 hit of the same name, starring Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai. Mughal e Azam, K Asif’s epic production was released in 1960, and took 16 years to complete at a then-staggering cost of Rs1.5 crore. Since then, it has entrenched itself in popular memory and imagination. Its memorable dialogues and lilting music are part of cinematic lore, referred to by film scholars and college students alike.
So for a musical, Khan wanted to turn to this work that was “already familiar for the audience, that had traveled with them.” He approached NCPA as the venue that could do justice to the scale of the story. “They were interested, so we approached Shapoorji Pallonji (the film’s producers) for the theatrical rights.” They chose to join the production of the play. “For us it is a work of art and something that has emotional attachment,” said Deepesh Salgia, director, Shapoorji Pallonji. “We wanted to be a part of it and set another benchmark.” Their involvement, points out Khan, ensured that “the imagination of Mughal-e-Azam is not reduced”.
Khan is known for his critically acclaimed, nuanced dramas like Mahatma vs Gandhi and Tumhari Amrita, the last with only two actors on stage and which had a 21 year dream run, ending only when its lead actor Farooque Shaikh passed away. “ I have also done a Gujarati musical, but I am by taste a minimalist,” he said. The process of directing one of India’s most lavish theatrical productions, therefore, has been about finding a balance between his own instinct for naturalness and the demands of the story. “ It has been very exciting and inspiring,” he says.
The most challenging part of his job may be the inevitable comparisons with the original movie, particularly its charismatic cast. Khan realizes that and that is why is at pains to explain that the production will transport the story into a different, theatrical space. “We are not trying to imitate the film; no one can replace Madhubala, for instance,” he says. “It will be a fresh, live experience.” He began by working extensively on the sound of the play. “Usually when you hear the lines, you hear the sound of the actors. In our workshop, we removed that, so now you hear the characters.”
He has also created additions to the story for the proscenium stage and made some deletions from the original, to arrive at a running time of 2 hours 15 minutes. The end result will have a “more contemporary feel, with technology used to create a modern presentation,” he said. While initially he attempted to rework some of the dialogues to make them easier to understand, he quickly realized that they were seamlessly written and difficult to tinker with. “I trust to the audience to understand the meanings,” he said.
The production will also have seven songs from the original film, choreographed by Bengaluru-based Mayuri Upadhya. The dancers were cast after auditions from across different cities, and have been living and training in Mumbai for three months. “It’s a dream project, who wouldn’t want to be a part of it?” At the same time, she was aware of the pressure that was implicit with the job, for the same reason-the dance sequences in the film are classics.
The challenge for Upadhya was keeping the fairy tale quality of the story while contemporarizing it. “Everything changes for the live experience, from the perspective of the stage to the interaction with the audience,” she points out. While not a kathak practitioner herself, she drew on her experience of working with large numbers of dancers and on large scale productions. (Her recent work includes choreographing sequences for the film Mirzya). “There is a change in every song,” she says, “and there are also embellishments that work like exclamation marks through the story.”
Khan has also drawn a wide net for his other collaborators. While the lighting design is by Tony-nominated David Lander, the production design is by Obie-award winner Neil Patel, both combining experience on film, theatre and opera. For costumes, Manish Malhotra was roped in. For the actors, on the other hand, Khan had to look beyond known film artistes in favour of accomplished singers– there is no lip-syncing in the production.
But why will a story set in medieval India resonate with a modern audience? Salgia says that the same question came up in 2004, when the film was being released in colour. “Then people said, ‘Will the audience which watches Shahrukh Khan watch Dilip Kumar?’ See the response at the box office,” he says. For him, the reason lies in the perennial nature of its characters. “There is the small man, who asks -‘Have I not the right to love?’ and there is the dilemma at the top level of Akbar, of choosing between public or private interest. These two issues are still relevant.” For Khan, the key lies in the fact that Mughal e Azam is “an eternal love story.”
After Mumbai, the production will travel to Delhi and then internationally. Khan speaks enthusiastically about an app that will eventually allow audiences to hear the dialogues in different languages like English, French, Spanish and Chinese. So while the Indian diaspora abroad may be drawn to a different telling of a familiar story, it may well be that the tragedy of star-crossed lovers in the court of Akbar finds a wider audience, who can hum along with the perennial question: ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya?’