Indian Theatre Comes of Age: Feroz Khan’s Stunning Mughal-E-Azam
A hauntingly decadent chandelier looms over a dark room filled with an audience sitting in such a stupor, you’d think a spell had been cast on them. A few seconds later, hundreds let go of the breath they’ve been holding.
“Shehenshah ke in behisaab bakhshison ke badle mein yeh kaneez Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar ko apna khoon maaf karti hai,” whispers a trembling Anarkali, as the lights fade to black.
Feroz Abbas Khan’s Mughal-E-Azam’s golden premiere was held on the ageless stage of the National Center of Performing Arts in Mumbai on 21 October. It was attended by the who’s who of cinema and theatre, especially from back in the day when K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam redefined cinematography.
Produced by the original producers of the movie in 1960, Shaporjee-Pallonji, the broadway-style musical saw decadent costumes by Manish Malhotra, a soulful Mayuri Upadhya breathing fresh life into kathak and lighting and projecting design by award-winning David Lander and Emmy-nominated John Narun respectively, which made all of the difference.
The Women Steal the Show
What everyone thought was a challenge– to dramatise Mughal-E-Azam–has revealed itself to have no interest in challenging the movie at all. Each ada of Anarkali (Priyanka Barwe), each tear of Jodha (Sonal Jha) and each mischievous giggle of Suraiya (Palvi Jaiswal) is a gorgeous celebration of the movie, brought alive with the same painstaking detail which consumed K Asif for nearly a decade while making the movie.
The casting is spot on; it really couldn’t be more right, with dictions of Urdu so perfect, you could see Javed Akhtar beaming in the crowd. Ashima Mahajan as Bahar and Barwe as Anarkali perform hair-raising song after song, live, complete with the classical technicalities championed by no less than Lata Mangeshkar and Shamshad Begum. During Barwe’s performance of Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, she truly became Anarkali– not Madhubala, but her own Anarkali– with that open challenge in full court we have come to know so well.
Sonal Jha stands out in her portrayal of Maharani Jodha Bai from amongst the cast, though seemingly more demure than Durga Khote in the movie. Her realistic interpretation of the dilemma between being a queen, a wife and a mother throws the limelight sharply at her, despite the character not having what can be called the protagonist roles in the story.
Women easily make this play, with Nissar Khan not quite being able to tap into the rage of King Akbar in scenes with Anarkali and Salim, or even Jodha for that matter. For instance, in a scene when she refuses to give him his sword before he goes to war, as is ritual, Sonal Jha clearly leads the scene, with Nissar Khan almost waiting for a response after removing sindoor from her forehead. Sunil Palwal as Salim looks the part, definitely: tall, dark, handsome, with a deep voice. But, it takes him time to settle into the part. When he comes home from war for the first time, his dialogues seem a little dry, a little too focussed on delivery. However, by the time he falls in love with Anarkali, Palwal shifts with ease between anger and aashiq.
Another supporting character deserving of a shout out was Palvi Jaiswal in the role of the mischievous Suraiya: thank you for standing up to Durjan just as we hoped you would.
The Little Things
It’s the little things that make the play: when Anarkali dressed in a beautiful white and red anarkali suit begins sining Jab Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya in front of Akbar, Jodha and Salim, the dancers surrounding her are all dressed in black anarkali suits with golden embroideries, similar to a seated Akbar’s angrakha. As the first chorus ends, the dancers join in continuous kathak chakkars to the rising crescendo of their ghungroos. By the end of the song, when the charm somewhat breaks, we see a rebellious Anarkali surrounded by her dancers, all in white and red now, almost signifying the transformative power of love.
Manish Malhotra has proved that no other could have executed this project. Every lehenga of every scene– from the court dancers’ to Jodha Bai’s– was pure extravagance. He outdoes himself with Anarkali’s final costume on her one day of being Queen: a white anarkali suit, completely bejewelled to reflect the lights of the stage.
While Anarkali and Bahar were cast to be classical singers and actors, primarily, choreography director Mayuri Upadhya manages to give the effect of a full courtroom with hundreds of dancers with just 30. These 30 dancers, selected from the best classical dance gharanas from across the country, really bring the court of King Akbar to life on stage with their seamless formations and tireless chakkars, as Anarkali or Bahar belt out live performances.
The biggest challenge the play faced, though, was having very limited space and no choice of selective camera angles– luxuries cinema affords us.This is where the set design, lighting and projection design become essential.
Artistic projections of Akbar’s courtroom made to blend into movable pillars with intricate jaali-work which change into a purple background with a full moon, to blend in with a projection of a gazebo in the distance is just one instance of the smart use of the stage the play makes. It seemed impossible until the moment, but Sheesh Mahal is almost identically replicated artistically with mirrors hanging to reflect stage lights into diamonds floating in the air. The pillars of Akbar’s court seem to go on forever, just as Anarkali’s prison seems to be darkest of them all, with her lying hapless in one corner in a fading, yellow spotlight.
Very few faults can be found with Feroz Khan’s Mughal-E-Azam. Barring the excessive use of corners of the stage, sometimes blocking monologues completely from those on the sides of the auditorium and perhaps, how slowly everyone walks off the stage after a scene finishes, the play has managed to do what the movie did for cinema: set new standards of quality and scale in every aspect of a theatre production.
While the dialogues, the songs and the story, vetted by time to be thundering successes and classics, guaranteed a good show to some extent, they also came with a caveat: the burden of expectation. The play lifts the burden gracefully, succeeding in giving the audience it’s own, new set of timeless memories from when they watched Mughal-E-Azam the first time, that balmy evening of 21 October 2016.