The biggest stage hit of 2016 was Mughal-e-Azam, and the magic of the musical is such that the shows opening at the beginning of 2017 are also sold out.
Before the show dazzled audiences, there was some scepticism about K. Asif’s movie classic being brought to the stage—after all who could match greats like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Durga Khote, Ajit and Nigar Sultana? Director Feroz Khan was confident that he would pull it off, but also a little nervous—the memories of the film (for the many that had seen it) are ineradicable. The original producers of Mughal-e-Azam - Shapoorji Pallonji - came on board to produce the play, along with National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA).
Manish Malhotra’s costume, Mayuri Upadhya’s classical choreography, Naushad’s immortal music remixed by Piyush Kanojia blended seamlessly with the technical finesse brought in by technicians from the US and UK. The actors who are picked by casting director Mukesh Chhabra are not stars, but the right kind of performers needed for the play—with perfect diction and fine singing voices.
The biggest triumph of the play was that it stood out as an independent piece of art, not just a film-turned-into-a-play about Emperor Akbar’s opposition to the romance between his son Salim and a courtesan Anarkali. If Feroz Khan had not accomplished this feat, audiences would have said, why spend money on expensive tickets, just watch the movie at home!
There was also the uncompromising fidelity to the narrative flow and dialogue of the film--there was subtitles, but hardly anyone must have looked at them, so mesmerising was the visual quality of the play. The Sheesh Mahal song “Pyar kiya to darna kya” that was a highlight of the film, is magical on stage.
What the success of the play proved is that with the right support and adequate resources, Indian theatre can match the best anywhere in the world; and also that audiences, even in the time of a fiscal crisis, are willing to spend on a live production if the beauty and scale promises to match their expectations.
(Disclosure: The writer works with the NCPA, but the views expressed are her own.)