Mughal-e-Azam, and the danger of adapting films too closely and faithfully for the stage

Perhaps there never has been a movie so celebrated and so revered in Indian cinema as Mughal-e-Azam, and perhaps there will never be. Directed by K Asif and produced by Shapoorji Pallonji, it was the most expensive film ever made in India, but also broke all records and remained the highest earning film for many years; a testament to the fact is that 58 years later, in a theatrical musical adaptation of the movie, where ticket prices range from Rs 500 to Rs 10,000, the shows are sold out.

The musical just staged its 100th show in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, apart from its staging in other cities, and has appealed to critics and viewers, and with good reason at that. The various elements of the musical that add up to the finished production that it is are all uniquely stellar: the gracefully coordinated Kathak dancers, the actors who are also singing live, and the magnificent projections of Akbar’s court, and moonlit nights. Director Feroz Abbas Khan’s vision has been crucial in the adaptation of this magnum opus.

Salim and Anarkali in Feroze Abbas Khan's adaptation of the movie. Image from Facebook/@Mughal-E-Azam

Salim and Anarkali in Feroz Abbas Khan's adaptation of the movie. Image from Facebook/@Mughal-E-Azam

The movie narrates the epic-but-doomed love story between Prince Salim, the son of emperor Akbar, and the court dancer Anarkali, which threatens the social and class order of the court and causes a war between the father and son. But what really gets the heart is the dialogue, and most of that dialogue remains the same in the adaptation. A bigger feat is that the actors sing live while dancing, so that when Anarkali sings and dances to 'Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya', unlike in the movie, to an audience that of more than a 1000 people for many days in a row, it’s even more moving than the original.

Yet for the first time I would go on to charge that this particular adaptation was too close to the original. I’ve watched books-turned-into-movies and suffered the indignations and resentments that arise in the face of an inadequate adaptation, the injustices felt about what was not carried into the second medium (How could they not include Peeves in the movie?!). With the baggage of a piece of art that is Mughal-e-Azam, to adapt it to the medium of theatre is a bold step, yet Khan has delivered and executed it with grace; but the feeling that remains after the ending of the musical is that perhaps even the director felt the fear of veering too far from the original.

One of the dance sequences in the play. Image from Facebook/@Mughal-E-Azam

One of the dance sequences in the play. Image from Facebook/@Mughal-E-Azam

Indeed, the most breathtaking bits of the musical were the ones that extended the boundaries of the movie into the stage — the live dancing, especially in the prelude to 'Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya', when dancers took over the stage and did the tatkaar. In the absence of any music, the noise of their ghungroos echoed in the hall — a scene which was nothing like the movie.

If we are to believe then, that the medium is the message, then it leaves something wanting in the musical, for in being very close to the original, the musical did not fiddle around enough with the very elements that make a live staging delightful — the constant moving around of the actors, the breaking of the fourth wall and addressing the audience, and the elaborate stage setups that continuously need to be shifted. Unlike in a movie, a play or a musical implies a live audience, to which the actors always orient themselves, something that I again felt was missing in the musical. It played itself more like a movie than a live staging. It’s true that a change in medium takes away certain things, just like a translation might, but on the other hand it is capable of adding certain layers that the original medium might not have been able to.

The elaborate sets of the play. Image from Facebook/@Mughal-E-Azam

The elaborate sets of the play. Image from Facebook/@Mughal-E-Azam

There were some changes, most notably in the diction of the actors; Emperor Akbar wasn’t the booming voiced shehenshah as Prithviraj Kapoor in the film, something that didn’t go too well with most of the audience, but I felt just about worked. The character of the sculptor was augmented as Brechtian device, holding up a mirror to the society, yet my feeling of it was that more could have been done in this area. The musical was true to the legacy of the movie in every sense, but it wasn’t equally true to the stage, a forum quite different to a pre-recorded movie.

Some of that might have to do with the fact that Shapoorji Pallonji also produced the musical, as they did the movie, but most of that would have to do with the fact when it comes to fiddling with an epic like Mughal-e-Azam, one must remain extremely cautious. A legacy like that one isn’t so easy to accept if changed, and in that sense, Feroze Abbas Khan has done true justice to the musical.

Yet one can’t help but think what shape the musical would take if it was truly adapted to the medium of the stage, and what techniques could be employed to codify the audience’s presence in viewing this beautiful story unfold.

Mughal-e-Azam will be staged everyday from 15 - 18 February in Delhi at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium

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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2018 16:39:58 IST

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