Mughal-E-Azam's bewitching journey: From K Asif's iconic film to Feroz Abbas Khan's Broadway-style musical

In 1960, filmmaker K Asif presented to the world his most ambitious project — Mughal-e-Azam. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not only was the film 'massive' in terms of production value and a star cast that included screen giants like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, Mughal-e-Azam also boasted a stellar musical score too. Composer Naushad wove magic with voices of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohd Rafi, Shamshad Begum and the legendary Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.

Still from K Asif's Mughal-e-Azam featuring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. Facebook/ Mughal-e-Azam

Still from K Asif's Mughal-e-Azam featuring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. Facebook/ Mughal-e-Azam

It is because of its unmatched standards in filmmaking, production, performances and music that K Asif's masterpiece continues to command such respect nearly six decades after its theatrical release.

Not many, however, know that the story of K Asif's film — which depicted the romance between the courtesan Anarkali and Prince Salim — had its own journey. In the 1920s, Urdu playwright Imtiaz Ali Taj had penned a story titled 'Anarkali' that revolved around the aforementioned starstruck couple. The premise of the forbidden love between a courtesan and the Mughal prince became an inspiration for many films and theatre productions over the years.

During the 1940s, there was talk of a certain film that would be titled Mughal-e-Azam. At the helm of this project was a then-young director K Asif; the film was being backed by noted producer Shiraz Ali Hakeem. The film starred Chandra Mohan as Emperor Akbar, DK Sapru as Saleem, and Nargis as Anarkali. It went on the floors in 1946, but as fate would have it, Hakeem had to move to Pakistan after Partition and the film was shelved indefinitely.

It was then that the Bombay-based real estate firm Shapoorji Pallonji came into the picture. With no roots in cinema, the firm decided to back K Asif's Mughal-e-Azam. With that, the stakes rose unprecedentedly high; the film's scale and budget soared to Rs 1.5 crore (much beyond the norm in those days, where films were made within Rs 10-20 lakh). For many years, Mughal-e-Azam was considered the most expensive film ever made in India.

Deepesh Salgia, who handles creative and strategic vision — Shapoorji Pallonji, says, "Right from the 1950s when the film came to Shapoorji Pallonji, it was never considered a financial investment. It was always for the cause of art and culture. Financing a project worth Rs 1.5 crore in those days could never be an investment; it was just a way to facilitate K Asif's vision."

Mughal-e-Azam: Before and after colouring. Facebook/ Mughal-e-Azam

Mughal-e-Azam: Before and after colouring. Facebook/ Mughal-e-Azam

Asif wanted to make the entire film in colour, but his dream couldn't be fulfilled due to budgetary and time constraints. Mughal-e-Azam was released in black and white, only four out of 20 reels of the film could be made in colour. Later, in 2004, the film was developed in colour and re-released — thus bringing Asif's original vision of the film to fruition.

In 2016, noted playwright and filmmaker Feroz Abbas Khan embarked on a journey to revisit Asif's film via theatre.

Khan realised the essential structure of the film was theatrical and was a byproduct of our collective cultural imagination. The director within him resolved that if he indeed undertook a big project, it could only be Mughal-e-Azam. "I thought unless I challenge myself and (risk) monumental failure perhaps, then there may not be (as much) personal growth or there may not be something special that comes up. Hence, I decided, 'Let me court a failure.'"

And that's how his iconic production — Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical — came to existence. In the two years since 2016, wherever the play has been staged, the feedback has been unanimously and equivocally 'splendid'.

He has staged the play in the Broadway format with actors singing live on stage. All the songs from the film — especially 'Pyaar Kiya To Darna Kya', 'Mohe Panghat Me Nandlal' among many others — have been included in the play as well. That is also a major highlight of the whole production. Audiences seem enamoured by how the actors can act, sing, dance — all at the same time.

Still from Feroz Abbas Khan's Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical. YouTube screengrab

Still from Feroz Abbas Khan's Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical. YouTube screengrab

Abbas uses double casting for his pivotal characters namely — Akbar, Saleem and Anarkali — who work in cyclical order. While it is undoubtedly a daunting task to essay characters that have attained legendary status and the idea of replacing them is absolutely unfathomable, Abbas manages to give the characters fresh appeal.

He says, "Lot of my collaborators had no reference to the original; they brought their own freshness into the play. So now we have a Mughal-e-Azam, which continues to remain Mughal-e-Azam in its essence and spirit and yet looks and sounds new. That was a huge challenge for me."

With costumes by Manish Malhotra, choreography by Mayuri Upadhyay, light designing by David Landers, set design by Neil Patel and projection design by John Narun, Feroz Abbas Khan's play is nothing short of an exhilarating experience — both for the eyes and the soul.

Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical is staged at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai.

Also read on Firstpost: Mughal-e-Azam, and the danger of adapting films too closely and faithfully for the stage

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 18:50:50 IST

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