All the world's a stage

All the worlds a stage

K Asif's classic Mughal-e-Azam was recently adapted into a highly successful and lavish play. Will this usher in a new season for Indian theatre?



by

Khalid Mohamed

Published: Thu 17 Nov 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 18 Nov 2016, 1:00 AM

A  theatre event of an unusual kind stunned Mumbai audiences this month. Unusual, because it was a lavish and faithful adaptation of the K Asif classic Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Despite widespread apprehension that the film - toplining Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala - could be ruined in its stage version, the show (lasting almost two hours and 45 minutes) proved that theatre and cinema can be compatible - thanks to deft direction, excellent choreography, set design, costumes and an inspired ensemble cast consisting of mostly little-known actors.
Conceived as a Broadway-style musical, the play, also titled Mughal-e-Azam, will now travel to New Delhi, Dubai and other global venues. Indeed, Feroz Abbas Khan, the 56-year-old theatre and film director, playwright and screenwriter, was startled by the overwhelming response to his creation.
"Imagine, tickets for every show sold out in less than a couple of hours after the announcement!" he said, soon after his last show in Mumbai. "And, every evening, we have been rewarded with a standing ovation. Now, of course, we have to travel with the production to as many cities in India as possible, as well as overseas."
Made feasible by producers Shapoorji Pallonji, in association with the National Centre for the Performing Arts, the result is an excellent example of showmanship on Indian stage, which has often fallen short of international standards due to financial constraints.
By and large, theatre artistes, directors and technicians work for the stage out of sheer idealism and their passion for extending their artistry. For instance, Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi appear on stage regularly - never mind that they could be far more gainfully employed before the movie camera.
To a degree, Feroz Abbas Khan has straddled both worlds. Known mainly as the director of high-quality plays such as Tumhari Amrita, Saalgirah, Salesman Ramlal and Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi, he went on to helm the film Gandhi, My Father, produced by actor Anil Kapoor, and the indie Dekh Tamasha Dekh, a political satire. Neither attempt attained the class of his stage plays though, compelling him to return to theatre with his most ambitious project to date.
A tribute to K Asif's masterwork, the play has retained most of the songs composed by Naushad Ali for the film, as well as the dialogue and narrative structure. A strong note of nostalgia was struck as a recorded voice-over by Lata Mangeshkar - who crooned the unforgettable Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya number, among others - endorsed the theatrical adaptation.
The musical outlay of the original songs has been updated but, gratifyingly, the additional instrumentals did not come off as jarring remixes. In addition, the songs were rendered 'live' on stage by the actors. That entailed prolonged rehearsals for over a year and a half. Marvellously, there weren't any glitches during the show - neither in the renditions of the songs and dance numbers nor in the intricate lighting schemes and changes in elaborate set designs.
In fact, the musical portions of the play were infinitely superior to the dialogue-centric stretches, which did tend to drag towards the latter half. Inevitable, perhaps. After all, the emotional charge which the film's actors invested into their performances can never ever be equalled. Like it or not, lovers of Indian cinema's most valued epic blockbuster had to remind themselves that comparisons are strictly odious.
The story of courtesan Anarkali - whose romance with Prince Salim outraged his father Shahenshah Akbar, threatening the very foundations of the Mughal empire - is a timeless one. Before Mughal-e-Azam, the story had been recounted in Anarkali (1953), featuring Mubarak, Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai. Over time, ballads in various Indian languages have also narrated the immortal love story.
Feroz Abbas Khan's stage version is remarkable for bringing to the fore the mastery of choreographer Mayuri Upadhya. Taking a break from Bollywood, Manish Malhotra's costumes were surprisingly inventive and eye-dazzling. And Priyanka Bannerjee, who portrayed Anarkali poignantly, using her own voice for the songs, surely deserves to be introduced to the Bollywood screen.
Chances are that the aesthetic and commercial success of Mughal-e-Azam on stage will spark a trend of more film-to-stage adaptations. Nothing wrong with that in principle, of course. Yet such a venture requires several elements: a certain regard and respect for the original, a visionary director, a cast and technical crew of exceptional talent - and, not to forget, enlightened financiers.
Not everyone can luck out on such essentials. Feroz Abbas Khan has, asserting that theatre se pyaar kiya to darna kya (nothing to fear if you love theatre)?
wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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