Feroz Abbas Khan’s Mughal-e-Azam The Musical, an adaptation of K Asif’s classic film from 1960, is back on the stage after a gap of nearly three years. The last time the lavish production held a show was in January 2020, but it was then forced into a break by the coronavirus pandemic.

Mughal-e-Azam The Musical is in its sixth year. Produced by Shapoorji Pallonji Group, which also bankrolled K Asif’s hugely expensive film, the visually spectacular play stays faithful to its source material.

David Lander’s lighting design, the three-dimensional backdrops and Manish Malhotra’s costumes transport Asif’s sumptuous vision to the stage. At the same time, the mellifluous cadences of the original Urdu dialogue, Naushad’s timeless score and the profound lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni have been retained. Anarkali’s role is alternated between Neha Sargam and Priyanka Barve. As the actors twirl to Mayuri Upadhay’s choreography, they perform the songs made famous by Lata Mangeshkar.

The play is returning at a time of rampant Islamophobia and vigorous attempts by the Hindu Right-wing to negate and recast the contributions of Mughals to Indian history. Asif’s period epic is based on the legend of the courtesan Anarkali, who captures the heart of Mughal emperor Akbar’s son Salim. Akbar’s refusal to accept Anarkali, her gentle defiance, and Salim’s rebellion against his father set up a three-way contest punctuated by fiery dialogue and song-and-dance sequences.

Asif’s film, adapted from Imtiaz Ali Taj’s 1922 play Anarkali, had been in development since the late 1940s. Mughal-e-Azam contains the narrative conventions of the Parsi theatre tradition, which includes declamatory dialogue and musical interludes, said Feroz Abbas Khan, a theatre veteran whose plays include Tumhari Amrita, Saalgirah and Salesman Ramlal.

For Khan, the musical represented an opportunity to go back to the film’s roots in theatre. Asif’s labour of love contains every one of the elements that a musical needs to succeed, Khan told Scroll.in.

Mughal-e-Azam The Musical. Courtesy Shapoorji Pallonji Group.

What sparked the idea of converting ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ into a stage production?
When I thought of doing a production of this kind, I felt that Mughal-e-Azam just fits that bill. It’s got a terrific story, it has excellent writing that is almost a piece of literature and then it has scale.

More importantly, the film has its roots in theatre. The play Anarkali has been adapted into films several times before. The film’s structure and performances were from Parsi theatre, where dialogue is for the effect of dialogue, for instance. It was easy enough to adapt the film as a theatre piece. But it still needed the scale of a production in terms of its imagination and impact. I had to be somewhere close to the original, although you can never be close to the original.

The screenplay is extremely dramatic. It reads beautifully even as a text, but it also has everything you need in theatre writing. It’s word perfect. There isn’t a word that is unnecessary or out of place or that jars. It’s one of those magical things that happens once in decades.

The other most important thing are the lyrics and music, which are simply brilliant. It is the perfect album. All the songs are unforgettable, and are beautifully woven into the narrative, which was also the case in Parsi theatre. Nowadays, the stories have changed and music isn’t organic to films anymore.

The music, the lyrics, the dream cast of Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote – that’s why the film remains an all-time great.

Mughal-e-Azam The Musical. Courtesy Shapoorji Pallonji Group.

What explains the enduring appeal of ‘Mughal-e-Azam’?
The film, which I don’t take literally as history, has eternal themes. It did a couple of things. It made Salim into an almost representative voice of the masses. People were marginalised and wanted a share of the resources of the country that had been squandered by colonial powers or other interested parties. Akbar has the space for only duty, while Salim says that love is greater than anything else.

You have Anarkali challenging the might of an empire. She is one of the strongest and most empowered women characters. And you have Jodha as Akbar’s wife, whom he deeply respects – all these at a time when we were a young nation that had recently gone away from colonialism.

Jodha and Akbar are together in a nation soon after Partition, which is looking for healing. The film addresses secularism, gender, colonialism and the voice of the masses. It does so very cleverly, in a way in which the audiences can identify with its themes.

For instance, the writers created the character of the sculptor, who is a rebel. In my play, he is the narrator who threads the play together. K Asif did something else that was interesting – he gave the story a happy ending. Mughal-e-Azam is a wholesome film that doesn’t exclude anybody. You don’t go back depressed. Maybe Salim and Anarkali meet again, who knows?

Mughal-e-Azam The Musical. Courtesy Shapoorji Pallonji Group.

The play retains the original Urdu dialogue written by Kamal Amrohi, Wajahat Mirza, Ehsan Rizvi and Amanullah Khan.
Among the attractions of the film is the purity of the language. The film has chaste Urdu dialogue, which can be a challenge, but I didn’t want to dilute it. We have also provided English translations that are projected on screens on either side of the stage and provide a gist of the dialogue.

There is something about the magic of the sound of language. For instance, it isn’t necessary to understand many spiritual songs, whether it is Vedic chants or Gregorian chants or the azaan. The sound alone can have a deep impact.

There is also much more happening in the show. It’s extremely modern in its presentation, so that works.

Feroz Abbas Khan.