HT EXCLUSIVE: Mughal E Azam comes alive on stage this October

Anubhuti Matta, Mumbai: Remember the Sheesh Mahal, Emperor Akbar’s mirrored hall that took your breath

away in the 1960 film Mughal-E-Azam? Now imagine it in real life, right in front of you – mirrors everywhere, and multiple reflections of girls swirling in colourful kurtas, executing their kathak movies in unison.
On October 21, Mughal-E-Azam, the doomed love story of Prince Salim and the courtesan Anarkali , will debut as a Broadway-style musical at the National Centre For The Performing Arts. It brings with it lavish costumes, roaring monologues, original and new songs performed live, and yes, the Sheesh Mahal.
The play, directed by Feroz Abbas Khan (who also directed the hit plays Tumhari Amrita and Mahatma vs Gandhi), is aiming to painstakingly recreate the film on stage and take it a step further. There will be six songs originally composed by Naushad, plus two new numbers created for the show. The 120 member cast and crew has been brought in from across India. And while the film’s director K Asif sourced the original costumes from Agra, Hyderabad and Surat, Khan’s play has roped in designer Manish Malhotra for the outfits, Emmy-nominated projection designer John Narun, award-winning lighting director David Lander.
The play’s ties to the film go further than what you’ll see on stage. Construction company, Shapoorji Pallonji, which produced the film 56 years ago, is co-producing the musical, along with the NCPA.For Khan, the play is a dream 14 years in the making; 2002 is when the film was digitally colourised and released to a new generation of viewers. “It was difficult to manage resources then—money, venue, cast and crew,” he says. “But now, the audience is also ready to experience theatre in more than just a small, informal setting.”
Today’s audience prefers younger, fitter actors too. Khan’s musical features a younger, slimmer Anarkali and a much leaner Salim than their celluloid counterparts. The cast details are still under wraps, but Khan says that auditions for a part immortalised by Madhubala were not easy. “She had to be beautiful, a singer, a kathak dancer and most importantly someone who knew how to act and emote,” says Khan.
He was also clear that he didn’t want a Bollywood choreographer. “I wanted authenticity,” Khan says. He found what he wanted in choreographer Mayuri Upadhya, founder of Bengaluru’s Nritarutya Dance Collective. For Upadhya, the opportunity was too good to pass up. “Who wouldn’t want to be associated with the most successful movie of its time, with dance driving the script?” she asks. Dancers have been roped in from Gujarat and Indore and come from different gharanas and age groups.
Khan is well aware of the pressure he’s under to create a work that stands against a film that remained among the top grossers a full 15 years after its release. Does it matter that historians believe Anarkali may never have existed at all? Will viewers be moved to tears over Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya or get goosebumps from Mohe Panghat Main? “With this venture, the nation’s feelings will be at stake,” he says.
When: October 21 to November 1
Where: Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for Performing Arts, Nariman POint
Tickets: Rs 500 to Rs 7,500