Feroz Abbas Khan talks about living a dream with his play 'Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical'

Feroz Abbas Khan talks about living a dream with his play 'Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical'

It is returning to the stage in Mumbai after two years with 14 shows scheduled to take place between October 21 and 30 in Mumbai

NiveditaUpdated: Tuesday, October 18, 2022, 08:00 PM IST
article-image

Feroz Abbas Khan's 'Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical' is returning to the stage in Mumbai after two years with 14 shows scheduled to take place between October 21 and 30 in Mumbai. An ode to the classic 'Mughal-e-Azam' film, the musical is celebrating 62 years of the film and almost 100 years since 'Anarkali', the play that inspired the film was written. In an exclusive interaction with FPJ, the maker talks about how this edition is going to be unique and the casting process.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is going to be the highlight of the 60-year celebration of the original film?

There are going to be multiple celebrations of the film and of the spirit that created it. For us, it is also a matter of great joy that 'Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical' is back in Mumbai after two years of the pandemic. The celebration is of the film completing over 62 years since its release and almost 100 years since 'Anarkali', the play that inspired the film, was written. It is also the 100th birth anniversary of K Asif, the director of the film... so yes, this is a very special year. Now that the worst is hopefully over, it is time to celebrate with a city that has gone through so much during the pandemic. We are looking forward to welcoming everyone back to the magic of live theatre once again.

With so many years of doing this play, how have you tried to keep the freshness alive with every edition?

'Mughal-E-Azam', the film, has so many visual and subliminal layers that in every season of our interpretation, we tend to discover something new. The script is a piece of literary genius and is awash with every possible shade of human behaviour and emotion. Every scene has a conflict and one rasa or the other. Hence, each time we perform the musical on stage, there is a renewed awareness of the richness of the material we are working with. Technically, of course, we tweak things a bit and make necessary changes in the production design and costumes. We try to refresh the choreography but the shell we work with remains the same. The content is so strong that we don't want the form to overpower it. How can you improve upon a line like, "kaanton ko murjhane ka khauf nahin hota!"

Feroz Abbas Khan

Feroz Abbas Khan |

Tell us about the thought process behind casting the actors for all seasons. 

There has been no change in the cast for this season of Mughal e Azam The Musical. In 'Mughal-e-Azam', casting had two aspects. The first challenge was to find actors who can act and also sing live. It's not that we don't have singing talent, but sometimes singers cannot be good actors. The two female protagonists, Anarkali and Bahaar, also had to be quite stunning, beautiful, and terrific singers. The other problem was finding talented people, who were willing to make a long commitment to the play. Theatre is unlike cinema or television and requires a lot of preparation, and rehearsals, and when we tour, we have to commit large chunks of time. These were some of the challenges. We had to go through a lot of auditions, etc, to just get the right people.

Did the film influence the choice of actors for the thought process?

We were, of course, not looking for another Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, or Nigar Sultana. That would have been unrealistic and impossible. We wanted actors who could be majestic and vulnerable. Actors who had the presence, the skill to sing and perform elaborate set pieces and to do justice to the essence of Akbar-e-Azam, Shehzada Salim, Anarkali, and Bahaar. So, the quest was to find gifted actors who could commit to months of punishing rehearsals and an entire season of shows in India and abroad. None of them mimicked the stars of the film but interpreted their characters truthfully and earnestly.

A KNOTTY TALE

What prompted you to choose Mughal-E-Azam as a play adaptation?

The thought first came to me when I saw the coloured version of 'Mughal-E-Azam' in 2004 with Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh in Hyderabad. While watching the film, it struck me that the film was essentially a piece of theatre and was performed as such. The influence of Parsi theatre, especially in the period films of that time, was quite obvious. I was also overwhelmed by the power of writing. The dialogues seemed to thrum with a life of their own. It was there that I thought the film could be adapted into a play and decided to go in a completely different direction from the kind of work I normally do. I wanted to do something that challenged me. And, what could be more difficult than trying to pay a tribute to K Asif's sweeping, grand vision? The sheer impossibility of the ideas drew me to it.

Love as a concept has evolved and as a filmmaker, has that changed your thought process while executing this play?

Love in any epoch is tied to the political, economic, and social realities of the time and whether it is Mughal-E Azam, Devdas, Romeo and Juliet, or Tumhari Amrita... Every love story is a defiant assertion of individual agency and a cry for freedom in the face of overt and subtle oppression. Whether the love in question succeeds or not is a different matter. There is a marked progressive, anti-imperialist stance in 'Mughal-E Azam'. If you take away the sets and the costumes, you will find that songs like 'Zindabad, aye Mohabbat zindabad' and 'Pyar Kiya to Darna kya' could be the love anthems of any era.

A KNOTTY TALE

From film to play… tell us about the process and how difficult was it to execute?

'Mughal-E-Azam' as a musical could not have worked without a certain level of richness, complexity, and scale. Achieving the film-to-stage transition seamlessly was never going to be easy. The process of finding the resources, the talent, and even the venue with a fluid, movable stage that could support our vision was an uphill task. Add to that the responsibility of doing justice to the musicality, choreography, and production values of the film and we had set ourselves up for what seemed like inevitable failure. It became slightly possible to do this in 2016 because we now had a beautiful theatre in Mumbai and the technology could enable us to somewhat match the film’s scale. Fortunately, Shapoorji Pallonji, the original producer of the film, loved the concept and came on board to produce the musical.

Your play gives more prominence to the singing prowess of the leading lady than dance prowess when Anarkali was a dancer. Why?

Yes, Anarkali was a dancer and that's how she was portrayed in 'Mughal-E-Azam'. But we need to understand that even though it was Madhubala who danced in the film when she sang, it was in Lata Mangeshkar's voice. She was just lip-syncing and could dance only because she wasn't singing live. If she was singing live, then she would not have been able to dance. As most of our songs are classically based, we needed to strike a balance since the actor had to do both. Constant dancing will leave an actor with no breath to sing a song. It's a complicated process and that is why she dances very little. Since the play is a musical, that's where our emphasis has been.

Do you think it would have made a difference to produce this on a larger scale for an open-air theatre with more effects?

It's a good idea to have an open-air theatre. But then this show has been imagined as a Broadway show and even more important when we perform indoors, we can manage natural elements like weather, the quality of light, etc, better. We don't have enough open-air venues where we can perform without being disturbed by traffic and other noises. So at no point have I ever wanted to do a play of this scale in an open-air theatre.

A KNOTTY TALE

Do you think in today’s time, it's difficult to find love like Salim and Anarkali?

As I said before, love that does not comply or conform always has to deal with the social and political constructs of its time. Salim and Anarkali's love story was about class struggle and the dangers that come when two people from an unequal social status fall in love. The film asked why someone without all the trappings of power and privilege cannot fall in love and must always be expected to live within designated boundaries or limits. Anarkali pays a price for breaking the shackles. I guess, it is hard to be defiant even today and choose love over social and familial conditioning.

You have been associated with theatre for a long time. What do you think about the current trends in theatre?

Theatre, like any other art form, reflects the times it is made in and there will always be good, bad, and indifferent theatre. For me, it is important to not stagnate and continue exploring the power of theatre through stories that say something meaningful. 'Tumhari Amrita', for instance, had just two people sitting and reading letters. But, the audience was riveted and deeply moved because, at some level, the story spoke to us in a personal way. I, however, don't like to be defined by success, repeat myself, or get comfortable with my work. Success can be good for your career growth but it can also stunt you creatively. Hence, taking on challenges is important for anyone who is making art of any kind and not just theatre.

RECENT STORIES

Theatre Review: Nakalat Saare Ghadle, A 22-Year-Old Hit Play, Is Revived With A New Team

Theatre Review: Nakalat Saare Ghadle, A 22-Year-Old Hit Play, Is Revived With A New Team

Unearthing Ancient Secrets: Tracing Indian Rich Past Through Interesting Archaeological Finds

Unearthing Ancient Secrets: Tracing Indian Rich Past Through Interesting Archaeological Finds

Father’s Day 2024: From Ravana To Dronacharya, Learning Valuable Lessons From Fathers Of Indian...

Father’s Day 2024: From Ravana To Dronacharya, Learning Valuable Lessons From Fathers Of Indian...

Father’s Day 2024: Tabla Maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain Talks About His Late Father Ustad Allarakha

Father’s Day 2024: Tabla Maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain Talks About His Late Father Ustad Allarakha

Father’s Day 2024: 6 Celebrities Share Their Favorite Father Characters From Films

Father’s Day 2024: 6 Celebrities Share Their Favorite Father Characters From Films