Some movies make history. Mughal-e-Azam (1960), directed by K Asif, is one of them. The movie is a veritable musical in its own right with memorable music by the great music director Naushad Ali. Everything about the movie was about scale – from its team to its production and design. Now a stage musical of the mega film, directed by Feroz Abbas Khan is making news, and for the right reasons. It’s a brilliant stroke to re-imagine it on stage, but it also requires a certain tenacity and astuteness to dare it.
This co-production by Shapoorji Pallonji (who hold the rights to the film) and by the National Centre of the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai is a spectacle first and foremost. It is likely to leave you dazzled at every shift in scene. The design is simply splendid but what is more commendable about it is its careful art research thus augmenting the aesthetics of the Mughal period. Scene-shifting scenery is in the old tradition of Parsi Urdu theatre, and the ‘Sangeet Natak’, but the technology, which is now available, is sophisticated with the added bonus of digital technology. The production therefore is as smooth as butter and flawless. It is no doubt credit to the director for ensuring thus. The high degree of professionalism is clearly important for productions of this magnitude.
The abiding need for accuracy and detail permeates all levels and is an absolute bonus for the overwhelming scenery, light design and choreography – the bulwarks of this stunning enterprise. The set design has been cleverly managed as well; its filigreed facade remains constant with all the changes happening behind, thus creating a great illusion of different spaces within the fort and the palace.
Spectacle however rarely translates into theatre. The actors use microphones – an immediate giveaway and while the director has with purpose kept away from grand gesture and declamation (thankfully), most of the performances tend to be one-dimensional and monochromatic. Underplay may diminish the effects of possible overplay but can be curtailing and charmless. The actors are all very ‘proper’ even in their most sentimental moments. The decision appears deliberate, and is not without its merits in a landscape where it’s easy to be theatrical, especially in a love story that has been immortalized in film. It is also with the same purpose perhaps why only the choreographer Mayuri Upadhyay and costume designer Manish Malhotra’s names find greater prominence in the publicity along with the director’s. The actors have presence and flair but they are minisculed by the imposing backdrop. The dancers stand out as desired with their superb dancing.
These are choices, and it is clear that the makers of this production know what they want – to amaze and to overawe. They do that with elan, especially in instances like the legendary ‘Sheesh Mahal’ setting with its famous, provocative song Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya. All the singing is live.