“Shehenshah ki inn behisaab bakhshishon ke badle, yeh kaneez Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar ko apna khoon maaf karti hai (In return for the Emperor’s boundless benefactions, this courtesan forgives Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar for her murder),” declares Anarkali with much poise in playwright and director Feroz Abbas Khan’s stage adaptation of director K Asif’s iconic film Mughal-e-Azam. The audience at Jawaharlal Nehru stadium gasps and sighs at the execution of this poetic line. The hint of sarcasm with which the dialogue was delivered by Madhubala as Anarkali is missing but the heart is definitely in place. And that’s what makes Khan’s warm tribute to Asif’s epic worth a watch.
After successfully premiering in Mumbai last year, Khan’s production debuted in Delhi last week and will host 10 shows here.
Good things first. The art direction is inch-perfect. Khan has used traditional concepts of scene shifting, using screens to divide the stage for quick transitions. The traditional transitions have been combined with digital technology and 3D animation. Lighting and project design by Tony-nominated David Lander and Emmy-nominated John Narun results in some wondrous creations. Mayuri Upadhya’s choreography does not fail to impress. The kathak dancers, chosen from all across the country, choreographed by Upadhya and assisted by Gauri Diwakar, are a delight to watch as rhythm and concentrated footwork align with flashing spins and stops. Manish Malhotra’s costumes, loosely based on the original, give the grand sets enough colour for one’s eyes to dazzle. The songs are sung live along the tracks in the background.
Pune-based classical singer Priyanka Barve portrays the celebrated role of Anarkali. But she sings better. The murkis and harkats of some superbly tough Naushad compositions are spot on. The other singer on stage, Bahar, ably performs Nigar Sultana’s role but is off key on many occasions, a reminder of how hard it is to get Shamshad Begum’s style right. We missed the grammar of silence in Salim’s (Sunil Palwal) gait, the command over his words, while Akbar portrayed by Nissar Khan didn’t present the majesty needed for an emperor’s role.
Both the voices missed the intensity one expected. Two roles which drew us are that of the Santarash (sculptor), who is also the narrator, and Anarkali’s younger friend Suraiya (Pallavi Jaiswal).
One of the most romantic scenes in the history of Indian cinema is in Asif’s film — a sequence without any dialogue and involving a feather. One cannot forget Salim and Anarkali’s lovelorn eyes, and Prem jogan ban ke, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s seminal piece in raag Sohini followed by raga Lalit, playing in the backdrop. Khan’s production does not include the piece. Instead, it invents a dream sequence where Salim and Anarkali get married to the sounds of Amir Khusrau’s Aye ri sakhi. Khan tells us that he cannot create the iconic scene on the stage. “You need the camera to capture those expressions. Here, people are watching from a distance,” he says. The famed Pyar kiya toh darna kya, with slight tweaks, is charming. We appreciate that it does not replicate the original and finds a space of its own.
Mughal-e-Azam, the film, with all its grandeur and stories around it, is a slice of history from Indian cinema that is etched in our memory. It seems to be imprinted in Khan’s too.