When he first saw Mughal-e-Azam, filmmaker Feroz Abbas Khan was just a child. It was part of family tradition to go for an outing to the local theatre every Eid and relive the ecstasy, beauty and tragedy that characterise the classic. Khan confessed he would always be bawling by the end.
“I felt such a deep sense of injustice for Anarkali,” he says, adding, “As a child, you just feel what happens to her is so wrong. What had she done to deserve such a fate? Can the price for love really be so high?” Now, as a tribute to Mughal-e-Azam and the place the film holds in his life, Khan is bringing the love story to the stage.
It will not be an easy task. Directed by K Asif and produced by Shapoorji Pallonji, who is financing the play as well, Mughal-e-Azam was a milestone in Indian cinema. Set in the 16th century, it tells the tragic love story of Salim, the son of Mughal emperor Akbar, and Anarkali, a courtesan who caught Salim’s eye. Against his father’s wishes, Salim declares to marry Anarkali; Akbar denies him and they go to war. When it was released in 1960, critics praised it unanimously.
The movie’s budget, revised multiple times, was an unheard of Rs 10-15 million. Every detail of the sets, jewellery and costumes was scrutinised to match the era’s ideal of grandeur and beauty. The set of the famed song Jab pyar kiya to darna kya, for instance, which was played out in a replica of the Sheesh Mahal (in Lahore), took two years to build and cost as much as an entire movie’s production at the time.
Khan says that year after year of watching it added layers of memories for him. “The tradition of watching the film passed down generations,” he says. But now, with the decline of single-screen theatres, Khan is not sure the tradition will last. That’s part of what prompted him to take up what he knows best — theatre direction — and turn the film into a play. Some previous plays that Khan has directed include Gandhi, My Father, Tumhari Amrita and Salesman Ramlal.
With costumes designed by Manish Malhotra, production design by Obie winner Neil Patel, projection design by Emmy award-nominee John Narun, and lighting design by Tony award nominee David Lander, the stage version seems to have all it takes to be a fitting tribute to Mughal-e-Azam. Eight tracks of the 12 from the film will be played out in song-and-dance sequences on the stage. The one thing Khan has kept in mind is to be respectful to the memories people have of the film. “I hope I will add a few more memories to those who have watched the original,” he says.