Regal Theatre: ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ Is A Slick But Dispassionate Stage Version Of The Classic Film

Mughal-e-AzamDirector: Feroz Abbas Khan
Cast: Nissar Khan, Priyanka Barve/Neha Sargam, Sunil Kumar Palwal/Dhanveer Singh, Rajesh Jais, Ashima Mahajan, Sonal Jha/Bhargavi Chirmuley.

The first impression of Mughal-e-Azam is that it seems to have been directed by a drill sergeant. There’s military precision in the frequent set changes and the transitions between scenes. This is impressive on two counts: Mughal-e-Azam is an elaborate production and it’s Feroz Abbas Khan’s first musical. The director is known largely for plays involving one or two principle actors. Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai, which is currently running, is a monologue by Anupam Kher. Mahatma vs Gandhi hinged on the relationship between Gandhi and his son Harilal, and his most well-known drama Tumhari Amrita had a stationary Shabana Azmi and Farooque Sheikh reading out letters. On the other hand Mughal-e-Azam has, in addition to a sizeable main and supporting cast, a large corps of kathak dancers.

The play, the second produced by the National Centre for the Performing Arts this year, is a grand spectacle, which is exactly what the institution hopes to achieve with its home productions. In August, it put out an opulent musical on Gandhi. Mughal-e-Azam is a slick stage version of K. Asif’s eponymous 1960 movie with polished sets and lighting showing the baroque interior of a Mughal palace, the romantic ramparts at dusk, a gloomy prison, and warring armies on a battlefield framed by the setting sun. The costumes, designed by Manish Malhotra, are rich and shimmer with gold embellishment. The narrative is interspersed with songs from the film and well-executed kathak choreography by Madhuri Upadhya. It’s impossible not to be charmed by dancers whirling, their brocade skirts fanning out, and executing fancy, ghungroo-ringing footwork.

The narrative will be familiar to anyone who has watched the film. Saleem (Sunil Kumar Palwal/Dhanveer Singh), the son of emperor Akbar (Nissar Khan), is in love with the courtesan Anarkali (Priyanka Barve/Neha Sargam). Naturally Akbar disapproves, prompting Saleem to rebel and ultimately go to war against his father. What the play lacks is the pathos and depth of feeling produced by any good melodrama. K. Asif’s movie is a classic of the genre, capable of wringing a wide register of emotion from joy to lachrymal reactions. The emphasis in Khan’s drama seems to be more on efficient stage management than performance.

There’s often a robotic quality to the way lines are delivered. Dramatic proclamations such as “Now that you’ve wiped the sindoor off my forehead, you will have to replace it with Saleem’s blood” are spoken without the stirring feeling they deserve. This is doubly disappointing as the dialogue is written in ear-pleasing Urdu. (English subtitles are helpfully screened.) Yet the audience might leave satisfied. The show we attended was filled with folks who’d come to listen to the songs, a number of which are Hindi film classics such as “More Panghat Pe”, Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya” and “Teri Mehfil Mein Kismat”. This was obvious as many crooned along with the actors, who ably sang the songs.

Mughal-e-Azam will be staged on Tuesday, November 1 at 4pm and 7.30pm at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Nariman Point. Tel: 022 2282 4567. Get directions here. Tickets priced at Rs500, Rs1,000, Rs2,000, Rs3,000, Rs4,000, Rs5,000 and Rs7,500 per person are being sold on Bookmyshow.com. The play will return in January 2016.

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