Feroz Abbas Khan’s musical play, Mughal-e-Azam, has revived a classic of Hindi cinema and won critical acclaim as a theatrical masterpiece in its own right. He speaks to Ritika Raj.
Q. Your musical play, Mughal-e-Azam, has been well received by critics. In 2017, it won seven out of the 14 Broadway World India Awards, including awards in Best Play, Best Director and Best Costume Design categories. How did the accolades that came your way make you feel? And did you expect this kind of response?
A. Well, two days before the premiere show I believed that this was going to damage me and my career irreparably. I have gone through so much, trying to get this production realised that all the accolades sound unreal. It is sinking in slowly that I, along with my choreographer, Mayuri Upadhyay; costume designer, Manish Malhotra; production designer, Neil Patel; lighting designer, David Lander; projection designer, John Narun; and sound engineer, Richard Novell, have created something very special.
Q. When you first decided to adapt the film into a play, did you also think about ways to make the storyline more relevant for a younger audience?
A. I have not done anything deliberately to make it relevant for a younger audience. This is a timeless love story of two star-crossed lovers and the young identify with the joy and agony of love. The storyline itself is very appealing and real to audiences across age groups, and coupled with the grandeur of the production, it gives a larger-than-life feel to the narrative that touches a chord with everyone.
Q. The original Mughal-E-Azam, by K. Asif, was itself inspired by a play called Anarkali, written in 1922 by the Lahore-based dramatist Imtiaz Ali Taj. Likewise, the story has been performed several times in different forms. So what was the reference point for you?
A. Yes, I did read the original play and have seen the film version of Anarkali, but my reference point was actually K. Asif’s monumental film. It is a gem and the script should be taught in our schools as literature. The theatre production is a tribute to his genius and we are merely carrying forward the legacy.
Q. What inspired you to adapt the story into a musical?
A. Since it had its roots in theatre and the structure was also very theatrical, it was easy to adapt it for the stage. The sheer audacity and scale of the original film inspired me.
Q. How difficult was the casting process for the play? Because acting and singing live at the same time can be very challenging.
A. This was the most challenging part and at times I thought I may have to either postpone it indefinitely or scrap the project. We were just very lucky to get some outstanding female talent in Priyanka Barve and Neha Sargam for Anarkali, and Pratibha Singh Baghel and Aashima Mahajan who play the role of Bahar—all of whom could sing, dance, act and were beautiful. I was not looking for replicas of movie stars but original actors with very unique voices and talent. I am elated to have found such a perfect mix for the cast of this grand musical.
Q. You are now coming to the national capital for the third time. Do you think the cultural value and historical significance of the play have contributed towards making its audience bigger each time?
A. I think the play has affected the audiences deeply and being a period piece, it allows them to be transported and experience the magic of that era. It cuts across caste, religion and even regions. The historical significance of Mughal-e-Azam lies in its spirit of celebrating the composite culture of our country. This is not just true of the play in India, but also around the globe. The musical received tremendous love and appreciation from audiences in Dubai, Malaysia and Singapore.
Q. Lighting, production, choreography—everything is on point in this Broadway-style musical. How long did it take you to build the team and then how long did the whole project take from beginning to end?
A. It took us about 16 weeks to get the entire team together, which includes 10 weeks of rehearsals. I went to Shapoorji Pallonji to seek permission for a theatrical version but they decided to produce it. Deepesh Salgia gave the strategic vision and roadmap that helped us navigate through very rough patches. Rapid Waters [a production company] brought their huge experience of handling mammoth theatricals even as we had extensive auditions and finally found the right actors. Rehearsals were rigorous and there were too many moving parts that needed to come together to make this a seamless production. A combination of hard work, luck and some magic got everything together. I still can’t figure out how it happens but it happens each time.
Q. What role do you think theatre plays as far as cultural dissemination is concerned?
A. An idea travels far and deep. It influences other cultures and is also influenced by it. At the heart of theatre, is an idea of the common destiny of the human race that is bursting with possibilities to provide a rare insight into the world around us and the lives we live. It operates seamlessly on the social, political and personal level, engaging the audience in a collective conversation with no holds barred. Theatre has been a great cultural disseminator for centuries.
Q. What do you think is the relevance of theatre in light of the emergence of newer mediums like online streaming?
A. Live performances are attracting huge audiences across the world and India is no exception. The digital medium has not only compressed the size of the image but facilitated its availability on most devices and platforms. You truly have the world in your palm, yet it is technology and that cannot replace the exhilaration and excitement of a live theatre performance. Theatre has existed for over 5,000 years, flourished and remains relevant despite the onslaught of technologies and new media. This will continue to grow and be more revered as the times evolve.
Q. Do you think we need to invest (production-wise, resource-wise) more in musicals like Mughal-e-Azam to fully realise the potential of this medium? And where do you think we are lacking, both as an audience and as an industry?
A. We need to invest in original writing, and train actors for the stage. We need technical expertise and well-equipped theatres that are especially designed for big productions. We do have a huge audience that is looking for quality theatre experiences and narratives and is willing to reward such originality and quality.