In what is an ambitious venture for the Indian stage, K. Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam is now a stage musical directed by Feroz Abbas Khan. Presented by the original producers of the 1960 film — real-estate magnates Shaporjee-Pallonji — in association with the National Centre of the Performing Arts, the first public shows were held last week at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. The play has inherited Naushad’s classic soundtrack and Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics, with their wonderfully redolent songs sung live on stage to a pre-recorded orchestral and choral score. The high-flown Urdu dialogues from the original also persist, still falling wonderfully on the ears, even if comprehension isn’t entirely a given any more. For that, a watered-down English translation is projected on screens on either side of the stage. Khan’s version is rich in period flavour and spectacle, while grappling with the difficulties of staging a screen musical of such legendary proportions.

The bewitching arias of languishing love performed by Priyanka Barve as Anarkali present one such conundrum. For instance, in the film, the doleful ballad Bekas pe karam kijiye benefits from a compelling ‘dual persona’ of actor and playback singer. Lata Mangeshkar’s vocals are possessed of a melancholia that added volumes to Madhubala’s emoting. Anarkali as a paragon of suffering comes extravagantly alive. Yet, Mangeshkar’s beautifully straightforward singing is never given to the melodic (or even melodramatic) excesses that one might find in operatic arias in works like Verdi’s La Traviata or Puccini’s Suor Angelica, or in power ballads performed so feistily by Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. Those numbers are supremely effective on the stage for which they have been conceived. Here, the song, although mellifluously performed by a resplendent Barve, stays resolutely in the realm of a good rendition, and carries little dramatic import. This isn’t completely out of order in a production perhaps meant as a homage more than anything else, yet it does beg the question of how indeed can such subtleties of film musicality be effectively transported to the stage without losing its emotional heft, or its contribution to a classic tale’s narrative arc.

Quite interestingly, Khan provides a solution himself in his handling of the show-stopping Pyar kiya toh darna kya, which is overlaid by effective choreographic choices by Mayuri Upadhya.There is a digital backdrop of the Sheesh Mahal that one doesn’t care much for, and symmetrical glass mirrors suspended in the air, yet it is the dance ensemble that accompanies Barve that truly brings alive the song’s grandeur and innate conflicts. As in the original, the song is preceded by a rousing Kathak set-piece by Anarkali. Then, before Barve can launch into her opening interlude, a bevy of dancers surround her like mocking peacocks, the tintinnabulation of their ringing feet goading her to the challenge of openly professing her love for the prince, Salim, before the emperor Akbar himself. The dancers stand in as Anarkali’s own reflections, that Asif had presented so memorably in the arrays of crystal prisms that made up his Sheesh Mahal. Here, the dancers’ costumes slowly change from seething dark colors to Anarkali’s own radiant white and red, which is another excellent metaphoric touch. As the steadfast centre of this melodic universe, Barve impressively holds her own and it is in her ensemble numbers that Mughal-e-Azam touches its high points. While the enactment of Jab raat hai aisi matwaali isn’t quite as impressive, Mohe panghat pe’s bejewelled gopis are so full of vim and expressiveness that one can disregard the pots of water disingenuously affixed on their heads by garish red bands.

One could perhaps not be faulted to presume that Naushad’s monumental melodies would be the mainstay of a stage musical, yet Mughal-e-Azam’s heavy-duty drama and its overarching theme of a forceful love pitted against filial loyalty calls into service a commitment to a special kind of histrionics. In the film, archetypal characters inhabited by larger-than-life screen legends like Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar delivered a pitch-perfect melodrama that was overwrought only in patches. Khan’s leading men contend with similarly lacquered emotions that they are hard pressed to effectively amplify on stage. Sunil Kumar Palwal as Salim certainly offers up a well-modulated vocal performance. Indeed, with stage amplification well provided for in this production, the actors aren’t required to throw their voices to assuage each attendee in the upper stalls, so there are nuances to be picked up in Palwal’s turn. Yet his hold on his character’s physical deportment is much more inflexible, and doesn’t quite deliver the swashbuckler that one might expect. We are offered moral rectitude and a stoic composure instead of the irreverent dynamism and fire-bellied derring-do more in keeping with Salim’s rebellious streak. Similarly, Nissar Khan’s Akbar is grandly accoutered in the darbar scenes but his stage presence and delivery remains underwhelming, reminding us how this version of Mughal-e-Azam inherits much of the original’s bombast, but very little of its gravitas. As narrator, however, Rajesh Jais provides the production a quiet dignity.

Ultimately, the women hold the production together, given that they are the winsome custodians of its music. Barve’s singing is solid, and she is calmly effective in her dramatic scenes. Palvi Jaiswal as Anarkali’s playful friend, Suraiya, is quite the scene stealer, while Ashima Mahajan as the conniving lady-in-waiting, Bahar, chips in a satisfying turn. Yet, the paper-thin characterizations of regal women that plagued the original — of Akbar’s lachrymose queen, Jodha Bai; of Anarkali herself, whose defiance is limited to a single song; and of the one-dimensional Bahar — appear even more anachronistic here, as does the array of fair-complexioned faces that populate the otherwise wonderful kathak ensemble, adding a touch of regressiveness that we are so easily inured to. Khan’s brief was perhaps not that of a re-imagining, and he has delivered a faithful reenactment that is a solid outing in its own right.

Mughal-e-Azam plays at the NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre till 1 November. Show timings and ticket bookings are available on bookmyshow.com. Tickets are priced from Rs500 to Rs7,500

Close