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Mughal-e-Azam on screen and stage

The staged 'Mughal-e-Azam' showed creativity in dealing with the 'big' moments. It recognized its limitations, trusted the audience's familiarity with the source material, and allowed us to use our imaginations at key moments

Neha Sargam as Anarkali in the play ‘Mughal-e-Azam’.
Neha Sargam as Anarkali in the play ‘Mughal-e-Azam’.

We had good seats, near the front, in the auditorium, but Maharani Jodha Bai still looked diminutive. Seated on the extreme left and close to the stage, she prayed aloud to a Krishna statue, speaking half to her god and half to herself, trembling in anticipation of seeing her grown-up son Salim after years.

Meanwhile, from the shadows on the far right of the ornate set, the prince emerged, slowly made his way down a stairway and across the stage, came up behind his mother, and gently said the word she was yearning to hear: “Ma".

Elegant as this scene was, it was one of the few moments in Feroz Abbas Khan’s magnificently ambitious theatre production Mughal-e-Azam—a tribute to K. Asif’s classic 1960 film—where I felt underwhelmed. The two people on the stage seemed small and distant, too removed from us to do full justice to this grand reunion. In my mind’s eye, a very different scene was unspooling: the look on Durga Khote’s beautiful, expressive face—seen in extreme close-up—as she played the queen on screen, while Dilip Kumar, every feature of his side profile visible, strode regally up to her in medium shot.

But then, the team that brought this production to life probably expected their audience to have some associations with the film. Which is one thing that made watching it such an unusual experience.

Indian cinema has famously derived much of its language—including the floridity and the episodic structures—from the Sanskrit and Parsi theatres of yore. Yet we haven’t had a continuous tradition, like the American and British ones, of films being adapted from well-known, widely seen modern plays—something which helps us think about, and bicker about, the strengths and weaknesses of the two mediums.

And so, Khan’s production—which reverses the usual process, being a play that is based on a film—makes for an engrossing case study. Before watching it (during its September run at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi), I was curious about how a stage production, with obvious limitations of technology and space compared to a big-budget film, would handle the visually spectacular scenes from the original Mughal-e-Azam: the climactic battle with its large cast of soldiers, elephants and horses; the musical numbers such as Madhubala’s famous Sheesh Mahal dance.

I was also thinking of a conversation I had once with actor Naseeruddin Shah about the stage director Jerzy Grotowski, who believed theatre shouldn’t try to compete with cinema; that films will always do certain things better, and it was a mistake to try to recreate glossy or larger-than-life moments on stage through technical gimmickry.

As it happens, the staged Mughal-e-Azam showed creativity in dealing with the “big" moments. It recognized its limitations, trusted the audience’s familiarity with the source material, and allowed us to use our imaginations at key moments. The one-on-one battle between Akbar and Salim had the actors waving their swords about in much the same way that Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar did, but with inventive set design, including line drawings and animation, standing in for the infantry and cavalry; it was arguably more artistic than the somewhat clunky (by today’s standards) scene in the film.

Similarly, the Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya sequence had dozens of glass panels dangling from the ceiling to evoke the idea of the Sheesh Mahal without trying to precisely mimic iconic moments like the one where Anarkali is reflected in hundreds of tiny mirrors. The knowledge that the actors were really singing in front of us added immediacy to the experience, and there were other fine set pieces—such as one where the hall resounded with music created exclusively by the anklets of dancers surrounding Anarkali—that were especially suited to a live performance.

While these passages worked wonderfully, some of the non-musical scenes—where characters simply speak to each other—felt banal. It was also interesting to consider what had been omitted, including two of the most famous scenes in the original Mughal-e-Azam: Salim gently stroking Anarkali’s face with a feather (a scene that is routinely described as being more erotic than a hundred other more sexually explicit movie sequences); and the wistful moment where an armour-clad Akbar, visiting his son-turned-antagonist in his tent, comes up behind Salim and then spontaneously kisses his shoulder.

Both these images have adorned a thousand Mughal-e-Azam film posters, but it’s easy to see why neither was in the play. These are deeply intimate moments, depending for their impact on camera “tricks" such as close-ups and the audience’s ability to register every detail—the moistness of an eye, the trembling of a lip, an almost imperceptible smirk—on a face. Their effect couldn’t be replicated on stage, regardless of how good the actors were.

Watching the staged Mughal-e-Azam became a reminder that a well-made film can be both grander than and—in some ways—more personal than an opulent theatre production. As well as a demonstration of how good theatre can use its own strengths, even find its own gimmicks, to hold an audience that has been seduced by an impudent younger medium.

Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.

The writer tweets at @jaiarjun

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