Last weekend I watched the stage version of Mughal-e-Azam. I like new perspectives, even if they do not hold the old charm.
Feroz Abbas Khan’s take on the Anarkali-Prince Salim love story under the not benevolent eye of Emperor Akbar is an ambitious project. How could K.Asif’s landmark movie translate in the confined space of a stage, especially since there weren’t any claims at ‘reinventing’ the classic and the intent was to almost repeat the scenes and the dialogues verbatim?
As a tribute it succeeds; it has the head-bowed quality about it, aware all the time of looking up to an icon. And it has improvised marvellously. That battle scene is breath-taking because it relies on lights, sound and choreography. The same applies to the kathak interludes – these are professional dancers and, to be honest, it was they who elevated the Pyar kiya to darna kya song sequence by adding heft to Anarkali’s challenge, and pathos; in the film the song was about Madhubala. There was also an innovative use of ‘mirrors’ and light to create the sheesh mahal, although the light hitting the audience made me squint and miss out on some ‘chakkars’ by the dancers.
There was also live singing. Neha Sargam as Anarkali did a marvellous job, but was it necessary, considering it was the same music? It was also rather disappointing when at curtains down, the announcer mentioned how people weren’t convinced that it was live singing and asked her to sing a few lines right there. To my mind, this was insulting to the artiste. The makers do not have to justify anything and ask their own actors to give proof.
If the original was about performances, this was not. For a supposedly more intimate medium, the acting was alienating. Probably it is the stage where expressions rely on voice and body language. Nissar Khan as Akbar was powerful at moments and desultory at others. Sunil Palwal as Salim has presence, but where was the angst? And where was the passion with Anarkali, the understated caresses, that choke in the voice? As for Jodha, there is no real pining for a son nor the conflict between suhaag and motherhood. Bahar’s - the daasi hoping to become a princess - character too does not have enough oomph and guile that the original possessed.
For me that was sad because on the film I felt Nigar Sultana had overtaken Madhubala in the qawaali not due to the lines but gumption (aidedhugely by Shamshad Begum’s voice).
Naushad’s music was the stuff of legend and it was good to revisit it ‘pictorially’, even if not entirely satisfactorily. Theatre, unlike cinema, is not really a director’s medium. But here the director rules, followed by stage design, lighting, choreography. It was treated like an occasion. People were taking selfies before the posters in the lobby…after all they had paid good money for the tickets.
I’d say it was worth the few thousand bucks. For the million bucks’ worth, buy a DVD for a couple of hundred rupees.