Since 2016, about 100,000 people have seen Khan’s Mughal-E-Azam onstage. Surprisingly, not one of them has left the theatre wanting to tear up the posters, while each one has left with a childhood memory lodged in their heart.

Long before it was K Asif’s dream (and, presumably, Shapoorji Pallonji’s nightmare), the story of Anarkali was a figment of Imtiaz Ali Taj’s imagination. In 1922, the Lahore-based playwright had written a drama called Anarkali, the doomed love story of a Mughal prince and a showgirl. In 1960, Asif adapted that kernel into the immortal and expensive form of Mughal-E-Azam. And, in 2016, theatre director Feroz Abbas Khan presented his version of the film as a musical play. In good stories, the end usually ties in with the beginning, and that’s exactly what Khan did.

Khan’s Mughal-E-Azam can trace its DNA to both Taj and Asif; if it has Anarkali’s eyes, it has Mughal-E-Azam’s nose. When Khan had seen the colourised version of Mughal-E-Azam, “That was the time it started playing on my mind. I felt this was actually a play, which had been shot. It had a theatrical structure.” But, he says, he would have never adapted it based on Taj’s Anarkali. “The original was good for its time, but right now, if you ask me, it’s terribly boring. It just does not work for me. Though Mughal-E-Azam is inspired [by] Anarkali, I would call it an inspired original. Because it’s pure literature. The writers of Mughal-E-Azam were the progressives of their time. They added so many dimensions that the other one does not have. Just imagine a voiceover that says, ‘Main Hindustan hun.’ A nation as a voiceover. Now, of course, we have ‘Main Samay hun’ and all that. The script also has the consciousness of a newly independent nation. So, [the character of] Sangtarash is anti-imperialism. Women are stronger in the film. And, the lines, ‘Pyar kiya toh darna kya? Purdah nahi jab koi khuda se, bandoh ke aage purdah kya?’ [They were] rebel women standing up. And, then the music, then the lyrics, and the scale and imagination.” Just like every kid from the 1960s, Khan was first and foremost a fan.

As a theatre director, Khan had built his reputation with sensible and frugal productions such as Tumhari Amrita, Love Letters in Hindustani with Shabana Azmi and the late Farooq Sheikh; Salesman Ramlal, an adaptation of Death of a Salesman with Satish Kaushik; and Mahatma v/s Gandhi, based on a Marathi play, on the stormy relationship between Harilal Gandhi and his father. In retrospect, he was the right person to take on Mughal-E-Azam, not only because he’s good with adaptations, but also because Mughal-eAzam could do with some restraint.

When I meet Khan for this interview, he’s in an ochre-red kurta, his cheeks and smile glowing with success. We’re at the NCPA Mumbai, and his Mughal-E-Azam is going to stage its 94th show in an hour. Silver-haired patrons are cooling their heels in the lobby, excited about the school trip to their childhood. Khan is fully aware of what’s at stake — not money, not pride, but love. “Memories are delicate,” he says. “It’s like when Sholay was made into Ram Gopal Varma’s Sholay; it hurt people. In this case, we have reassured them (the audience) that your memories are intact, and that you can revisit them without being hurt and appalled. So, with your memories of Mughal-E-Azam the film, you [can] add the memories of Mughal-eAzam the play.” That Khan has achieved what he set out to do can be seen from the endorsements he’s received. In a promotional video released by the NCPA, Randhir Kapoor, the grandson of Prithviraj Kapoor, says, “I’m at a loss for words on how good the show is. The play is as good as the film was.” His brother (a fiercer critic) Rishi Kapoor, says, “I was really hoping to god that no one would be imitating or aping the original actors. And, thankfully, none of them have. They’re originals, and they’re so convincing. It was just amazing. And, I being the grandson of Prithviraj Kapoor, I did not miss my grandfather.”

Khan has been successful, I think, because he followed in Asif’s footsteps when he could, and formed his own path when he couldn’t. So, just like Asif, Khan assembled the best Avengers for his play. The original producer, Shapoorji Pallonji, was roped in to bankroll the production. His stage technicians were familiar faces from Broadway: Tony-nominated lighting designer, David Lander; Emmy-nominated projection designer, John Narun; and Obie-winning scenic designer Neil Patel. Fashion designer Manish Malhotra was hired to create the Anarkalis, and Kathak dancer Mayuri Upadhya to make them flare. Khan also made the best decision he could have for his show — his Anarkali doesn’t lip sync.

The one thing the success of Mughal-E-Azam does is open the doors for more such large-scale productions. In Delhi, Mughal-E-Azam is staged at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, with a seating capacity of 2000 people, and it’s still sold out. With a touch of humblebrag, he says, “[Mughal-E-Azam] has shown the possibilities of the theatre medium, and that it can be as exciting, if not more, than the best of cinema. You spend hundreds of crores on rubbish that goes down the drain on a Friday night; against that you can spend very little and yet create a work that has great value, and which will work financially as well.”

When I ask Khan about his future projects, I don’t get a straight answer, but I do get a hint of what might be in store. In response to how the benevolent Akbar became the antagonist in Mughal-E-Azam, he says, “In the 16th century, we have an unlettered man who used t o sit and hear the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Bible, about Buddhism, Jainism; and he’s saying, ‘Why can’t we evolve a religion called Din-e-Ilahi?’ I mean, people don’t even attempt this now. Now that’s very little shown in the play. The play’s requirement is that he’s opposing the union. If you ask me personally, there are three important ideas [in the making of India] — Ashoka, Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi. These three people [form] the idea of India because they weren’t merely spiritual leaders; they were practising politicians.” Khan has already taken on as subjects Gandhi and Akbar on the stage. Once he is free, perhaps, it will be time for Ashoka.