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In Feroz Abbas Khan’s most famous work (prior to Mughal-e-Azam), the cast involved two actors; the set consisted of two chairs; and the props consisted of a sheaf of memories. Tumhari Amrita (1992), with actors Shabana Azmi and Farooq Sheikh, ran for close to three decades. His other big hits were Salesman Ramlal, an adaptation of Death of a Salesman with actor Satish Kaushik, and Mahatma v/s Gandhi, which was later adapted into a film. His oeuvre does not suggest that he would want to direct a musical, leave alone Mughal-e-Azam. But, late last year, in association with the NCPA Mumbai and the original producers of the film, Shapoorji Pallonji, Khan directed a grand production with live singing, costumes by Manish Malhotra, choreography by Mayuri Upadhya, a production designer who has worked offBroadway (Neil Patel), and a lighting designer who has won Tonys (David Lander). Till date, about 60,000 people have seen it, even though the tickets aren’t cheap (frontrow seats will set you back by `7500). With this production, Khan has proven that it’s possible to create a massive Indian production that people will pay decent money for. As the production gets ready to tour the country, and later the world, Khan talks to MW about what made him take on this “foolish” venture.

How did you get the production of Mughal-e-Azam rolling?

Deepa Gahlot [then theatre programming head at the NCPA] wanted me to do something for the NCPA. In our conversation, I said, ‘This is something I have been thinking of doing.’ She went to the management and they became very excited about it. Deepa contacted Shapoorji Pallonji, who turned around and said, ‘If you’re doing Mughal-e-Azam, then just giving permission is nothing.’ What do they get out of just a play? Some royalty per show? They said, ‘Can we do something better? Whatever you do, it needs to be of a very high standard. It needs to have the scale of Mughal-e-Azam.’ Then they became partners, and it became very big. What was going to be an A production became an A-plus production. To me, I wasn’t thinking as big as it is right now. But, the people at Shapoorji Pallonji were very keen that we do it that big. They were very concerned about the legacy of Mughale-Azam.

 

Do you remember the first time you saw the film?

In Muslim areas, during the time of Eid, the film Mughale-Azam is normally released. I think even now they do that. Watching Mughal-e-Azam during the time of Eid is a ritual. I had that memory [from my childhood]. The last time I saw the film was in colour with Shabana [Azmi] and Farooq [Sheikh]. We were performing in Hyderabad. Shabana and I thought doing it in colour was going to take away [from the experience]. But, Farooq said, ‘Let’s go and see.’ We saw the film, and we realised that the magic continues to be there about this film. It looked good in colour. That was the time that it started playing in my mind. I felt that this is actually a play, which has been shot. The truth is that it was originally a play, and then he [K Asif] converted it into a film. So, I thought it had a theatrical structure, except for those war sequences. But, then you realise, where in theatre will we be able to give this kind of grandeur and costumes? The costs were too high. We didn’t even have auditoriums to host anything like that. It seemed impossible so I just forgot about it.

Between 2004, when the coloured version was released, and last year, what changed your mind?

There’s new technology; there’s a theatre like the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre at the NCPA; also, I thought, there was an audience who was ready to pay this kind of money. The audience profile has definitely changed. They want to watch something big in theatre. The imagination has to be big, and it should be something they feel is worth it. Now more of our people are travelling all over the world. They are watching plays on Broadway and West End, and they are paying for it. They do understand the value of a huge production. I thought that perhaps we had reached that tipping point to watch and pay for a spectacle. Technology also has caught up. Because how do we do a play like this that moves this fast, and the changes are so fast? With a combination of 3D sets and projections, all that fit together very well. A place like Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, too, is of international standards.

 

Since you’ve done so many plays that are very minimalistic, weren’t you wary of mounting such a big production?

The most foolish thing anybody can do is try to do Mughal-e-Azam. Anything else you do is understandable. But, Mughale-Azam is the thing that’s considered the ultimate in terms of anything. It’s even become a part of our conversation. Anything that gets bigger and gets delayed has become Mughal-e-Azam. [The aura of] Mughal-e-Azam is [that] anything else can be fine, but nothing can be Mughal-e-Azam. It was a very audacious move, and I would say, rather foolish. For me, the challenge was exactly this. I felt that if I only kept doing minimalistic stuff I will become a cliché. I will be limiting my own imagination, and I’ll be repeating myself. My minimalism comes from my understanding of theatre and the power of its symbolism. I wanted to break my own pattern of the work I was doing.

In terms of casting, for the role of Anarkali, you had to find someone who looked like Madhubala and sang like Lata Mangeshkar.

Nothing of that sort. I never thought about these things at all. You get Madhubala only once-in-a-lifetime; you get Lata Mangeshkar also once-in-a-lifetime. Even in cinema we haven’t got another; even in music we haven’t. So, there’s no point. We’re doing a play, which is a new experience and a new medium. Although it is Mughal-e-Azam, it is a very different experience. I was looking at someone who could sing, act, and of course, she had to be beautiful. For me, the beauty would become total if she could do all the three things together. With Madhubala, you could just say that she looks beautiful and is a decent actress. But, that’s the beauty you see in cinema; in theatre, the beauty is slightly different. I was very clear I didn’t want any known names. My play is a tribute to K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, but it is a different experience. That’s why people who have come have come with scepticism. If you look at the reactions of the people before and after [the play], it’s quite extraordinary. There was so much cynicism. They came because of my former reputation that I have done decent work, so it wouldn’t be that bad. But, certainly it couldn’t be anywhere close to the film. Now people say that a new Mughal-e-Azam has come in.

 

Do you think this production pushes open the door for bringing in more film classics to the stage?

Nothing of that sort. Mughal-e-Azam was a play that came from theatre and went back to theatre. I don’t see anything from [other] films that I want to do onstage. This is one thing that I saw worked and did it. It does open the door for more big productions. I would be very happy if more people did it. Because if more people did it, then we will become a legitimate musical theatre city; so every day people can watch a performance of this standard in Mumbai.

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