If there’s one Bollywood film that’s been given a renewed life and new relevance time and again, it’s Mughal-e-Azam. Beginning its journey in 1960 as a black-and-white, partially coloured film — one song sequence was in colour — it went on to become a landmark in cinema, thanks to a stellar star cast, epic-scale production quality and never-before-seen sets.

Tracing the love affair between a Mughal prince Salim (who would become Emperor Jahangir) and Anarkali, a court dancer, it boasted 12 songs sung by leading lights in playback singing at the time. Released in August 1960, it broke box office records, going on to become one of the highest-grossing Indian films even as it grabbed a clutch of awards.

In 2004, the movie was digitally coloured and re-released. A team of about 800 technicians reincarnated Salim and Anarkali in life-like colours and again, the audience lapped it up. India’s legendary painter MF Husain paid tribute to the film with a collection inspired by the film’s scenes shortly before his death.

This clamour to be a part of history has seen the epic love story powering on 60 years since its release. Now, its latest incarnation is a stage musical. Next week, it will be go on stage at the Dubai Opera for the very first time, produced by Shapoorji Pallonji, an Indian business conglomerate with a huge presence in the GCC, and which was also responsible for the coloured restoration of the film.

The musical is a stunning display of colours, stories, characters and dances
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‘It’s gone from black and white to colour to now sort of a live 3D cinema,’ says Deepesh Salgia, the producer of the play that has a cast and crew of over 300.

Viewers are in for a treat as the Urdu and Hindi play (there’ll be English subtitles on screens at the Opera) that was in production for about 10 months has songs sung live by singers on stage to a pre-recorded score while over 30 classically trained Kathak dancers will perform stunning sequences. Star designer Manish Malhotra has created over 500 costumes for the lavish production.

The musical, which has been staged in India scores of times, didn’t start as the lavish Broadway-style spectacle it is now. When director Feroz Abbas Khan first approached Deepesh to buy the stage rights for the play, it had been envisioned on a smaller scale.

‘The concept, music, story, costumes and dances was great. But I thought the scale had to be bigger, while paying justice to the original brand,’ says Deepesh. ‘Quite like Cirque Du Soleil, actually.’

Says Feroz: ‘It was a lot about scaling up imagination, not just money and production.’

Deepesh has been associated with the Mughal-e-Azam brand for 20 years, including the 2004 colour version. The reason it enjoys the same relevance today as it did about six decades back is because ‘love stories are eternal.

‘Audiences go for stories, characters and plot. And the movie highlights two issues that are always fundamental: the plight of a common man against the powerful. Anarkali, a commoner, asks: do I not even have the right to love? She also happens to be a woman, so it addresses equality and empowerment of women – universal issues that are especially relevant in the present context.’

Feroz agrees. ‘Why do people continue to watch Romeo and Juliet? Love transcends time and space. People are so engaged and captivated by the story and everyone finds a part of themselves in the story. In today’s times when people fall in love on Snapchat, to look at a love story so pure connects strongly with the audience.’

Producer Deepesh Salgia says Mughal-e-Azam’s conflict appeals to every generation
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Does the stage lend itself well then?

‘In fact, Mughal-e-Azam was begging to be converted to a play,’ insists Feroz. ‘The roots of Mughal-e-Azam lie in theatre. Movies in those days, especially historic films, were primarily taken from theatre. It was all about very powerful acting, powerful dialogues, powerful music.’

Deepesh believes that it’s the conflict in Mughal-e-Azam that makes it perfect for stage. ‘A play should leave questions in the minds of people. Who was right? Anarkali or Akbar? Anarkali asked for the basic right of love. Akbar was in charge of the destiny of India — should he fulfil his son’s wishes or the country’s?’

But as much as the play is a tribute, Feroz knew all elements of the movie wouldn’t work on stage. So he decided to keep the spirit of the original yet make it distinct, adding various layers. ‘The original was so wonderful: why try destroy something so beautiful to get something new. Mughal-e-Azam deserved respect and reverence — while still being a completely new experience.’

So while shortening the duration from the original three-and-a-half-hour-plus extravaganza to 140 minutes, Feroz also made sure to keep one more aspect subtle — that of the acting. ‘Bombastic acting was good for that period and time, but today it wouldn’t connect [with viewers],’ he says. ‘The energy of the play is very modern. The way the characters perform are more conversational and intimate.’

Nissar Khan as Akbar
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Actor Nissar Khan, who plays Akbar, says while earlier the younger generation had only heard about Mughal-e-Azam, many who have seen the play tell him ‘we would now want to see the film’.

Feroz concurs. ‘When we started staging the play the average age of the audience was much higher than it is now. Now the younger generation flood into the theatre.’

Pratibha Singh Baghel, who plays Bahar, an attendant to Jodha and who has shades of grey, says the girls doing the kathak dances are about 15 years old. Suraiyya is just 24. The young Salim 18. ‘The younger crowd are loving getting an opportunity to be in the play. They just want to give it more love.’

There’s also a huge shift in gender, with the women being portrayed as very powerful. ‘Although the play is inspired by the movie, the sensibilities are modern in terms of aesthetics and values; these are strong female voices. The play is as much about Akbar and Salim, as it is about Anarkali and Jodha, and Bahar and Suraiyya. All the kathak dancers are women.’

Sonal Jha, who plays Akbar’s wife Jodha and has been associated with the play from its very first day, starring in over 125 shows, vouches for this. ‘Jodha is pure, loving, and knows her responsibilities as wife and mother. But her dilemma on standing by her husband or son is a tough one — and something women can identify with. She’s strong, she challenges Akbar, she argues with him. She’s not feeble and submissive — despite being in hardly five scenes, she’s not an insignificant character by any means.’

After playing to full house in over 50 shows in India, in 2017 the play won seven awards at the Broadway World Awards, including Best Play and Best Director
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After playing to full house in over 50 shows in India, in 2017 the play won seven awards at the Broadway World Awards, including Best Play & Best Director. Not a bad feat for a director who was deemed “off his rockers” when he first set to convert the epic into a play.

‘People said I was making the worst mistake of my career. Trying to take on a film that’s so strongly entrenched in memories. That everyone is so attached to — it’s so fragile. It’s almost sacrilege. In recent times we’ve seen what happened with Sholay; the remake was a disaster. We haven’t been very good in recent times in recreating a classic. And Mughal-e-Azam was even more sacrosanct than most movies. There was also such immense pressure because I knew everyone would compare it to the original.’

But why has it taken so long for India to produce a musical of this stature? Andrew Lloyd Weber seems to have cottoned on a decade ago, making the Bollywood-themed Bombay Dreams with music by AR Rahman. Could it be that seeing more musicals on screen daily than Londoners has muted the Indian appetite for theatre?

Feroz is quick with an answer. ‘In India there is not one theatre worth its name to be able to house a production of this calibre. And Webber has said that too. We have all the talent and content and writers and musicians and singers, but we don’t have entrepreneurs who take theatre seriously. In Delhi we took a place that was in shambles and redid it completely. This is also why we are so thrilled to be performing out of the country; just look at the Dubai Opera.’

All of Mughal-e-Azam’s actors talk of the one big pressure — that of comparisons to the original actors
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Getting artists who can sing, dance, act and look presentable is no mean feat. But more than all the multitasking, all of Mughal-e-Azam’s actors talk of the one big pressure that loomed — that of comparisons to the original actors.

Nissar Khan had to field comparisons to Prithviraj Kapoor. ‘It’s a bit like another iconic film Sholay’s Gabbar Singh — the impact is so strong you can’t imagine any other person playing the character. But Feroz was very clear about it — do it your own way, do it with honesty, and let’s see how far we can go.’

Dhanveer Singh, who plays Salim, talks of taking on Dilip Kumar. ‘Anyone who comes to watch the play comes with the movie in mind. This is the challenge — to not get compared. And it seems to have worked — no one said to us they were disappointed we didn’t do things the original way. Everyone accepted us for the new characters we were, as ourselves. Salim has so many layers to him — warrior, lover, son, a man in love, a proud man, a helpless man. And though I’ve essayed his role in hundreds of shows to date, I have goosebumps every time I act out the scene with Jodha where I’m helpless and begging for my love.”

Perhaps Feroz’s motto of keeping the soul of theatre with the scale of cinema worked in conquering all the comparisons. Neha Sargam, who plays the woman in the centre of it all, says she came into the play not having seen the movie, and only being well versed with songs. But instead of being upset at that, her director was pleased. ‘Feroz actually said it was a good thing I hadn’t seen the film as he didn’t want it to rub off on me. He said I must deliver emotion the way I wanted, and not copy the legendary actress Madhubala. He said I was a new Anarkali; so I became a new Anarkali.’

While the actors might make it look as if the stage is their second home, the effort they have put in is clearly enormous. ‘I’ve taken kathak, yoga, and diction classes for Urdu and classes for dialogue delivery. We have to maintain a fine balance between acting, singing and dancing. We have to change costumes backstage like a wild animal and then come back on stage with poise in seconds. Also try singing when you’re emotional — I can’t even clear my throat!’

Not every performance is a smooth frolic. ‘I once fell on stage. Another time my earring fell off, and someone in the audience kept waving intensely through the entire play to attract my attention to the earring. I kept thinking, ‘please please stop’,’ says Neha.

At the beginning, Bahar remembers fumbling with a dialogue on stage and getting yelled at by Feroz. In an initial performance she forgot she was Bahar and sang Anarkali’s line. Cue more yelling.

There have been some interesting asides off stage too. Like the time she received marriage proposals. ‘So many women have come up to me and said they have a son they feel I should marry,’ says Neha. ‘Now after every show the director and producer come over to jocularly ask me how many proposals I’d got that day.”

It’s not just the doting mums who are enamoured. The actors count numerous celebrities as fans. Dhanveer talks of how Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair asked him how he managed to look so handsome. Bollywood actress Waheeda Rahman once mentioned to him that his portrayal of Salim reminded her of thespian Dilip Kumar.

‘Raveena Tandon once hugged me and asked if I was OK after I fell on stage while in character,’ he says.

Nissar relates how Prithviraj’s grandson Rishi Kapoor watched the play and said he’d expected a caricature or imitation of the original role, but was very pleased by the performance.

Neha says actress Rekha held her hand, kissed her on the forehead and said she now had to count her as Anarkali’s biggest fan.

‘While the common man loves the play, it’s interesting that almost the entire Bollywood film industry has seen it. Karan Johar, Hema Mailini, Rekha, Jaya Bachchan, Rajkumar Hirani – these are people who know the craft. So for them to love it means we’re doing something right,’ Nissar says.

The team are now excited to conquer the Dubai Opera stage. ‘We are so excited for the applause from the Dubai audience in one of the best stages in the world,’ Dhanveer says.

‘The best thing about the Dubai audience is that they understand and react to every dialogue. It’s exhilarating performing in the city,’ Neha seconds.

Arjun Dhanak, director of sponsors Kanz Jewellery, say he and his father were so impressed when they watched Mughal-e-Azam in London and Mumbai that they immediately knew they wanted to associate with the play. ‘It’s historic but it’s a story that any generation could relate to. So we knew we would reach out to a large audience. The capacity and grandness of the Opera makes it all that more special – we foresee a reach of 10,000-plus people over three days.’

Deepesh sums it up: “Mughal-e-Azam is essentially a cultural confluence of India and the Asian world with the Arab one. Dubai is all about cultural confluence – could there be a more perfect place to stage the story?’

— Catch Mughal-e-Azam at the Dubai Opera over 5 shows from January 10 to 12.