“Mughal-e-Azam” is a choreographed Broadway-style Indian musical that pays an extravagant homage to the 1960 Bollywood film (directed by K. Asif and produced by Shapoorji Pallonji). This large-scale stage production premiered its North American tour in Atlanta. I saw it on the Memorial Day weekend at the Cobb Energy Center in Smyrna, Georgia. They will perform in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Dallas.
The original movie was a fictionalized version of the tragic love story between Mughal Prince Salim and courtesan Anarkali, in Emperor Akbar’s court. The movie is legendary. A great Indian classic that can hold a candle to great actors like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Durga Khote and the unforgettable Madhubala.
“Mughal-e-Azam” portrays the conflict faced by Emperor Akbar — his responsibility towards the future of his empire and his duty as the father of a beloved son. When Prince Salim returns to Delhi after 14 years of waging wars in the Deccan to advance the Mughal Empire, he is a changed man. He is welcomed by a doting mother Jodhabai and a proud father Akbar but all is not rosy at the palace for long.
Salim is smitten by Anarkali, a courtesan and the feelings are reciprocated. Who could resist her incomparable beauty especially when she is presented by the royal sculpture under a transparent veil as the “Virgin with veil” (that was carved in the XIX century, by the Italian sculptor Giovanni Strazz (1818-1875). Bahar, queen Jodhabai’s lady-in-waiting, has a secret crush on the handsome prince. She cannot stand the lovers’ secret rendezvous and exposes Salim’s infatuation with Anarkali to Akbar.
Emperor Akbar disapproves of this love match and throws the beautiful, love-sick young girl into prison. Salim is duped into believing that Anarkali is a gold digger and has aspirations for the crown, but when the truth is revealed to him by Anarkali’s sister, the thwarted lover is enraged and rebels against his father. The father and son go to war threatening the foundations of the Mughal empire in India. Was Akbar adamant to save Salim’s reputation or did he have covert amorous feelings for the unforgettable Anarkali?
I remember Feroz Abbas Khan’s evocative play Tumhari Amrita, and I was curious to see how he would interpret K. Asif‘s “Mughal-e-Azam.” One could see Deepesh Salgia, the imprint of the current CEO and director of Shapoorji Pallonji Group on the production. It was surreal to experience Naushad and Shakeel Badayuni’s soundtrack and lyrics echoing in the Cobb Auditorium. The songs were sung live by the singers to a pre-recorded orchestral and choral score.
The LED screen, projection and stage display of the court scenes, shish mahal, and the war sequences were commendable. Credit goes to light designer David Lander and Emmy-nominated John Narun. The actors conversed in Urdu and Hindi with unforgettable lines: “Tumhare naseeb mein kaante hee aayen hain Anarkali.” Two-sided screens displayed English subtitles. But for me and many who have the dialogues, songs and even expressions of the much loved original “Mughal-e-Azam” memorized, it was like being in a mesmerizing dream.
The cast included 30 classically trained Kathak dancers who had us enthralled by twirling so effortlessly on their toes, their chiffon skirts lifting up like iridescent butterfly wings. It was a delight to sing along with the graceful Neha Sargam. Theater actors Nissar Khan and Syed Shahab Ali looked impressive as Akbar and Salim.
“Mughal-e-Azam” has received seven out of the 14 Broadway World India Awards including Best Play, Best Ensemble Cast, Best Director (Feroz Abbas Khan), Best Costume Design (Manish Malhotra), Best original choreography (Mayuri Abbas Khan Best original set and Best original stage Design( Neil Patel).
After the performance, we all went home, elated, singing and dancing to the unforgettable song by Lata Mangeshkar — Jab pyar kiya to darna kya… pyar kiya koi chori nahi ki, ghut ghut aahen bharna kya. Brimming with energy and sharing our adoration for Madhubala, we felt lucky to have seen “Mughal-e-Azam” live up close and center.
Later, we discussed at length about the great tragedy and shared our videos. Was Anarkali buried alive by Akbar the Great or was she exiled to anonymity? While Anarkali may have worn the gem-studded crown of Mallika-e-Hind only for one night, the effervescent Madhubala will always remain the sine-qua-non of Mallika-e- Mohabbat in our hearts. The essence of “Mughal-e-Azam” was, is, and will always be Madhubala. Her sweet face, bright eyes, engaging mannerisms, and a smile that dazzled can never be forgotten!
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.