As a young child, I remember watching K. Asif’s 1960 classic film “Mughal-e-Azam” with my parents. It had all the elements of a global blockbuster love story: love, defiance, rebellion, tragedy. The iconic song, “Jab Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya,” where Anarkali declares her love for Mughal prince Salim in front of emperor Akbar, is an eternal favorite for defiant, star-crossed lovers everywhere. So, when I heard about the theater production – India’s first Broadway-style musical — I had to go see it with my parents. And it did not disappoint. Since its 2016 premiere in Mumbai, India’s most expensive larger-than-life production has won acclaim globally.
Currently touring North America after a pandemic hiatus, this adaptation is a great way to introduce a new generation to the timeless love saga of Salim and Anarkali. The 13-city tour will stop at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in San Jose from Aug.11 through Aug.13.
Produced by Shapoorji Pallonji and directed by the visionary Feroz Abbas Khan, this grand-scale story has been deftly adapted for the stage with a large cast and crew of over 150 people contributing to its magnificence. Khan has infused the story with nuanced theatrical details, providing a fresh and contemporary feel to the production.
The production comprises a team that reads like the who’s who of theater production: mesmerizing dance sequences choreographed by Mayuri Upadhya, spectacular sets (including a magnificent Sheesh Mahal) by Neil Patel, atmospheric lighting by David Lander, stunning projections by John Narun, extravagant costumes by Manish Malhotra, and live signing with haunting music by Piyush Kanojia.
“Mughal-e-Azam” centers around the love story between Prince Salim and court dancer Anarkali. Emperor Akbar vehemently disapproves of the relationship and must choose between his responsibility towards his empire and his duty as the father of a beloved son. “A love story that threatened an empire and the sheer audacity of a courtesan to challenge an emperor by declaring ‘pyaar kiya toh darna kya‘, is simply breathtaking,” said director Feroz Abbas Khan in earlier interviews.
The buzz surrounding this production took off in May when a group of kathak dancers took Times Square in New York by storm in flashmob style public promo performance of the timeless number.
The sheer scale of the production, touring with such a large cast and crew, as well as transporting the sets, is a logistical challenge and required meticulous planning by a dedicated team. Maintaining artistic integrity and delivering a consistently top-notch experience in each city required seamless coordination. Sonal Jha, who plays Jodhabai in the show, told me, “Live performance is always very challenging as one can never be relaxed and carefree. Every performance is a new performance.”
Choreographer Mayuri Upadhya, who is not a Kathak dancer herself, said in a LinkedIn post that she insisted that every dancer in the show be a trained Kathak practitioner. She did not want to work with Bollywood dancers and train them in Kathak, when there were people who had been honing their craft for years who could do the grandeur of the story justice in an authentic way.
Upadhya and Khan met for months forging a creative alliance. She said would fly from Bangalore to Mumbai to learn Khan’s vision, imbibe his thoughts, internalize his storytelling, and then come home, reflect, and create the visual language of dance that would make it a reality.
“Unlike shooting a film, we didn’t have the luxury of retakes and edits. Dance would have to flow, create environments, create moods, and never falter,” says Upadhya. Two hundred and fifty kathak dancers auditioned, from which the final 28 were chosen. This, she says, was her chance to give her version of the iconic story, to show the world what she could do, retaining the essence of the story but not imitating it.
Sonal Jha (Jodhabai) said that director Firoz Abbas Khan places a lot of value on the process of creating the show. “We used to have yoga class, diction class, improvisations, scene work, and movement sessions. It took three months of rigorous practice to be ready for the live shows,” she said.
“Mughal-E-Azam: The Musical” is more than just a stage production; it is a mesmerizing journey that immerses the audience in a world of opulence, love, and timeless creativity. As this grand spectacle continues its North American tour, it serves as a testament to “Mughal-E-Azam’s” lasting impact, transcending not only time and borders but also mediums. Get ready to be captivated by a magical expedition through the enchanting Mughal era that will sweep you off your feet.
Presented in North America by Cinema on Stage, “Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical” is in Hindi/Urdu or Hindustani, with LED screens displaying English subtitles. Performances are at 7 p.m. Aug. 11, 1 and 7 p.m. Aug. 12 and 1 p.m. Aug. 13 at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets, $79 to $599, are available here.
This article originally appeared on India Currents on Aug. 4, 2023.