Soon after Feroz Abbas Khan mounted his theatrical production “Mughal-e-Azam: The Musical’’ in Mumbai in 2016, he said he began fielding calls from producers who wanted to bring India’s first Broadway-style musical to the U.S.
“I tried to dissuade them by telling them the logistics,” says Khan, who directed the production. “We would have to tour with 150 people and [many] 50-foot containers of props and costumes. Most touring productions scale down. We wanted to scale up. Nobody ever called us back.”
Actually, one did, however. As a result, "Mughal-e-Azam" — which translates as "The Great Emperor" — is about to close its 14-city North American tour in Southern California, at Long Beach's Terrace Theater on Aug. 26 and 27.
The musical production is in Hindi and Urdu, with English subtitles playing out on LED screens. Aanand Dawda, founder of the Houston-based Cinema on Stage and executive producer of the North American tour, said “Mughal” is the most expensive production that has ever traveled outside of India.
That is certainly evidenced by the scale, richness and detail of what audiences see onstage, including the 550 intricately embroidered costumes created by Indian couture designer Manish Malhotra, whose outfits are typically the choice of Bollywood brides. The sets were designed to replicate the interiors of a 16th century Mughal palace, with swinging pink lanterns and glittering mosaic tile backdrops.
“Mughal-e-Azam” is based on a black and white film by the same name about the legend of Mughal Prince Salim, who becomes captivated by Anarkali, a court dancer. In the 1960 film the prince’s father, Emperor Akbar, refuses to let them marry, leading to a literal war between father and son. The movie itself was based on a classic 1922 stage show, “Anarkali.” In the contemporary musical staging, Priyanka Barve and Neha Sargam share the role of Anarkali, singing live.
Khan says that as a child, the film left a lasting impression on him. “It became a ritual for us every Eid,” says the Mumbai-based Khan, referring to the major Islamic festival. “The film would get re-released in cinemas in India, and as children, we always would go and watch. I became very affected by it. I was upset at the treatment meted out to Anarkali, that the only wrong she had committed was to fall in love with a man above her station.”
As a playwright and film and theater director, Khan has made movies such as 2007’s “Gandhi, My Father,” about the troubled relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and his son, and intimate stage plays like “Tumhari Amrita,” a Hindi and Urdu version of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” which Khan describes as “two people sitting and reading letters.”
“I had been fascinated with the power of story-telling that is minimal,” he says. “But I wanted to stretch myself and take on something challenging that went against my grain and nature. I was mesmerized by huge, beautiful Broadway productions, and there was always that thought in the back of my mind, ‘Why can’t we produce something like this in India?’”
In 2004, when the film was colorized, Khan went to see the newest version in theaters. “That’s what ignited the idea in my head that this could be onstage,” he says.
“But there was no infrastructure in India, and no interest. I carried it in my heart, but it remained a dream."
One of India’s largest conglomerates, Shapoorji Pallonji, had produced the original film and owned the original rights. Khan persuaded them to grant him stage rights, with the provision that “the play would have the same values as the movie.”
“Even when it opened, there was a huge amount of skepticism around this audacious attempt of mine,” he says.
It toured several South Asian cities before making it to North America; producer Dawda says he’s now planning to take it to Europe next year, including the U.K., before returning to the U.S. in 2025. That the production stars relatively unknown actors was not lost on him.
“They are talented, but outside of India, nobody knows them,” said Dawda. “That’s a hard sell. We were booking venues with 2,700 seats, four shows in a city, and there was no guarantee that even 200 people would show up. But production is the hero of this show. The formula, the way it all comes together, somehow, we knew it could work.”
Now that "Mughal" is nearing the end of its run, Khan — who has been touring with it — is poised to return to India to remount arguably an even more lavish spectacle, “The Great Indian Musical: Civilization to Nation.” The musical, which debuted in Mumbai in April, featured 1,200 ornate costumes by Malhotra. He hopes to bring it to the U.S. next year.
“The comfort zone is a dead zone,” says Khan, speaking to his need to continue to innovate stage extravaganzas. “A kind of decay sets in. But if you’re always challenging yourself with new ideas, even in the face of what appear to be insurmountable challenges, that’s the time you know you’re still alive.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.