The art of theatrical success in India

The art of theatrical success in India

One may argue that pursuing performance arts and its productions in India is all about patience and years of struggle before fame or financial security is achieved. Yet we forget, that quality work and genuine talent has always found takers in every corner of the world. Last evening, as I watched the grand and magnificent theatrical production Mughal-e-Azam at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, I couldn't help but reminisce on my experiences of watching Stalinowskie operas and Broadway shows. Directed by Feroz Abbas, this play surpasses them by many lengths. To say it simply - it transports you. The background projection and the set create a cinematic experience on stage that is commendable.

To successfully translate the visual extravaganza, the larger-than-life effect on stage for the audience is a feat by itself, over and above expert performances and spectacular acting. This theatre is not only to be watched but experienced. This, then, begs my next question.

Can such plays survive in India?

Plays in India haven't yet been amalgamated into its tourism and city's culture. One is independent of the other, which in turn hurts both the causes. Promoting a play as a quintessential part of the tourist experience, and also as an extension of the city's culture-scape can revolutionise the concept in India. As I entered the play arena, I was chatting with Deepesh Salgia who has designed the strategy and vision of this play. He said such plays require permanent sets and viewing of years to be able to become features of cities. A play like this at Broadway lives for years at the theatre because first of all there is a culture in the city that will pay for such shows and then tourists that visit these cities treat it as an attraction and throng these theatre houses. India just doesn't have the bandwidth today for this culture to sustain. The sets are so huge and expensive that it can't constantly be moving and commercially creating success if one has to move that often is very difficult.
I was fortunate to watch this play with Nazir Khan a nephew of K Asif, the 1960 Bollywood movie Mughal-e-Azam. He began telling me about how it took tremendous hard work to create the iconic movie and Dilip Kumar had to be pushed around for a whole day to get his entry scene right. When Dilip would walk in, K Asif would send him back saying this is not the entry of a King. The entry must be grandiose. Such careful detailing in the film did translate onto the screen, making it a huge success. 'Cookie', as his nephew is known, said that the play does justice to the movie and they were happy to come all the way from Lahore to watch it.
The story
The play revolves around Salim born to the Mughal emperor Akbar after many prayers from his Rajput, Hindu wife Jodha. It is a story of a rich father who pushes his son to work hard from an early age. He believes that if his son stayed at home he would be spoilt by their opulence, the story that many parents in India agree with even today. So he sends him out to become a warrior under the guidance of his chief warrior Man Singh. Salim shows success on the battlefield and that is when Akbar thinks that it is time to call him home. He comes back and falls in love with Anarkali - a worker at the palace and its the start of the age-old patriarchy, coupled with class and caste discrimination, that India is embroiled in even today. A rich aristocratic man must not marry a worker. Marry within your class and the marriage of your son will determine your respect in the society of your family. Salim proclaims mutiny and he and his father Akbar go to war. Thousands are killed and Salim is captured. Akbar forgives his son and tries to get Anarkali to convince his son that she was just a gold-digger.
The emperor does win and in the end, Anarkali leaves the country.
Theatre par-excellence
Produced by the original producers of the movie in 1960, Shaporjee-Pallonji, the Broadway-style musical saw decadent costumes by Manish Malhotra, a soulful Mayuri Upadhya breathing fresh life into kathak and lighting and projecting design by award-winning David Lander and Emmy-nominated John Narun respectively, which made all of the difference. (
These 30 dancers, selected from the best classical dance gharanas from across the country, really bring the court of King Akbar to life on stage with their seamless formations and tireless chakkars, as Anarkali or Bahar belt out live performances. (
While Anarkali and Bahar were cast to be classical singers and actors, primarily, choreography director Mayuri Upadhya manages to give the effect of a full courtroom with hundreds of dancers with just 30. (
Each 'ada' of Anarkali (Priyanka Barwe), each tear of Jodha (Sonal Jha) and each mischievous giggle of Suraiya (Palvi Jaiswal) is a gorgeous celebration of the movie, brought alive with the same painstaking detail which consumed K Asif for nearly a decade while making the movie. (
They not only had the challenge of the play's two-hour length but the female lead Anarkali had to take on the tricky task of singing live flawlessly even while dancing, which Priyanka Barwe did beautifully. (
The stage was illuminated with more than 200 lights, over 350 crew members worked silently and efficiently in the backdrop, while actors successfully wowed the audience, recreating one of Indian cinema's epic stories. (
India needs to make space for theatre
India needs to make space for quality theatre that can be hosted in a permanent location. It may not be a priority for a country which is grappling with challenges like finding medical care and food for its population but the culture has space and purpose as societies develop beyond the basics and it may need some basic support to stand and survive. Theatre will need help, in the beginning, to become a commercial success to stand on its own, but that would require theatre locations that must be part of any landscape in a city and they cannot be overtaxed.

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