It took nine long years to make the 1960 version of the grand historical drama, Mughal-e-Azam. Shapoorji Mistry–founder of construction company Shapoorji Pallonji Group (SPG) which funded the magnum opus on a doomed love story of a Mughal prince and a court dancer---ensured that monthly salaries of artists and designers in the film were paid throughout those nine years.
More than 50 years later, Shapoorji Pallonji Group brought the lavish drama to audiences all over again–but in a different form. It funded a stage adaptation of Mughal-e-Azam with Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts that played to packed houses when it opened in Mumbai in 2016. As the extravagant production gets ready for its 100th show in Delhi in February, the determination with which SPG steered Mughal-e-Azam from a spectacular film to a Broadway-style reimagination in 2016 is a fascinating story of unflinching patronage to the arts in India Inc.’s narrative.
The famous builder Shapoorji wanted to leave a mark in the arts with the same unswerving passion with which he realised some of his most high-profile real estate projects in Mumbai. He was interested in Persian architecture, thanks to his Parsi lineage, was known to be a cinema and history buff, and also took keen interest in languages, specifically Urdu. He built Famous Studios at Mahalaxmi, Mumbai, in the 1940s for Shiraz Ali Hakim, who was producing Mughal-e-Azam at the time. But with the Partition in 1947, a debt-ridden Hakim migrated to Pakistan and handed over the film rights of Mughal-e-Azam to Shapoorji in lieu of the construction cost of Famous Studio. Two reels of the film had already been made by then. The construction mogul was ready to re-sell the rights. But then he heard about the cinematic vision and grandeur of Mughal-e-Azam from K. Asif, the director of the film, and decided to come on board as producer from 1951.
The epic film cost a whopping Rs 1.5 crore at the time, the equivalent of Rs 500 crore today, making it the most expensive Indian film. “Shapoorji was known to be a man of his word in those days,” says Deepesh Salgia, who is in charge of the creative and strategic vision of Mughal-e-Azam at SPG. “The company was known for the scale, quality, workmanship, and delivery of its projects. Shahpoorji had a brand to keep.”
Big-budget Indian films at the time normally cost around Rs 10 lakh. But Mughal-e-Azam was different: It used some 75 sets and its epic battle scene is supposed to have employed 8,000 soldiers, 4,000 horses, and 2,000 camels. Film trade gurus had wondered then if the film would ever recver the cost, but it broke box-office records upon release and is believed to have played for close to 30 years.
In 2004, Salgia, who has been associated with the SPG for 20 years, undertook the research-driven task of digitally colouring the original 1960 film from start to finish. The colouring wizardry cost Rs 7 crore and was the first Indian film to be digitally restored. A flamboyantly coloured Mughal-e-Azam was released on 12 November 2004 and ran for 25 weeks.
In 2015, when director and playwright Feroz Abbas Khan approached SPG for permission to adapt the film into a play, Salgia wasn’t interested in parting with the rights for just regular royalties. He sensed an opportunity to be part of something bigger again and got Khan to re-work his play on a much bigger scale. When Khan came back with a sufficiently satisfactory reworked version, Salgia was ready to loosen the purse strings. Lush costumes by celebrity fashion designer Manish Malhotra, breathtaking choreography by Mayuri Upadhya, and lighting and projection design by Broadway fixture David Lander and Emmy-nominated John Narun, have infused a fresh new splendour to the stage version of a classic tale of star-crossed lovers with an emotional resonance across generations.
Although Salgia refused to divulge the investment in the musical, industry insiders say it could be the most expensive Indian stage production. Ticket prices go up to Rs10, 000. Since its release in October 2016, it has already sold more than 1,20,000 tickets and will travel to other Indian metros and the U.S., countries along the Persian Gulf and Singapore.
Shapoorji Mistry died in 1975 but SPG seems to be carrying forward its founder’s desire to leave a lasting legacy in the arts through Mughal-e-Azam. However, it does not plan to sponsor any more such lavish productions either on screen or on stage. “Mughal-e-Azam was never a business venture. It was pure passion for art and culture,” says Salgia.