Noor Jahan, 20th wife of powerful Mughal Emperor Jahangir, was a brilliant administrator, ambitious politician, knowledgeable economist, and enthusiastic patron of culture and arts. Her complex and challenging character would be hard to portray easily, on screen or on live theater. She wielded tremendous political and economical power, at a time in history, when women mostly stayed hidden behind lattice walls and purdah. The play Noor, currently playing at locations in San Francisco and San Jose in Bay Area, is an attempt to tell this complex story, and is based on a book by Feisal Alkazi, also directed by Alkazi. Alkazi’s 35 year old career as a director includes 200 plays, 32 films, and 2 TV series and he is Founder Director of the theater group Ruchika, and actively involved with several NGOs. This play is his first attempt as a playwright. The play is produced by Vinita Sud Belani. Belani is the Founding Artistic Director of enActe Arts Inc., a new theater company with a mission to bring quality Asian theater and stories to mainstream audiences and to provide new and upcoming actors with a platform to develop and showcase their talent. Belani has an impressive background. She has held titles of Director and CEO and after rising to top corporate job as VP of Business Development at Sogeti Groupe Cap Gemini, she transitioned to doing theater full time. Belani has acted in twenty seven plays and two movies to date. Belani effortlessly blends the diversity of cultures, and the impressive cast of Noor includes a group of actors from Iran, Iraq, Peru, and India.
Story of Mehrunissa, later known as Noor Jahan (after her husband Jahangir decreed this title on her that means Light of the Universe), and the historical events impacting the Mughal reign, do not lend themselves to easy narration. The play attempted to do too much and I felt it did not do due justice to the story of Noor or the Mughal reign. The play begins with narration of Akbar nudging towards his death, and ends with a poignant scene of Shah Jahan’s beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal’s death, during her 14th pregnancy. I would have much rather seen a stronger focus on Noor with stage featuring a Jarokha where Jahangir received audiences and later Noor Jahan accompanied him. This was remarkable, for a royal woman to sit beside her husband and receive audiences, issue orders, oversee administration of jagirs, accompany her husband on hunting trips, and have silver coins printed with her face on them. Noor also consolidated her powers and got the emperor to cast special favors on her family, including arranging marriage between her niece Arjumand (later known as Mumtaz Mahal) and Jahangir’s oldest son Khurram, later known as Shah Jahan. When Shah Jahan seemed to be slipping from her grip, Noor later arranged for her daughter Ladli, from her previous marriage, to marry Shah Jahan’s younger son, Shahryar. In attempting to tell a broader history and encompass a wider cast of complex characters, in this play, not enough justice was done to the character of Noor.
Additionally, the Mughal rein during this time in history was at its zenith of territorial expanse and glory, ruling over more than 150 million subjects, nearly 1/4th of the world’s population, with a combined GDP of over $90 billion. It was a golden age of architecture, arts, and trade. I would have liked to see the stage reflect some of the glory (featuring a throne and court, or jarokha, or royal gardens where romances occurred, or the vibrant market where Jahangir first saw Mehrunissa), rather than dying Akbar’s or abused (by her first husband) Mehrunissa’s, or tragically dying Mumtaz Mahal’s bed. Nevertheless, enActe Arts has a grand vision and it has taken a bold step to bring this play with tremendous complexity of characters and events, on stage. This is truly praiseworthy and I will eagerly look forward to new and coming productions, from this company.
The complex blend of cast was interesting. Sanjiv Desai did a fabulous job in the role of eunuch, from whose lens the story is told. Cezar Espinoza, even in his short role as young eunuch, played his role beautifully. Deergha Sahni, in the role of Arjumand and later Mumtaz Mahal, was awesome and could have carried the play, under a different title. Vidhya Subramanian, in her role as Mehrunissa, showed superb command over her role, and Aditya Thakur, in the role of Asaf Khan, was excellent. Belani and Subramanian share the role of Noor, playing her on alternate shows. I will very much look forward to seeing Belani on stage, in future performances.
Noor is playing at theaters in San Francisco and San Jose in May and June, 2013. Get your tickets early because it is expected to play to sold out audiences. After all who does not like to hear a story of beauty, romance, power, ambition, greed, and intrigue?