Though the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II is usually referred to by his chosen moniker “Zafar”, or victory, the circumstances of his life do not to bear it out. Shah inherited a crumbling empire that was rapidly slipping into British hands and did little to reverse that trend until, at the age of 82, he found himself appointed nominal leader of the Revolt of 1857. The revolt, however, was soon stamped out, and Shah was exiled to Rangoon. He died there four years later. It is this final image of Shah that Sons of Babur chooses to use as guide to three centuries of Mughal history.
The pretext for this history lesson is the modern-day college student Rudra Sen Gupta, who’s having trouble finding takers for his play on the emperor. Ridiculed by his friends and professor, he wanders into the time-warp section of the stage and finds a crotchety old man who turns out to be Shah. There’s tension to begin with, with the young student disbelieving and Bahadur Shah dismissive, but the play soon finds its format. Shah hosts what might be described as a Mughal history highlights show – Babur sacrificing himself for Humayun, Akbar founding Din-i-Ilahi – commenting from the sidelines as the action is played out centre stage.
Sons of Babur tries to coax laughs out of an exasperated Shah bemoaning Rudra’s inability to speak without using English phrases, but it’s low comedy at best. Rudra is given a Bengali accent so thick that one sympathises with the old man – even his Hindi sounded like a foreign language. His friends come off no better, though it’s difficult to decide whether the doubter who says “Dastango… Go where, Rudra?” is more insulting to the audience’s intelligence than the believer with a British accent (whose “How interesting this Mughal history is!” could qualify as the play’s leitmotif).
Sons of Babur was originally penned in 2008 by Salman Khurshid in English and translated into Urdu by Athar Farooqui. The translation to stage is by M Sayeed Alam, who knows a thing or two about playing around with this period (his Ghalib in New Delhi has a similar farcical approach), as well as directing plays in Urdu. But unlike his melancholic 1947 earlier this year, it all comes undone in Sons of Babur. The contrast between the forced hipness of the students and the melodrama of the courtiers is too difficult to reconcile, and the undoubted good intentions of the playwright feel more like revision than revisionism. Attempts are made to draw connections between the policies of the Mughals and present-day events, but nothing concrete emerges.
In the role of the last Mughal, Tom Alter is headliner, crowd-puller and ultimately, the best thing the play has going for it; the lines roll off his tongue with an ease that befits an emperor known more for his poetry than his politics. Shah’s warming up to his young fan as the play progresses might have been more touching if Rudra (Ram Naresh Diwakar) wasn’t such a caricature. Various actors double and triple up to portray the other assorted Mughals, with an impressive Ekant Kaul as Babur/Akbar/ Mahabbat Khan.
Bubbling under the surface, and hinted at by the title (an inflammatory term aimed at latter-day Muslims), is the much-debated issue of whether the Mughals were Indian or not. Alter’s pained groan when Rudra asks him this makes clear the author’s thoughts on the matter. Yet this is a question rich – and relevant – enough to be explored in a play with similar ambition, though with more thought put into its mechanics. Sons of Babur ends up midway between Ghalib and Ghlalib in New Delhi. Both are plays directed by Alam, the first serious and biographical, the second broad and funny. He tries to have it all here, and ends up, like his titular character, with nothing.
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.