Okaaay. I’m finally back from a whirlwind book tour. I gave endless interviews (I can now answer questions in my sleep); was wined and dined—great ilish in Kolkata and awesome Chettinad food in Chennai—and even ended up on youtube. I met some likeable and interesting people, including crime writer Zac O’Yeah (in conversation with me at the Bangalore do) and blogger-cum-bestselling writer Amit Varma, author of the delightful My Friend Sancho—he was in conversation with me in Mumbai and had some nice things to say about my book. And yes (I can’t resist the temptation to blow my own trumpet!), others have said good things about The Englishman’s Cameo, too: Pradeep Sebastian, writing in BusinessWorld, for instance; and Vivek Tejuja on http://www.goodreads.com.
So, having done my bit of shameless self-promotion—and wound up at exactly the place I wanted this post to go—I’ll begin with this review. Like me, the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib was a Dilliwala. Like me, he too was a writer (and before I have Ghalib fans leaping at my throat for daring to lump the two of us together: no, I do not compare myself to the man. He was pure genius. Not so with me). And like me, Ghalib loved to hear his writing being praised.
Which is where we come in. It’s a literary evening in mid-19th century Delhi, where the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ (Iftekhar), himself a poet of considerable stature, is hosting a mushaira. [Aside: Iftekhar does full justice to his role as the doomed Emperor; I wish Bollywood had given this man more of these interesting roles rather than generally typecasting him as the cop].
At the mushaira, the poetry of Zauq is much applauded; Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’, on the other hand, finds no takers for his ghazals. The general populace thinks his ghazals too profound and his Urdu too difficult. It seems, even in the more intellectual environment of the mushaira, nobody except the Mufti (Murad) and the Kotwal, Hashmat Khan (Ulhas) can find anything to appreciate in Ghalib’s poetry. The Mufti expresses his appreciation to Ghalib; the Kotwal spends his time hurriedly writing down the ghazal Ghalib has just recited.
The Mufti’s praises are not enough for our poet. With an expression of disgust—he’s not going to be casting his pearls before swine such as this—Ghalib takes his leave of the Emperor and the assembly, and flounces out of the court. On his way home (in a sedan chair), he hears a woman singing one of his own ghazals. The singer is Moti Begum (Suraiya), daughter of a retired courtesan (Durga Khote). Moti’s mad about Ghalib’s poetry, and even about the man himself, even though she has no idea what her favourite poet looks like. (Ah, the formulas of Hindi cinema! Remember Chhaya? Remember Barsaat ki Raat?)
Ghalib, delighted that someone likes his poetry, knocks on Moti’s door and is admitted. Ghalib is awestruck not just by her enthusiasm for his ghazals but also by her beauty, and addresses her as Chaudhvin Begum (chaudhvin means ‘full moon’). When he realises she doesn’t know that he is Ghalib, he teases her by deprecating Ghalib’s poetry. Moti, of course, leaps to her hero’s defence and literally shoos the unexpected guest from her house.
Right on Ghalib’s heels (in fact, bumping into the poet in the doorway) comes another visitor to Moti’s house: the Kotwal. He has just returned from the mushaira at the fort, bringing with him the transcript of the Ghalib ghazal he’d heard there. He hands over the ghazal to a grateful Moti, and astonishes her by identifying her recent guest as Ghalib himself.
A few days later, Ghalib comes across yet another person singing one of his ghazals. This time, it’s a poor mendicant who, when questioned, tells Ghalib that Moti Begum teaches him these ghazals so that he can sing them to earn a few paisas. Ghalib, ego well fuelled, goes off to Moti Begum’s house once again, and is welcomed with much ecstatic gushing by the woman, who has now taken to calling herself Chaudhvin Begum. She is shy and demure; he is soulful.
But Chaudhvin Begum is just one aspect of Ghalib’s somewhat troubled life. He may be a great poet, but that greatness isn’t enough to keep the wolves from the door. One somewhat benevolent wolf is the moneylender Mathuradas (Mukri) to whom Ghalib owes a large sum of money. Mathuradas comes by every now and then, asking for the debt to be cleared; but Ghalib always manages to fob him off.
…and there is Ghalib’s wife (Nigar Sultana), an extremely religious woman who is tormented by the fact that none of her children have survived beyond infancy. Her relationship with her husband is one of easy camaraderie; she is his staunch supporter, a wife who never cribs that they’re forever in debt and who, even when she suspects that her husband is in love with another woman, does not protest or demand his love for herself. (Instead, she—in a fit of sati savitri behaviour that cheesed me off—tells him to marry a second time). This is an intriguing woman; she can be surprisingly progressive at times, irritatingly duh at others, and even, occasionally, appealing and wise.
Right now, however, the one facing hard times is Chaudhvin Begum. The Kotwal, Hashmat Khan, has been lusting after her and has persuaded Chaudhvin’s penurious mother to give her daughter in marriage to him. He has even paid a bride price of Rs 2,000—and Chaudhvin’s mother, despite all of Chaudhvin’s protests, insists that the wedding will take place.
In desperation, Chaudhvin writes a letter to Ghalib and sends it to him through her doorkeeper-cum-general dogsbody, a man with a taste for liquor. The man sets out for Ghalib’s house on a Tuesday, wanders into a wine shop, and emerges on Thursday, leaving Ghalib very little time to devise any very effective plan to rescue Chaudhvin from this unwanted marriage. He decides to hand over Rs 2,000 to Chaudhvin’s mother; but since he doesn’t possess that much, he sets out to ‘earn’ it—by gambling. He’s successful, and hurries off to hand over the sum to the money-grubbing old woman.
…Who has, in the meantime, become a changed person, all because a desperate Chaudhvin has tried to commit suicide. Suddenly overcome by a fit of maternal affection, Chaudhvin’s mother heaps recriminations on the head of the just-arrived Kotwal: he will not be married to Chaudhvin, not for all the gold in the world. Much arguing ensues, but the mother stands firm and the Kotwal is left fuming and vowing vengeance—mainly on Ghalib.
There is much to come, of course: the Kotwal’s attempts to have his revenge on Ghalib; Ghalib’s own growing love for Chaudhvin Begum, and his wife’s increasing frustration—on the one hand, jealous of Chaudhvin Begum; on the other, wishing for her husband’s happiness. And all of it played out against the background of a Delhi that’s changing, even the de jure power of its puppet emperor now ceded to the British Resident.
What I liked about this film:
The music. Oh, the music. If there is one reason to watch Mirza Ghalib, it’s the songs—written (of course!) by Ghalib (the ghazals are taken from the Dewan-e-Ghalib), and partly by Shakeel Badayuni, with music by Ghulam Mohammad. My favourites are Dil-e-naadaan tujhe hua kya hai and Aah ko chaahiye ek umr asar hone tak, but there are others too (Nuktacheen hai gham-e-dil, for example) that are hauntingly beautiful, both in terms of lyrics and music. And yes, Talat Mehmood and Suraiya sound absolutely sublime.
The occasional glimpses of an attempt at authenticity. As memsaab pointed out a while back, Sohrab Modi (who produced and directed Mirza Ghalib) paid a lot of attention to getting historical details right. There is, for instance, the scene where Ghalib emerges from the mushaira in the fort. I have no idea if Modi used a set or the real thing, but the Delhi Gate of the red Fort has a carved elephant exactly like the one shown onscreen!
What I didn’t like:
There is just something a little too unemotional and ambivalent about Mirza Ghalib’s character (or is Bharat Bhushan too wooden?). He’s witty in a dry and sarcastic sort of way—which is anyway reflected in a lot of Ghalib’s poetry—but he’s also bland and none too expressive. Whereas Moti/Chaudhvin is obviously madly in love with him, the same can’t be said of Ghalib. And even if you take into consideration that there are (later), definite signs of his passion for her, the route from mild interest to deep love is blurred and too sudden, more an infatuation than the true love it’s made out to be.
On the whole, there was something about this film that left me unsatisfied. The romance between the much-married Ghalib and Chaudhvin is unconvincing and consists mainly of singing mournful ghazals in each other’s memory; Ghalib’s wife, though an interesting character, seems unfinished, as if the writer had thought of giving her hidden depths, but decided midway not to; and Ghalib’s relationship with her is (to say the least) puzzling. And I’d have loved more of an insight into the political turmoil of Delhi on the brink of 1857—if for nothing more than to see more of Iftekhar as a convincing Bahadur Shah.
Mirza Ghalib, I think, needed much tighter scripting: it’s a simple story, with a fairly small cast, but not enough attention has been paid to developing the characters or their relationships.
Still, worth seeing for the songs—and, if you’re fond of antique ornaments (as I am!), Suraiya’s jewellery:
Little bit of trivia (spoilers ahead):
Interestingly enough, there are a number of incidents in the film that actually occurred in Mirza Ghalib’s life. He was, as shown in the mushaira, a rival of Zauq’s; his wife was a pious sort who stuck with him despite his philandering and the fact that he never had a steady income; and Bahadur Shah bestowed many honours on Ghalib, naming him Dabeer-ul-mulk, Najm-ud-Daulah, in effect the poet laureate of the Mughal court. What’s more (as shown in the latter half of the film), Ghalib was imprisoned for gambling.