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Why a Pakistani can never play Ghalib in a biopic: Death anniversary special

Veteran theatre director M Sayeed Alam explains where previous attempts at portraying Ghalib's life erred and why Sanjay Leela Bhansali would be the best bet to make a film on the poet today, with a caveat.

Keyur Seta

Mirza Ghalib, a shaayar of the late Mughal era, is today considered the most famous Urdu poet. His verses have been quoted on innumerable occasions, in films, in real life, even in parliamentary debates. Yet, Ghalib has had just one film devoted to his life, made more than six decades ago by the movie moghul Sohrab Modi, and one television serial by poet-filmmaker Gulzar almost three decades ago. Is it time for a fresh look at the marvellous poet and personality today, in this era of bio-pics?

Theatre veteran M Sayeed Alam is considered a scholar of Ghalib, his works and life story. In a conversation with Cinestaan.com on Ghalib's 148th death anniversary (15 February), Alam shared his views on Modi’s Mirza Ghalib (1954) and Gulzar’s serial Mirza Ghalib (1988) and also discussed who could play the great poet today.

Alam has a big problem with Modi’s film in which Bharat Bhushan played the poet. “Ghalib is only shown as a lover boy," he complained. "This is a problem with Hindi cinema. There needs to be a compulsory angle of a hero, heroine, and their romance. Although the film had good actors, Bharat Bhushan disappointed me. The script affected him. Secondly, he had an image of a nice and simple person. It didn't match the characterization of Ghalib which is in our minds.”

But Alam is all praise for the rest of the cast and other aspects of the film. “They all acted very well," he said. "Iftekhar’s look, face, everything matched [the last Moghul emperor] Bahadur Shah Zafar’s character. Plus, the way Sapru presented kalam as Azurda was too good. The culture and literature of that era was nicely recreated.”

The discussion of taking creative liberties with real-life stories is the rage today, what with the controversy over Aamir Khan's Dangal (2016) and now Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati (2017). Alam believes there has to be a limit to such liberties. “You have a licence for that but not to the extent that it becomes historical evidence," he explained. "After 100 years the movie might become a source of history. If this happens, Ghalib will be seen as a lover boy by people.”

Alam is happier with the version of Ghalib shown in Gulzar’s TV serial. “They made a very good serial through a lot of hard work,” he remarked. But even the serial suffered from a distortion of history, he says. “It has its share of minuses. For example, Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq, Ghalib’s contemporary, was made a villain. This is another example of a compulsory formula of having a villain. If there is no villain, the hero won’t look big enough," he said, adding that he would have expected Gulzar not to fall prey to such a formula.

Naseeruddin Shah as Mirza Ghalib in Gulzar's TV serial

Referring to the real-life Zauq, Alam said, “He was a very good and large-hearted shayar. From the biographical information available on him, he was very nice, humble, clean-hearted and poor. He was a state poet but his salary was only Rs4 a month. Even in those days, he stayed in a two-room house. He was state poet only in name. Even the emperor’s clout was confined within the Red Fort. All talk of him becoming a state poet through public relations and Ghalib not being able to do so is rubbish.” 

Alam says Ghalib himself was a fan of Zauq. “If you read about Ghalib you would realize he was a big admirer of Zauq," he said. "In fact, during his last days, Ghalib used to recite Zauq’s verse – Ab toh ghabrake yeh kehte hain ki marr jayenge, marr ke bhi chain na paya toh kidhar jayenge.” 

Today, Ghalib is considered a better poet than Zauq. But in the 19th century, it was the opposite. “If your story is based in 1854, 1850 or 1825, you have to show Zauq to be better than Ghalib," he said. "Objectively speaking, whether or not Zauq was a better poet, he definitely can’t be a villain.”

Alam cites another reason why there could not have been bad blood between Ghalib and Zauq. “Ghalib was junior to Zauq," he said. "His order was also higher than Ghalib. So why would Zauq keep up a rivalry with Ghalib? Why would Naseeruddin Shah keep up a rivalry with Suniel Shetty? It is understandable if his rivalry is with Amitabh Bachchan. Gulzar saheb created a hero to make it [the serial] popular, which he shouldn’t have. Naseer saheb was fit for the role since his mother tongue is the same as Ghalib’s. But even he committed some mistakes.”

Alam’s research suggests that the serial made mistakes even in the appearances. “Zauq is shown without a moustache," he said. "But in those times, Muslims weren’t seen without a moustache. Else the challenge, ‘Mooch mundwa loonga [I'll shave my moustache]’, would never have been in vogue. The trend of not keeping a moustache was started much later by orthodox Muslims to set themselves apart from the Sikhs.”

Dr M Sayeed Alam

But Alam still praises Gulzar’s work. “Having said all this, Gulzar deserves a lot of credit for making this serial at a time when nobody was willing to," he said. "If we ignore the fallacies, the serial is at least close to history. This is better than showing him as only a lover boy. It is Gulzar saheb’s greatness that he didn’t show Ghalib and the courtesan meeting even once. He has shown how Ghalib goes to her place but returns from the steps. On the other hand, Modi’s entire film is based on this relationship whereas there wasn’t any such thing.”

He has similar words of praise for Shah. “Naseer saheb also deserves applause. Plus, till date he has not claimed to have gone inside Ghalib's soul and done research. He has always said he did as he was told. Despite doing this serial, he never tried to act like an expert on Ghalib. This is his greatness,” he said.

Ghalib’s verses have been used in a number of Hindi film songs. Alam believes it is a sign of the poet's greatness that some of his shayari (verses) have been used as sayings. But, according to him, Gulzar made a mistake in the opening line of the famous song, ‘Dil dhoondta hai phir wahi fursat ke raat din.’ “The original verse is, ‘Dil dhoondta hai phir wahi fursat, ke baithe rahen tasavvur-e-jana kiye hue’,” he said. 

With the film and serial on Ghalib both factually incorrect to varying degrees, is it time to set the record straight with a new biopic? Alam agrees. "Naseer saheb, Tom Alter and Kanwaljeet can play Ghalib," he said, "but you need an actor who can also play the young Ghalib. At the most, Aamir Khan can play him as he has that passion. But he isn’t tall. Ghalib himself had mentioned that he was tall. So, you will need to search for an actor from theatre or regional cinema."

Interestingly, Alam says the actor playing Ghalib cannot be a Pakistani. "I am not against Pakistanis like some political parties," he said, referring to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which had opposed the release of Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) last year. "It’s just that there is a vast difference between Ghalib’s Urdu and Pakistani Urdu. We don’t want Punjabi Urdu.”

He also believes a city-bred person can never play Ghalib. “Hrithik Roshan appeared like a caricature of Akbar in Jodhaa-Akbar (2008)," he said. "People from the younger generation born and brought up in Mumbai won’t get Ghalib right.”

As for who should helm such a film, Alam has just one choice: Sanjay Leela Bhansali. But he has a condition. “Bhansali can make a good film on Ghalib," he said, "but it should be a two-director project. Bhansali can look after the visuals and presentation since he is superb in it. The other director should look after the script and acting.” Touché!