Article Hindi

Why Ghalib remains popular in Hindi cinema's memory 

On the 150th death anniversary of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, we track the journey of the poet's verses from Sohrab Modi to Gulzar and why he remains prominent in the memory of a Whatsapp generation. 

Shriram Iyengar

Ghalib-e-khasta ke bagair kaunse kaam tang hai

Roiye zaar zaar kya, keejiye haaye haaye kyun

(What work would ever be stuck because Ghalib is absent

Then why bother crying, why mourn his absence)

These verses are not a sign of the poet’s humility, but rather his sharp sarcasm. No one knew his own self-worth and prided in it like Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’. The poet, who passed away on 15 February 1869, was in his own words the greatest that ever wrote in Urdu.

Hain aur bhi duniya me sukhanwar bahut acche

Kehte hain ke Ghalib ka hai andaaz-e-bayaan kucch aur

(There may be better poets in the world

But none has the style and originality that Ghalib has)

In the age of Whatsapp, Ghalib still remains the most quoted, often wrongly, poet across digital domains. His peers like Momin, Zauq and Zafar have been consigned to the archives, but Ghalib emerges repeatedly in modernised, bastardised verses attributed to him.

The field of cinema and music has contributed to this process of simplifying Ghalib more than anything else. From Sohrab Modi to Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj, there have been verses lifted from Ghalib to great effect.

Gulzar, in particular, owes a considerable deal to the late poet. While it was Sohrab Modi who first filmed the biopic on Ghalib, Mirza Ghalib (1954), featuring Bharat Bhushan, it was Gulzar’s television serial that truly re-painted the poet’s life in popular culture.

As someone who has often borrowed from other poets, Gulzar has openly admitted his debt to Ghalib. As he describes in this interview with Loksatta, the habit began with the practise of ‘baitbaazi’ (battle of poetry verses) in his childhood. So, Gulzar says, "I would borrow the first verse, and add something else to it to make it sound mine."

A prime example of this is the song ‘Dil Dhoondta Hai’ from Mausam (1975). Sung by Bhupinder Singh and Lata Mangeshkar, the song borrows its opening verse from Ghalib.

Dil dhoondhta hai phir wahi fursat ke raat din

Baithe rahe tasavvur e jaana kiye hue

From there, Gulzar takes over and turns it into his own song.

Gulzar is not the only one. The song ‘Ae dil-e-nadaan’ from Razia Sultan (1983) borrows its opening line from the famous ghazal ‘Dil e nadaan tujhe hua kya hai/Aakhir is dard ki davaa kya hai

In Dil Se…(1998) ‘Satrangi Re’ track, Gulzar used the line crediting the original poet as well.

Ishq par zor nahi hai ye woh aatish Ghalib

Jo lagaaye na lage jo bujhaaye na bujhe

Incidentally, Ghalib himself was accused of borrowing from Persian poets. It was one of his mischievous qualities, like Shakespeare, to borrow something and turn it anew. Thus, it was that he took to the language of Urdu, which in itself is something borrowed (Persian) and something new (a mix of Hindi and Persian).

Incidentally, Ghalib himself was not too proud of his Urdu poetry. He writes in his Persian divan (Collection)

Farsi bin ta bi bini naqshshai rang rang

Biguzar az majmua-e-Urdu ki be rang-i-manast

(Read my Persian verse to see the various hues of every colour

Overlook the Urdu collection which is colourless)

But it was his work in Urdu that plumbs into the depths of human despair, heartbreak, pain, and philosophy that made him immortal.

While his Urdu poetry brought him close to the people, it was his synthesis of ideas expressed in the simplest words that brought him to Indian cinema.

As Javed Akhtar said in January this year, “Ghalib is a marvellous synthesis of Indian philosophy and Persian and Mughal culture's sophistication.Ghalib is a marvellous synthesis of Indian philosophy and Persian and Mughal culture's sophistication.”

This sophistication was often expressed in the simplest terms by Ghalib. Like Shakespeare, he remained a man of the masses, rather than the classes. His war of words with the elitist courtiers and the royal poet, Ibrahim Zauq, were legendary.

Despite that, Ghalib was quickly forgotten in a post-independence India. The rise of Sahir Ludhianvy, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz put the quaint poet to rest.

This popularity was revived again in 1988 when Gulzar directed the tele-serial Mirza Ghalib. Starring Naseeruddin Shah, the series also had music composed by the late Jagjit Singh. It was the musical rendition of his ghazals, that brought the poet back into popular limelight.

Even in that, Gulzar’s direction borrows its style from Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib (1954). Watch the similarity of the scene segueing into the song by the fakir. It is hard to blame the poet for following the footsteps of his idol.

In almost a parody of the self, Gulzar also borrowed TS Eliot’s style for the opening introduction of the series.

The lines describing the lanes of Ballimaran as complex arguments is a direct translation of Eliot’s ‘Streets that follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent’ from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.

Over the last couple of years, Hindi cinema lyrics have moved from the stylised Persian to local Hindi to a more urban mix of Hindi and English. Yet, poets like Dushyant Kumar (Masaan, 2015), Shiv Kumar Batalvi (Udta Punjab, 2016), and Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Manto, 2018), there seems to be an absence of the man called the 'greatest' of them all. Perhaps there will be some time again in the future when he will return to prominence.

After all, as he said it himself, Ghalib ka hai andaaz-e-bayaan kucch aur.