A popular line about Mirza Ghalib is actually one of his own: “Hain aur bhi duniya mein sukhanwar bahut achhe, kehte hain ki Ghalib ka andaz-e-bayan aur” (There are many eloquent poets in the world, but they say Ghalib has his own inimitable style).
Born in Agra towards the end of the 18th century, Mirza Asadullah Khan, better known as Mirza Ghalib, moved to Delhi, the centre of Mughal rule, as a child. Here, among court poets and nobility, he made his name as an Urdu and Persian poet of renown in the Mughal court even as emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s reign was giving way to the rise of the British rule. Bahadur Shah Zafar, himself a poet of considerable repute, hosted mushairas at which being invited to recite one’s works was an honour, and Ghalib endeared himself to the emperor with his verses.
Much has been written over the centuries about Ghalib, his life and poetry, his descent into poverty, his haveli in Delhi’s Ballimaran, his letters and more.
But the beauty of Sohrab Modi’s 1954 film, Mirza Ghalib, is that it actually doesn’t focus so much on Ghalib’s life yet manages to bring his words alive. And the reason for that is Suraiya. The legendary actor and singer’s voice graced countless movies, but this one was special, given that it married Ghalib’s verses with Suraiya’s golden voice and Ghulam Mohammad’s lilting tunes that are still hummed today.
Mirza Ghalib won two National Awards (Best Feature Film and Best Feature Film in Hindi), and at a special screening, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told Suraiya, “Tumne Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya” (You have brought Ghalib’s soul back to life). He wasn’t exaggerating.
Even though Bharat Bhushan played the title role of a movie whose story came from Saadat Hasan Manto, it is Suraiya, as Chaudhvin, the poet’s lover, who is remembered today as the soul of this movie. In the week of her 91st birth anniversary, here is a nostalgic look at one of her finest films.
Love in the time of poetry
The movie is set in Delhi at the time when the sun was setting on centuries of Mughal rule and the British East India Company was becoming more and more powerful. The once-mighty Mughal empire had been significantly reduced — Delhi is its last bastion and Bahadur Shah Zafar, its last real symbol of power.
Against this backdrop, the emperor’s court poetry sessions are not just an avenue for poets to gain recognition, but a way for the emperor, the poets and all those who love this poetry to hold on to something that they know is fast disappearing.
One such poetry lover is the courtesan Moti Begum (Suraiya). But she loves not just any poetry; she is an ardent fan of Mirza Ghalib. Even though he doesn’t do well at the mushairas, and his contemporaries Zauq and Momin are far more popular, Moti is obsessed with Ghalib and Ghalib alone, so much so that even though she isn’t allowed at these sessions, she gets the Kotwal, Hashmat Khan (Ulhas) to bring her copies of all his verses after the session. She often sings his poetry to herself, and even teaches the verses to a local mendicant so he can earn some money.
One day, Ghalib, having left the mushaira in a huff after not receiving the applause he sought, hears her singing one of his ghazals, and goes up to her house to meet her. He doesn’t tell her who he is, but needles her and teases her so that she rises in defence of her beloved Mirzaji, whom she has never met or even seen. It is only later that Moti (who later calls herself Chaudhvin because Ghalib did) realises who her visitor was.
Relationships that can’t be put into a box
The two fall in love, but it’s not quite as simple. One, because Chaudhvin’s mother (played by Durga Khote) has promised her in marriage to the Kotwal and has even accepted his bride price of Rs 2000. And two, because Ghalib is actually married. In fact, his relationship with his Begum (Nigar Sultana) is one of the most beautiful aspects of the movie, because it is so atypical compared to what usually passes for marriage in a certain kind of Hindi cinema.
Ghalib and Begum share a real relationship, a friendship and solidarity that shows whether it is her father mocking the poet or their conversation about the fact that they have not been able to have any children. Even when she knows he is falling in love with someone else, it hurts her, but it doesn’t take away from their love for each other. In fact, one of the movie’s finest songs comes when his wife, through her tears, tells him he should marry again, and he, even though madly in love with Chaudhvin, can’t bear the thought.
Meanwhile, Chaudhvin’s mother has come around to the fact that her daughter does not want to marry the Kotwal, and in a show of fierceness, returns his money and throws him out. But he’s a vengeful, petty man, who gets Ghalib thrown into jail. Chaudhvin does her best to rescue him, even going to the emperor for pardon. But Bahadur Shah Zafar tells her he is powerless under the new power structures.
How this tangled web of relationships plays out against the backdrop of a changing Delhi is beautifully shown in Rusi K. Banker’s art direction, the dialogues by Rajinder Singh Bedi and the additional lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni.
But ultimately, this movie belongs to Suraiya, whose voice communicates not only love, longing, hope and heartbreak, but the centuries-old magic of Ghalib.