Guns and the Ghazal

Writer and director Neeraj Pandey on how Ghalib inspired his debut novel.

Written by Anushree Majumdar | Published: January 5, 2014 4:46 am

Neeraj Pandey was in Class XII when his uncle introduced him to the poetry of Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan,popularly known as Ghalib. And though he wasn’t quite accustomed to the nuances of the Urdu couplets,young Pandey felt that he had “an intuitive understanding of what Ghalib was saying”. He liked the Mughal poet’s work enough to persist by buying an Urdu-to-English dictionary and translating the verses. “In 1988,Gulzar made Mirza Ghalib,which was screened on Doordarshan,Naseeruddin Shah played Ghalib. I bought the two-cassette pack of ghazals that were sung for the serial by Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh,” says Pandey. The tapes were played on loop for many years. So it is only fitting that his first novel is called Ghalib Danger,which is about a man in Mumbai,who embraces a life of crime,and Ghalib,in equal measure.

Ghalib Danger opens with Kamran Khan in Paris,on the verge of an encounter with the Indian police force that has been hunting for him for some years. He is no ordinary criminal — Pandey takes the readers back to Khan’s humble beginnings in a village,where life was simple,too simple for a young man with some gumption and a propensity for risk.

Khan makes his way to Mumbai,where he falls in love,survives a shoot-out,deals with heartbreak,joins a gang and becomes a fearful criminal,in that order. And all through the years,till he finds himself awaiting capture in Paris,Khan’s constant companion is the Urdu poet’s verse,one for every emotion and experience. An ambitious teenager who stumbles into crime turns into a gang-leader who calls himself Ghalib Danger,whose new name inspires nothing but fear.

Pandey,who made a name for himself with films like A Wednesday and Special 26,is not exactly new to writing. “I’ve been writing for myself mainly,from time to time,both in Hindi and English,” says Pandey,who was initially keen to bring out a collection of short stories. “I had been working on a bunch of short stories and wanted to get them published,but my friend and journalist,S Hussain Zaidi,told me that I should debut with a novel. This story was already in my head,so I took out a few months from my schedule to write the book,” says Pandey. When he finished,Pandey took the manuscript to Blue Salt,an imprint started by Penguin India and Zaidi,dedicated to Bollywood crime and thrillers. “I knew I wanted to write it as a novel and not a screenplay. The form gives me room to develop a non-linear storyline and I just wanted to enjoy myself telling this story,” says Pandey.

Ghalib Danger is a chock-a-block full of characters who might appear familiar to readers but Pandey insists that none of the characters are based on real-life personalities. “I modelled my protagonist and other characters on different types of people. I wanted to portray them as affable people who are victims of circumstances. They didn’t necessarily choose crime,but it is thrust upon them,” says Pandey.

Although there are fewer women than men in the novel,Pandey has been careful to equip his female characters with as much courage and tenacity as the male characters,if not more. “Women are a superior race,” laughs Pandey. “I felt it was important to give them due importance and support them by making them as visible as possible,” he says.

Pandey is aware of how filmi the book is,and while the story might interest other filmmakers,he is quite certain that he would like to adapt it for the big screen himself. “I know it is a good story. I haven’t thought of turning this into a film yet,but if somebody were to come and ask for the rights,I think I’d still like to hold on to the story for a film that I might want to make later,” says Pandey,who wants to wait for the book to reach readers first. “I know the film world and publishing is as separate as chalk and cheese. But the biggest difference between the two is that when your film is released on Friday,you know whether it will work or not in a day or two. In case of the book,the marketing and the subsequent wait is altogether different,” he says.

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