Mirza Ghalib in the time of terrorism? The 19th century bard having to defend himself against charges of anti-nationalism in a modern-day court?
A new play has done just that – plucking the 19th century poet out of history and placing him in contemporary times.
In the play ‘Anti-National Ghalib’, staged here recently, the poet is summoned by a court after a plaintiff alleges that he had “hurt religious sentiments and threatened national security” with his poetry. “These days, people are trying to create arguments out of nothing,” author-director Danish Iqbal said, explaining what prompted him to write the play. “The trend of frivolous litigations is growing,” he told PTI.
The plot revolves around a filmmaker, who, desperate to delay the release of his rival’s film, alleges that it features lyrics, originally penned by Ghalib, that are offensive. The bone of contention are Ghalib’s famous lines: “Na suno gar bura kahe koi/ na kaho gar bura kare koi” (If someone speaks ill pay no heed; if someone behaves sinfully, stay silent) and “Ibn-e-Maryam hua kare koi mere dukh ki dava kare koi” (Let anyone the son of Mary be/How will I know till they find the remedy).
The plaintiff alleges in the play that at a time when the government is adopting new methods to tap on conversations of terrorist groups, Ghalib, through his words, is urging people to turn a blind eye to evil deeds. “His lyrics compromise our national security and also hurt the religious sentiments of Christians,” the plaintiff says.
But the plot thickens as the trial transforms into a ‘mushaira’, replete with couplets in Urdu and Persian, much to the chagrin of the petitioner. “I don’t know what to say. You people have turned my plea for justice into a mushaira (poetic symposium),” he rues.
Ghalib also finds that he has to defend himself against accusations that were hurled at him in the past — of being a drunkard and having an extra-marital affair.
But it is his defence against debt that leaves the audience in splits. Ghalib, who had a debt of Rs 12,000, says he will repay the money to his creditors once popular artistes such as Begum Akhtar and Jagjit Singh, who often sang his songs, pay him royalty.
“They have made crores of rupees by singing my verses, without giving me anything. Whereas in my time I was told to pay four times the amount that I had taken in debt. Tell them to pay the money they owe me, and you can then deduct my debt from it,” he says.
To strengthen the prosecution’s case, Ghalib’s rival poet, Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq, is presented in court as a witness. It is clear that there is no love lost between the two, even after their death around 150 years ago.
“Do I have the permission to recite your couplet,” asks Ghalib, to which the inimitable Zauq replies, “Please do. Anyway, no one understands yours”. The play also takes a sarcastic dig at people’s scanty knowledge of Urdu. In one of the scenes, Ghalib recites “Koi misra toh uthao” (someone repeat the first line of the couplet). A confused judge orders a court official by the name of Mishra to leave the room.
“This is comedy done very seriously,” Iqbal explains. “The attempt is not to enact a comedy, but to laugh at ourselves and at ongoing societal trends,” he says.