Ruminations from the TV couch

11 Aug 2020


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

ONE has watched more TV than was the case before the pandemic triggered a flawed lockdown. Even so, avoiding the minefield of Indian news channels remains a covenant with many. Most news channels are painful to watch for their half-truths.

An eligible distraction from the sheer crudeness of the current political din came from the delightfully scripted movie of the 1960s, Mughal-e-Azam. Millions must have seen it a dozen times for its masterly script and dialogue. As a historical event though the movie is built around a fake story, the kind of historiography that goes better with cock-and-bull vendors of India’s past who call the shots today.

There was no Queen Jodhabai in history and no recorded revolt by Prince Jehangir against his father over a luscious courtesan called Anarkali. One could spot three minor or major blemishes this time, however, depending on how fussy you are about cinema, in the otherwise splendidly structured narrative.

There’s a glaring problem with the map of India, which has gone strangely unnoticed. As the silhouette of Hindustan rises to start the story, a resonant voice speaks of India’s love of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s secular ideals. But the Mughal era map looks cropped to exclude East and West Pakistan from its contours. That Akbar was born in Amarkot, current Umerkot in Sindh, appears not to have informed the projection of the visual stretch of his empire. Nor did it seem to matter to the director that Dhaka and Lahore were integral to the Mughal map under Akbar.

Alexander was made to speak in chaste Urdu — reward for being a foreigner — while India’s King Porus was handed distilled Hindi lines when neither language existed.

Intriguingly, the area of Jammu and Kashmir is retained, which makes it more curious. Was a nationalist streak at play in a simple story of universal appeal? Instructions from the censors would be unlikely under Nehru’s watch. Indian movies routinely show a truer map of undivided India. M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hawa was one such.

A lesser flaw relates to Prithviraj Kapoor’s diction. In real life he came from the same region of Peshawar as Dilip Kumar who plays his son in the film. While Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim delivers his dialogue in unblemished Urdu, Akbar played by Prithviraj reveals his Punjabi slant. Mark how he orders the courtesan to be presented in his court. “Anarkali ko hamarey ru-broo haazir kia jaae.” Ideally, it should have been ‘ru-baroo’ as spelt in Urdu. The great actor thus took away a cent’s worth from the notionally million-dollar movie, but take away he did.

Historically, Akbar was exposed to Braj Bhasha and Punjabi as well as Persian, the court language. Therefore, it is tricky to assume what his accent might have been. It’s a dilemma akin to Sohrab Modi’s Alexander who was made to speak in chaste Urdu — reward for being a foreigner — while India’s King Porus was handed distilled Hindi lines when neither language existed.

A more telling inconsistency in Mughal-e-Azam pertains to the choice of the raag that was used to film Indian cinema’s most romantic scene ever. The legendary Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sang the composition in Raag Sohini for the longish love scene between the prince and the courtesan. But Sohini is an early morning raag, and the prince had clearly set the rendezvous with his sweetheart for the evening. His message was explicit: when Akbar’s court musician Tansen starts singing in the evening, Anarkali should meet the prince at the western gazebo of the palace. Did Anarkali deliberately take her time to show up at around 3 am, the time of the raag? In a movie noted for its eye for detail, it’s an unmitigated flaw.

Gulabo Sitabo by Shoojit Sircar was an entertainer built on a bogus script. The director has a knack of handling Amitabh Bachchan in varying roles. The old man with his hobbled walk and the demeanour of Fagin and Scrooge combined will remain one of Bachchan’s memorable performances.

In reality, such a character — an expletive hurling Mirza from Lucknow — doesn’t exist. If anything, Bachchan’s Mirza spoke like Najman Bua who was from Rudauli off Barabanki. And he walked like a maulvi from Nakhas. Farrukh Jaafar as Mirza’s quietly disgusted wife brings on the magic of old Lucknow inflection, however. Ayushman Khurana, playing a querulous bania tenant, uses a language that is deemed vulgar for a Lucknow old-timer.

Significantly too, it was unusual to see a credit line for a political party in a movie, but Sircar thanks a former BJP leader. Which makes it curious. The ‘haveli’ where the shooting is done is the servant’s quarters of the Mehmoodabad Palace in Qaiserbagh. It belongs to the Raja whose fabled properties have been snatched away after the supreme court awarded them to him.

The act of parliament was a collaboration between Congress and the BJP, which effectively declared the gentle raja an enemy of the state. That’s a cracker of a story for an honest movie. Otherwise, a tenant-owner dispute has been poignantly treated by Saeed Mirza (a truer Mirza) in Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!, a heart-tugging story from Mumbai.

Traditionally, a performance of Gulabo Sitabo conjures stories of two perennially quarrelling women. Amma arranged a show in the lawn for Ismat Chughtai who took copious notes during the hour-long, one-man performance of Gulabo Sitabo. If there’s a link between the mean and ill-spoken Mirza, eyeing the haveli as he waits in vain for his wife to cop it, and the title, one has missed the connection. The movie mocks Lucknow’s fabled courtesies. That the family, which felt wronged by parliament opened their home for the shooting defines a truer Lucknow.

Finally, what does one make of the heavily televised Modi show in Ayodhya? An iffy response to China, dwindling economy, and grim news from hospitals makes Ayodhya a handy topic for the prime minister’s Independence Day speech, which will be another TV show in the time of Covid-19.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2020