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Gulzar's Mirza Ghalib: Reality, Realism and Allegorical Liberty

 | Television |

  BY Sumit Chaturvedi

Mirza Ghalib (Naseeruddin Shah)]

Indian television has not always been this melodramatic, lavishly decked up chimera of the life and times of the rich and the middle class India, as it is today. There was a time in the mid 80’s up until early 90’s when Hindi television witnessed an experimental phase which produced cinematic products such as literary adaptations, telefilms, biopics etc. During this period filmmakers from the New Wave Cinema Movement were experimenting with this new medium which had been introduced in India at the beginning of the 1980’s. Realism remained the dominant theme whether it was the subject matter, the aesthetic or the narrative of these shows. The 17 episodes long series, Mirza Ghalib made in 1988 by Gulzar, based on the life and times of the famous 18th century Urdu poet, was also a product of this phase of Indian television history.

This series holds considerable significance not only as a rare example of a biopic in an episodic format but also because of its artistic complexity. On the one hand as a biopic it tackles obvious concerns regarding authenticity of representation of the historical figure of Mirza Ghalib, on the other hand a closer look reveals that the series also functions as an allegory (as shall be illustrated later). Both these concerns are contrasting and at times contradictory to each other. While authenticity of representation requires following tenets of realism not only in narrative but also the aesthetic strategy, an allegory requires a creative fashioning of images and events such that while telling a story they simultaneously indicate to another as well. This contrast between realistic and creative conceptualisation of the plot and screenplay provides an interesting case for a deeper scrutiny into the nature of this episodic biopic as well as the intent of its maker.

A Brief Summary

As already mentioned this series was a biographical account of Mirza Ghalib situating him in a historical, socio-political context. Ghalib is standing at a juncture in time when the erstwhile Mughal regime was giving way to a bureaucratic British colonial administration. The political upheaval had left him bereft of the family pension upon which he had been surviving. Being a poet, Ghalib does not boast of a regular hefty income. Besides the family pension his hope for coming into some money rested upon being instated in the court of Bahadur Shah Zaffar, the last Mughal ruler in India, as a court poet. However this too remained an uphill battle owing to the intense power struggle with his contemporaries like Zauk and Momin. Looking for avenues in the newly establishing print tradition in India and trying to get his family pension reinstated, the constant financial struggles of Ghalib remain the backdrop of the series.

Depicted as someone who was fond of finer things in life including but not limited to occasional high stakes gambling, drinking and also an ill-advised generous nature, Ghalib’s economic problems were only compounded by his lavish lifestyle. The other constant theme of the biopic was the personal woes of Ghalib owing to the early deaths of seven of his children soon after their births one after another. This remained a huge cause of grief for Ghalib and his wife and both dealt with this tragedy in their own ways. While Ghalib’s wife has been portrayed as becoming increasingly religious and stoic, Ghalib on the contrary became more agnostic, took to drinking and at many occasions in the show has been seen channeling his sorrow into his poetry and couplets. These remaining the dominant themes for the protagonist, the socio-political context of the changing regime from one in the hands of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zaffar, to one that was being administered by the British East India Company, is in itself the underlying plot of the show affecting the lives of various characters in different ways. The final chapter of this change of power from one hand into another especially in North India being the 1857 revolt, this event remains the anchor of the show pivoting the life of the show as well as that of Ghalib in more than one way.  

In terms of the narrative and the aesthetic it has been very important for Gulzar to keep both realistic. As he himself has admitted, the only prior attempt to cinematically engage with Ghalib by Sohrab Modi in 1954 resulted in more of mythification than accurate historical representation of the 18th century poet (“Where is Reality: The Hindu). However when working on a biopic of a literary character, especially a poet, it becomes difficult to associate the corpus of an author’s work with their life events even though it becomes imperative to feature the couplets and poems in the biographical account itself. This becomes doubly true when one deals with a poet like Ghalib. Most experts on Ghalib and Urdu poetry in general claim that Ghalib never indulged in any socio-political commentary through his poetry. Thus to indicate any event in a biopic on the poet through his works would not be very feasible.

Yet Gulzar does precisely that at more than one occasion. But to out rightly reject these as incidents of historical inaccuracies would be a bit of overstep. Instead if one were to look at Gulzar’s affinities with Ghalib and the empathy that he feels with his beloved poet, one would be able to read in these very occasions, incidence of a personal allegory.

Premising Allegory

Cinematic and literary scholars suggest that instead of qualifying texts (cinematic or literary) as allegorical or non-allegorical, one should look at these works as those which enable allegorical reading in different degrees. But to understand allegorical references one requires a foundational narrative and an allegorical design. The foundational narrative works as a cultural code which facilitates comparisons between what is being portrayed and what is being signified, necessary for an allegorical reading, whereas the  allegorical design includes elements of (especially in cinema) iconographies, narrative patterns, etc. which are used to convey the allegory intended[1]. In other words these are the elements of premise and symbolism used in an allegory.

In terms of foundational narrative we can look at the affinity with which Gulzar reads Ghalib. Apart from making the show, Gulzar has also published the screenplay of this series. In the preface to this screenplay he writes “He used to borrow money, on being unable to repay it, he would search for innovative excuses. I feel an emotional bond with him. I wish I could somehow repay all his debts. Instead, generations and I, we all owe a debt to him!”. Influence of Ghalib on Gulzar is reflected also in the latter’s poetry as well as the songs written by him. He is also actively involved in preserving the legacy of Ghalib by organising commemorating services at his birthplace annually (“Ghalib was a great egotist”: Times of India).

Much like Ghalib in his old age, Gulzar is too a witness of a massive regime change albeit during his childhood. While Ghalib had seen British administration replacing the last relics of Mughal dynasty, Gulzar had seen the same British administration getting dismantled and giving rise to the post colonial Indian state. Interestingly as the 1857 revolt was the last chapter in the previous regime change saga, partition played the same defining moment in the latter. Both these events, the revolt and the partition, were occasions of large scale displacement, violence and persecution. This is indeed the most important link that connects Ghalib and Gulzar. One can say that Ghalib and Gulzar are standing at the two ends of the same historical thread, one which began with the end of Mughal dynasty at the hands of British administration and ended with the demise of colonial rule giving way to two sparring nations born out of the same country. The experience of trauma for the two becomes the very cultural code that one can base the foundational narrative on for an allegorical reading in Gulzar’s account of Ghalib’s life.

As for the allegorical design, the show is conceptualised based on the themes of nostalgia and a longing for the past. The story begins from the year 1867, just two years before Ghalib’s death. The opening scene is lit by dim lighting on a damp foggy morning; the set is that of the old Kasim lane of Delhi where Ghalib used to reside. It looks old and blackened with dust and grime. Ghalib, played by Naseeruddin Shah is returning from the mosque. As a passerby converses with Ghalib in the street, we understand that the dust has settled on the 1857 revolt, Bhadur Shah Zaffar has been exiled, princes have been brutally executed and the fort remains deserted.  Consistent with the theme of nostalgia and memory, the biopic continues in the form of flashbacks throughout.

However beside the general mise-en-scène, there are specific occasions of allegorical indices in the show. The first instance comes in the second episode of the series. On being prompted by his wife, played by Tanvi Azmi, to return to his hometown in Agra after an unsuccessful showing at a poetry recitation in the Delhi court, Ghalib replies “Shia, Sunni; Hindu, Muslim, were these partitions not enough that people have now built a wall between cities? I find this world very small, my lady”* [2]. Gulzar situates a couplet by Ghalib here, “Baazichaye atfaal hai duniya mere aage, hota hai shab-o roz tamasha mere aage”* which in English translation reads as “The world is just a child’s play before me. The farce goes on night and day before me”*. The couplet here signifies two kinds of disillusionments. In the scheme of the narrative Ghalib has just returned from an unsuccessful poetry recitation and could be venting out his disappointment with regards to that, but taking it in perspective with his remark about partitions, the same couplet could be read as an indictment of the modern political order which conveniently divides territories and people in the name of religion, nation etc without seriously considering its repercussions for the affected people.

What is important to note is that this incident is depicted in Ghalib’s youth, which means considerably before 1857. There had been no significant partitions as such by then (as opposed to later with the partitions of Bengal and India) which Ghalib might be distressed about. This utterance seems more allegorical than biographical in the context of the timeline that the biopic is following. And Gulzar’s feelings about the partition are well documented to lend credibility to this observation. As he said once in an interview, “My mulk (motherland) has been left on the other side my watan (country) is here; this is what keeps me forever divided” (“Tragic Tales”: India Today). The allegorical design here stems from this portrayal of Ghalib’s feelings towards the unfounded political developments referenced in the scene.

The tools used for creating the allegorical reading here are the dialogues coupled with Ghalib’s poetry; in other words the technique used is dialogical in capacity. In contrast, the other two instances involve distinct iconography, imagery as well as dialogues and poetry, to render an allegorical reading possible. In the seventeenth and the final episode of the series the narrative as well as aesthetic transform drastically.

In this episode, through testimonies of various characters who have survived the revolt, the viewer takes a stock of the situation. Ghalib on visiting the cemetery meets the Sufi saint Kale Khan played by Amjad Khan. Khan narrates his experiences of the revolt, about how his house was plundered. Ghalib talks about, how many of his friends and acquaintances were executed and many Muslims were witch hunted by the British after the revolt, which he got to escape, but many others were not as lucky as him. As Khan informs Ghalib about the demise of their beloved king Zaffar, the camera zooms slowly into the face of Ghalib. A couplet by Zaffar is sung in the background and the scene is followed by another, now during night time, which shows Kale Khan lip-synching the very lines that the last scene ended with, standing on a flight of stairs which seem to end in darkness above. The scene is illuminated by deeply impressionistic and artistic lighting. As the shot changes, we see a group of men standing in the dark looking towards Khan. The camera pans from behind over their shoulders, as Khan descends the stairs. Ghalib is listening to the couplet from his balcony. Khan walks through a street, with rows of people standing in the background with little to no light falling on their faces. The darkness probably represents the widespread gloom and sorrow.

The last lines of the poem end the scene which read as “Roz mamura duniya mein kharabi hai Zaffar, Aisi basti ko toh virana banaya hota”*, translated as “In this daily inhabiting world, there is much disaster Zaffar. You should have made it a wilderness instead”*. The scene depicts a deep sense of grief with all that has suddenly changed. The recital of Zaffar’s poetry after his death is symbolic of the collective mourning of the loss of humanity during the times of revolt and also the loss of the erstwhile regime epitomised in the death of King Zaffar.

The third moment follows soon after the second one. The theme of witch hunting by the British returns as we see two people in conversation. One says to another with reference those rebels who were caught, “Like the nests of the weaver-bird, the bodies are hanging from the trees”*. The next scene without any warning throws the viewer unsympathetically in front of a literal depiction of the preceding dialogue. The biographical aesthetic has now completely given way to a traumatic one. As the camera pans to show the horror of mass hangings on the trees of a forest, it stops only at a lonely figure of Mirza Ghalib standing amidst a pile of dead bodies. Ghalib is shaking his head in disbelief and shock. As he walks away with the hanging bodies still in the background, Gulzar informs us in his own narration that two years after this incident, in 1869, Ghalib passed away. The lonely figure of Ghalib is still walking away from the cemetery and we hear Jagjit Singh’s voice in the background one last time reciting Ghalib’s couplet: “Na tha kuch, to khuda tha, kuch na hota, to khuda hota. Duboya mujh ko hone ne, na hota main to kya hota”*, which reads thus “When nothing it was divinity; if nothing it would be divine. My entity was loss of infinity; non entity would have been fine”*

The reason why these scenes evoke allegorical references is because of the inconsistency that they produce. In the scheme of the narrative the reference to Ghalib’s death in Gulzar’s narration does not quite add up. Considering that Ghalib died in 1869, for the last scenes to occur two years prior to that would mean that the events depicted in the final scene took place almost ten years after the revolt was crushed in 1857, since the same timeline continues throughout these final scenes without any information to the contrary. But going by what was depicted in those scenes, about the freshness of the pain, horror and destruction, it seems improbable that the violence after the revolt continued for almost a decade.

The reason for this irreconcilability in the time periods of events is probably the will to preserve the traumatic quotient of the final scenes. For a realistic biopic it becomes necessary to close as near as possible to the death of the protagonist (if the biopic is made posthumously that is). However the tragedy of 1857 in Ghalib’s life was too important for Gulzar to not depict it as a finality. This is probably because Gulzar understands the importance of expressing a traumatic memory.

Gulzar's Intent and the Allegory

To understand Gulzar’s emphasis upon the depiction of Ghalib’s trauma in the final few scenes of the series, it is not enough to just compare Ghalib’s experience of the revolt to that of Gulzar’s during the partition. Gulzar’s testimony itself can further evidence the importance of expression of the traumatic memory for him, which further elaborates the foundational narrative of the allegorical reading in this biopic. Gulzar while talking about the painful memories of partition has said, “20-25 years later, those memories still haunted me. But what I have seen is that while we got over the horrors of the World War by talking about it and taking it out of our system, partition's memories have remained simply because we refuse to talk about it and have thus not let the wounds heal” (“Time We Moved”: DNA). He also says that this has been difficult in the past because the Hindi film industry was for years asked to refrain from touching the issue of partition, because of its political, emotional and social sensitiveness but he rightly asserts that what has ended up happening due to this is that “The wounds have not healed and this is proved by the fact that whenever Aug 15 approaches, the agonising memories of partition also comes back, even after 60 years” (ibid). 

Today Gulzar wants to move on from those memories. But this process of distancing himself away from those memories required him to remember the event outside of himself. That’s why in 2003, when Gulzar wrote a play by the name of Kharashein, based on partition and its experiences, he wrote in its introduction the following lines,“In 1947, I have seen so many riots and so many corpses, that their imagery has not left my mind as yet. If I watch kites (birds) flying in the sky, even those seem like vultures to me; a cover blows over and a dead body without a shroud surfaces; a day without a shroud that hasn’t been buried yet” (Kharashein)[3]. Since this theme of partition unwittingly surfaced in so many of his works, his friend and a playwright, Salim Arif insisted for him to write this play, so that “the omen of those flying kites may vacate our skies” (ibid). Mirza Ghalib was created in 1988, and it is very probable, that Gulzar might have found his inspiration for depicting scenes of Ghalib’s trauma from his own experiences.

Thus owing to his personal experiences and a deep seated empathy with Ghalib, Gulzar’s own memories have, as it seems, seeped through an otherwise realist biographical account of Mirza Ghalib, thus rendering an allegory that sounds out the pain of those who have suffered at the hands of a detached state, a changing political order and a displacing unsympathetic power structure. This series is an important example where realism in narrative and aesthetic might have been compromised but not at the hands of superficial melodrama and compulsions of the market, but only due to a complex artistic desire to deliver a program which attempts to deal with issues of memory and trauma through an allegorical rendition of a biographical account.


Ganguly, Nalini. “Tragic Tales: Stories on Partition show new facet of Gulzar”. IndiaToday.in. India Today 27 Oct. 1997. Web. 7 Aug. 2013.

“Ghalib was a great egotist: Gulzar”. TimesofIndia.Indiatimes.com. Times of India 24 Dec. 2010. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.

Gulzar. Kharāshein. Delhi: RadhaKrishna Prakashan, 2003. Print.

-. Mirza Ghalib: Ek Swānahī Manzarnāmā. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2008.

-. Mirza Ghalib: A Biographical Scenario. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2012.

“Time we moved away from pain of partition: Gulzar”. DNAIndia.com. DNA 24 Aug. 2007. Web. 7 Aug. 2013.

“Where is Reality”. Hindu.com. The Hindu 20 Jul. 2001. Web. 31 Jan 2014.

Xavier, Ismail. “Historical Allegory” A Companion to Film Theory. Ed. Toby Miller and Robert Stam. Massachusetts and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

Video Works

Gulzar’s Mirza Ghalib . Dir. Gulzar. Saregama, 2007. DVD.


1. For further reading on allegory and allied concepts see Ismail Xavier (1999)

2. All original dialogues from the series and Ghalib’s couplets as cited in the series, with their English translations, indicated by * henceforth, are sourced from the DVD version (Saregama).

3. This extract taken from the preface of the play, written in Hindi, has been roughly translated into English by the author of this article.