Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bombay at Lincoln Center: Mirza Ghalib

He is sensitive, a bit vain, and has no money, having never worked a day in his life. What else would you expect from a poet? Eventually, Mirza Ghalib would be celebrated as one of India’s greatest men of letters. However, that day has yet to come in Sohrab Modi’s 1954 black & white Bollywood biography Mirza Ghalib, which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current retrospective, Social Dramas and Shimmering Spectacles: Muslim Cultures of Bombay Cinema.

Once again, Ghalib bombs at the Mughal court’s poetry slam. Most of the poets sing their verses, but Ghalib merely recites his more demanding Urdu ghazals. However, on his way home, the dejected poet hears a woman singing his verse. Investigating the sweet voice, Ghalib is immediately taken with Moti Begum, affectionately calling her “Chaudhvin” in reference to the moonlight illuminating her. Not knowing what her favorite poet looks like, Begum indulges his flirting for a bit, before sending him packing. By the time her mistake has been revealed, Ghalib is safely home with his wife and the film’s romantic conflicts are clearly established.

Regardless of their literary merits (which are hard to appreciate without studying the text), Ghalib’s ghazals have an undeniably musical quality. They sound particularly seductive when sung by Suraiya (a singer-actress known Cher-like, simply by her first name) as the lovely and tragic Begum. Unfortunately, as Ghalib, Bharat Bhushan mostly comes across like a whiny drip (or whatever the appropriate Urdu term might be). Still, all is forgiven when his ghazals are dubbed by Talat Mehmood, a popular Indian vocalist who specialized in the form, despite his strict Islamic upbringing.

Like many contemporary Hollywood historical dramas Ghalib definitely looks like it was shot on a studio backlot, but that is part of the charm. It is also interesting to see undisguised opium smoking in a 1950’s film (rest assured, it leads to further trouble). While the political content is relatively limited, the ever expanding British soon-to-be Raj is also presented as a cause of further tribulation.

With its elegantly romantic music and V. Avadhoot’s evocative black-and-white cinematography, Ghalib is hardly the garish spectacle many might uncharitably expect from Bollywood. A classy package that sounds great, Ghalib is a shrewd selection for the FSLC’s Bollywood series. It screens Thursday (5/20) and Sunday (5/23) at the Walter Reade Theater.