Yes, they are spiritedly brought together onstage in the contemporary, creative cocktail of satire that links the legendary Ghalib and Delhi in its present newsworthy avatar! It all happens in a frabjous play called ‘Ghalib in New Delhi’, whose 300th show was staged on the 30th of January 2011 at Sriram Centre, Mandi House in New Delhi. And yes, my wife and I were there and we loved it… so did most of the audience because the twinkle in their eyes told us in the new-fangled lingo of facebook that they ‘superlyked’ it!!

Ghalib in new delhi-01

I know that you all know who and for what Kalmadi is known for, and you also have a complete genetic analysis of the song ‘sheila ki jawani’ too… but I’m quite unsure if you can really identify Ghalib. No, I’m not misspelling the Hindi for the word ‘abuse’ and neither am I trying to introduce a character from the rumbling worlds of Tunisia or Egypt. And yes, Ghalib isn’t the pen-name of Kiran Desai’s Nobel prize winning boy friend too. Ghalib was born as Asad Ullah Khan in 1797 in Agra and after a few years he shifted from there to Delhi. His wife, Umro Begum (he married her at the age of 13…phew!) gave birth to seven children but unfortunately, none survived… and obviously this guy just couldn’t help but become a shaiyar (poet) and take Mirza-Ghalib as his pen name. Arre bhai, apni Dilli se hai Ghalib!

By the way, all this isn’t a part of the play. The play begins with Mirza Ghalib popping up near a kerb-side paan-wala near ISBT (inter-state bus terminal) in Delhi. He is carrying his colourful tin-box from his nineteenth century avatar and is wearing his trademark shimmering open gown and his long black furry and conical headgear. We’re told that he had applied to be sent down on earth as he was eager to survey his own fame, and God had granted his application. He is here to see what has become of Delhi and to personally see how well his poetry is still remembered and revered. And this is the beginning of a new history in comic satire as perceived and penned by Dr M Sayyed Alam.

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The city, its inhabitants and habits, politics and politicians, academic camouflages, the pretentious society and the pseudo-intellectual press corps, the jerks and the ass-holes… all are caricatured superbly. Ghalib goes around confused on being told to spit anywhere, dismayed at being charged more than a 100 times for his paan, flabbergasted by a drunk, conned by a constable, and startled with the way his city has evolved! And yet he retains his wit:

“HaiN aur bhee duniya meiN suKHanwar bohot achche
kehte haiN ki ‘GHalib’ ka hai andaaz-e-bayaaN aur.”

“His poems, his lifestyle, his behaviour – everything are a great inspiration. At a time when people used to carry their religion on their shoulders, Ghalib talked about humanity. The man lost seven children and carried a huge sadness inside him but despite that he was known for his sense of humour.” Says Gulzar rather aptly. We see all of this in the comedy woven around Ghalib revisiting Delhi.

Different people would interpret this play differently and yet, most of the time, they will all be correct… & this is one reason why I’d like to call this play a witty enigma astride comedy! Googling for the way it has been perceived, I wasn’t really surprised to discover the kind of press reviews it has got: ‘A delightfully irreverent script.’ (TOI), ‘A refreshing expose of life around us.’ (The Hindu), ‘A play marked for the unprecedented attendance.’ (The Statesman), ‘Enthralling and amusing.’ (The Asian Age), ‘An interesting stuff of a burlesque rib tickling comedy’ (The Tribune), ‘A fun-filled play.’ (The Hindustan Times), ‘Splitting performances by the cast.’ (The Pioneer), ‘An unmitigated success.’ (The Indian Express), and  ‘Satirical, hilarious and witty.’ (Delhi Times).

The play doesn’t have much of his poetry as Ghalib is busy understanding how the nuances of Urdu expressions have changed. Encounters with the ill-famed Blue-Line bus culture of Delhi, Bihari perceptions, corruption in the Government, and the influx of pop and pulp into culture are enough ammunition to make him pout and spout irreverent but yet poetic insights laced with lots of newsy bits and a language that the mish-mash populace of Delhi today would understand easily. No wonder, because we know that the actual Mirza-Ghalib was also famous for the beautiful letters that he wrote. He was simple, direct and precise as he creatively described the current social, economic and political situations of the time. This is what he does in the play too, though not exactly the way he’d have done in his own time:

“Ek woh the jo khushi ki talash me mar jate the,
ek hum hai jo gham-e-zindagi mein jiye ja rahe hai.”

Lest I forget, I must say that I was tickled the most when Ghalib finds that Delhi University cannot offer him the job of analyzing himself (ie, Ghalib, the shayar) because he doesn’t have the necessary qualifications! The play is actually a ‘wake-up’ clarion call to all sleeping dons (the one with books, if I may add), slithering cons (my shortened form for a police constable!), all the loony goons who’re seemingly woven in the socio-political fabric of the city, and the phony culture Tsars (I’m sure there must’ve been a few in the auditorium too).

Though this is a comedy play, it doesn’t mean that we don’t get to see brilliant performances by the cast. In fact, without the superb performance level, the pithy and satire laced dialogues would have fallen like untutored henchmen in a gangster war! Niti Phool was unbeatable as Jai Hind and the auto-wala, R N Diwaker gave a remarkable performance as the sharabi, Ekant Kaul and Hareesh Chabra were brilliant in their roles, Pankaj Mutta looked like a real-life con (oops! Constable), and all the others were worthy of the applause that came at the end. M Sayeed Alam was, of-course, the heart and soul of the play.

What made the experience more memorable was the presence of Tom Alter sitting in the second row and I could hear people whispering ‘arre, sahi mein, Tom Alter hi hai bhai’ to all those who were unsure. He was, of course, called up stage too. Tom Alter, identified anywhere outside in Delhi would’ve been mobbed… but in the ‘hush-don’t-be-uncultured’ set-up inside a theater, dilliwalas were at their controlled best, barring the uninhibited use of the camera on their mobile to take pictures! Well, I admit, we too took a few and one is uploaded with this review.


The only fact that saddens me is that the blog of the wonderful Pierrot’s Troupe features August 12, 2009 as the date of the last update. Do something about this seriously comic chasm, please.

Details of the play:

Ghalib In New Delhi – Play (Hindi Comedy).

Cast: Dr. M. Sayeed Alam, Niti Sayeed, Hareesh Chhabra, Yashpal Malik, Ram N Diwakar, Himanshu Srivastava, Manohar Pandey, Ekant Kaul, Vijya Rathore & Punkaj Mutta.

© Arvind Passey
31 January 2011


Featured image credit: ajeetksingh