Ghalib in New Delhi, the longest running comedy in Delhi, is going to have its 577th show on January 20 and it will again be a new version.
M Sayeed Alam, the creator of this play, has been staging this play for over 26 years now all around the globe. His social media account mentions that he is a writer by choice, a director by chance and an actor by force.
Asked about this, he explains that between 1997 to 2008, there were three actors who played Ghalib — Digamber Prasad, Vishnu Sharma and Jay Bansal. But they all opted for greener pastures, that is, joined cinema. Since February 15, 2008, Alam has been playing Ghalib himself to keep the character alive.
Creating plays that hit the right nerve of theatre lovers is essential for drawing audiences from the comforts of their drawing room to the theatre halls.
Theatre audiences are very choosy and well-informed.
Unlike viewers of cinema for whom going to a multiplex is a family outing with children enjoying pop-corn boxes and parents watching the gory violence and loud music on the big screen just to unwind, theatre lovers follow plays very closely and focus on the subtleties.
Those who are there are aware of what they expect from a play written or directed by a particular director or writer.
It’s only the knowledgeable ‘theatre activist’, so to say, who can call out Gulzar when he uses the wrong sher (couplet) of Ghalib in a song in Aandhi. Gulzar finally had to admit his mistake.
MANY TAKERS FOR GHALIB
It’s no coincidence that this writer spent a winter evening at Mandi House where three versions of Munshi Prem Chand’s story Bade Bhaisahib were being staged in three different auditoriums and all three ran houseful.
One of them titled Big B was, incidentally, a production of Sayeed Alam.
No one expects film audiences to go and watch Bade Bhaisahib in a cinema hall even if anyone dares to make a film on Prem Chand’s classic story that most of us read in school text-books. But one can’t say the same about OTT that has become the forum for some wonderful presentations that are winning audiences despite very simple means. The success of a series like Panchayat is just one example.
The point, as explained by Alam, is that if his plays which have repeat shows are not updated with the latest political and social developments, the audiences would walk out of the theatre. Or worse, ask questions.
A PhD in political science from Aligarh Muslim University, Alam has been producing and directing plays under the banner of Pierrot’s Troupe that uses a mixture of Urdu, Hindi and English to convey its message to theatre lovers.
Having staged around 2,000 shows of plays like Big B,Akbar the Great Nahi Rahe, Lal Quile ka Akhari Mushaira, Ghalib ke Khat, Pakistan aur Alzheimers, Chacha Chakkan in Action, Mohan se Mahatma, Cut Cut Cut and travelled all over the country and to the US, Dubai and UK, Alam has created a special niche among the sadly dwindling number of theatre lovers in the country.
The initial harsh period of Covid-19 lockdown from 2020 sounded the death knell for theatre because audiences were confined to their homes for almost two years while OTT platforms minted money. That period is passed but weather, political and religious rallies among other matters frequently disturb the normal routine of theatre lovers.
When Ghalib in New Delhi was staged for the first time in 1997, it was a simple story about the 19th century poet reborn in the city of his birth Delhi who discovers that he does not have a house of his own because he does not have an identity card.
Ghalib is forced to share a servants’ quarter with a Bihari student, who advises him to organise a press conference through a PR Agency.
However, much to his annoyance he discovers that the reporters are more interested in feasting on the snacks than on reading his press note.
After this, Ghalib starts changing himself. He changes his attire from a sherwani to a T-shirt and jeans and gets his autobiography written in English by Shobha De. He starts living in a flat because his haveli in Ballimaran is not available.
Beginning with this basic plot, Ghalib in New Delhi has become an iconic symbol of a literary genius turning into a chorus that was used by the Greeks to comment on the social and political developments of their time.
But much unlike cinema where a film once made will always be shown in the same format, a play evolves with time to stay relevant.
In the 25th year of the play, for instance, Ghalib comments that Rishi Sunak is not the last Indian to become the Prime Minister of Britain. He predicts that Shashi Tharoor could be a better Prime Minister than him because he speaks much better English.
Asked if he faced opposition from fierce fans of Ghalib he said he did face the wrath of Ghalib fans initially who did not want his name to be dragged in to controversy, but gradually as he went on from year to year making viewers laugh at the peculiar eccentricities of his characters, the love only multiplied.
“But as I said, I have to keep innovating and inventing to bring audiences to the theatre. As it is, theatre has been losing space in the media as well, with dailies cutting down pages [on the topic]. There are times when contemporary references have to be removed. For instance, in one of the earlier adaptations, Ghalib gets the job of teaching Hindi to the then Prime Minister, HD Deve Gowda. Ultimately Gowda does not learn Hindi but Ghalib becomes an expert in Kannada. After the fall of the government, I had to remove that scene and add something more contemporary,” he says.
In a free-wheeling interview with this writer, Alam was asked if he was too overburdened by the task of changing and adapting to new developments which earlier playwrights were not doing.
Were they not innovative?
For instance, we still go to watch the same story in Shakespeare’s plays getting the same popular response be it Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth without expecting changes in the script even though they belong to the 17th century.
Says Alam, “I don’t know about that. But I am sure Shakespeare must have also made changes to the script when his plays were staged repeatedly during his lifetime. But I do know for sure that there is a book that mentions how Shakespeare and many other writers of his time had gone to witness the staging of his own play and I am sure the reaction must have been very interesting.”
Students of English literature, however, will question such stories because even after five centuries of the Shakespeare master-pieces, literary experts are not clear about the identity of the authorship of plays supposedly written by Shakespeare.
They are not even sure whether they were written by one person or a group of authors.