‘Majaz’ Fails in Its Depiction of Both a Poet and a Culture

The film, which claims to be a biographical account of the life of Majaz, is a shoddy and slapdash attempt, where even the basic facts of the poet’s life and time are presented incorrectly.

A still from <em>Majaz</em>.

A still from Majaz.

When the Supreme Court recently decided to force its “constitutional patriotism” down the throats of cinema-goers by directing cinema halls across the country to confine their customers and play the national anthem to a captive audience before every screening, I decided to stop visiting cinema halls. However, when my journalist friend Sahar Zaman posted a Facebook update recommending the newly-released ‘biopic’ on the renowned Urdu poet Majaz, who I have grown up reading, the Urdu-lover in me decided to make an exception. Little did I know that my compromise with the court’s polynomial regression would cost me my peace and sleep.

This film, which claims to be a biographical account of the life of Majaz, is – to say the least – a shoddy and slapdash attempt, where even the basic facts of the poet’s life and time are presented incorrectly. Asrar-ul-Haq, who used the takhallus, or nom de plume, of ‘Majaz Lakhnavi’, was one of the greatest and most popular poets Urdu literature has ever produced. The ignorance about his life cannot be attributed to a lack of information. He died only in 1955 and there is no dearth of material (including a doctoral thesis) on his life and works. His nephews, Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar and psychoanalyst and poet Salman Akhtar, and other members of his immediate family (among whom he is fondly remembered as Jaggan bhaiyya), are well-known and very much around. However, it seems that the filmmakers did not bother to either go through any authoritative work on Majaz or speak to any of his family members, or, indeed anyone who knew the poet or his social and family circumstances well. That even essentials have been botched is clear from the fact that in the entire film the poet’s name itself has been continuously mispronounced as ‘Israr’ instead of ‘Asrar’ and his nickname ‘Jaggan’, typical to eastern UP, has been changed to a Telegu-sounding ‘Jagan’.

Majaz was born and spent his early childhood in Rudauli – a small rural town in the heart of Awadh, then in district Barabanki, in a family of not-so-wealthy zamindars who spoke the Awadhi dialect. My grandmother, who was related to Majaz’s family, used to narrate an interesting incident which gives a fair idea of his family’s semi-rural milieu. Once, when Majaz had gained prominence as a poet, he was participating in a mushaira on the All India Radio. People persuaded his mother to hear him. When the Nazim-e-Mushaira (compere) announced in the typical mushaira style: “ab Hazrat e Majaz Lakhnavi apne kalaam se haemin nawaazein ge (now the all-respected Majaz Lakhnavi will favour us with his poetry)”, his mother retorted: “leo, ab mua hajratau hui gawa (here we go, the brat has become a ‘Hazrat’ now)”.

Rudauli – which produced many a literary figure – was inhabited by landlords who belonged to a society that was highly traditional but was also standing on the cusp of change from the feudal to the modern. Majaz’s Rudauli represented an entire culture. Unfortunately, the film, which claims to familiarise viewers with the times of Majaz, does not have a single shot of Rudauli. It only begins with a map where Rudauli is marked as his birthplace and is misspelt as “Radauli”!

Though Majaz’s father has been shown as a zamindar, a minor landowner with small-time employment with the British government, his family has been portrayed as some kind of aristocracy living in palaces befitting the nizam of Hyderabad, being served by red Turkish-capped servants and speaking Persianised Urdu straight from the sets of Mughal-e-Azam. The traditional Awadhi culture which Majaz and Rudauli so eminently typified is not shown in the film at all. The persona of Majaz – who we know as the ‘Keats of Urdu poetry’ – has been reduced to that of a ghazal singer. And mushairas, which embodied Urdu poetry in all its forms, have been depicted as singing competitions.

In one scene, two poet contemporaries, who record their poetry with that of Majaz at the All India Radio, address him as “Mr Majaz”. This “Mr Majaz”, whose characteristic kurta and “chaure paainche ka pyjama” (broad-hemmed pyjama) with a shervani donned over them at formal occasions had become his identity, wears a suit and cravat at a party he attends where Sarojini Naidu speaks to him in rehearsed Urdu like a post-emergency AIR newsreader of the 70s! It is enough for one to call for a two-minute silence for the death of Awadhi Urdu culture.

Majaz had forged formidable friendships with many notable progressive Urdu writers and poets, and had a major role to play in the Progressive Writers’ Movement. He shared a special relationship with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Moin Ahsan Jazbi, Ali Sardar Jafri and Makhdoom Moihuddin. In fact, his collection of poems Aahang (which finds no mention in the film), published while he was alive, is dedicated to these four poets in the following words:

“Faiz aur Jazbi ke naam, jo mere dil o jigar hain
Sardar aur Makhdoom ke naam, jo mere dast o baazu hain”

(To Faiz and Jazbi, who are my heart and soul
To Sardar and Makhdoom, who are my hands and limbs)

The film is, however, completely silent both about Majaz’s role in the Progressive Writers’ Movement as well as these friendships that were central to his life. Likewise, there is no mention in the film of the poet Jaan Nisar Akhtar – another friend who married Majaz’s elder sister, Safia, in what turned out to be a rather odd match. In fact, both his sisters have been shown to be unmarried.

The entire film is premised on a fabricated, made-up and rather melodramatic story – that Majaz was in love with Nazia who he was later engaged to, but she ended up marrying the son of prominent Congressman and freedom fighter Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari. In the film, his beloved, in typical Bollywood style, leaves her husband and runs away from her matrimonial home in Delhi to be with Majaz on his death-bed at Lucknow’s Balrampur hospital. The film ends with a scene where, many years after his death, the lady, reasonably old by now, is sitting by Majaz’s grave. Her husband, who tries to look old but fails miserably, comes to take her back home but she dramatically collapses on Majaz’s grave and dies. One understands that this is not a documentary and some degree of dramatisation is necessary; but it is not fiction either. Apart from flying in the face of facts, the brashness, impudence and tongue-in-cheek depiction of this contrived account pierces the heart of Urdu literary history like a noxious half-drawn arrow.

The direction is poor but actors Pratyush Chatterji (who plays Majaz), the graceful and charming Neelima Azim (who plays his mother), Rashmi Mishra (who plays Nazia) and Shahab Khan (who plays Hashim) have done a satisfactory job, considering the script that was handed out to them. That the script was ridden with baloney is not their fault. Majaz’s father is played by Madihur Rehman, who needs serious lessons in acting. Ali Shah plays a small role rather convincingly. Aligarh Muslim University’s Abdullah Girls’ College students have been shown mispronouncing every other Urdu word. The only proverbial silver lining in the film is Majaz’s poetry sung by Talat Aziz, to enjoy which I would recommend buying an audio CD rather than going through the agony of enduring a three-hour assault on one of the most cherished treasures of Indian literary landscape. I wish I could have applauded, at least, the attempt made by the filmmakers to introduce to the public at large the distinguished genius who had captured his own life in this hard-hitting couplet:

Ab is ke baad subh hai, aur subh-e-nau ‘Majaz’
Hum pe hai khatm, sham-e-ghareebaan-e-Lucknow

(After this, there’s morning, and a fresh morning
With me ends the evening of Lucknow’s destitutes)

But, I am afraid I will have to take refuge in Ghalib:

Rakhiyo ‘Ghalib’ mujhe is talkh-nawaayi mein ma’aaf
Aaj kuchh dard mere seene mein siwa hota hai

(Forgive me Ghalib for my bitter-speech
It’s only because my heart really aches today)

Saif Mahmood is a Supreme Court advocate and an Urdu literature commentator, critic and translator, as well as the founder of the South Asian Alliance for Literature, Art & Culture (SAALARC).

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  • Mukesh Kumar

    Sigh! Even I am on a boycott of all cinema halls, like the writer, due the same reasons and wanted to end it with this film. But it will continue, I guess. Greatly enjoyed the review though 🙂

  • Sohail Hashmi

    Thank You Saif Saheb for the review, you have saved me from first being forced to prove my patriotism and then to watch this trash.
    but that is Bombay Cinema for you, They did worse to Ghalib, why should they spare anyone, the idiots.