Teaching Poetry

I am an NRI, translated into: no real Indian. I follow Indian cinema in my quest to find only one million original films before humanity as we know it disappears. I will use the term Indian cinema sparingly because I only have access to Hindi films, not Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati and other languages.

I find Sahibaan directed by Ramesh Talwar and Prakash Mehra’s film Sharaabi amusing, not because the main characters are drunks, but because I hated poetry with a passion at school. Memorising the lines for exams did not help because the questions wanted my interpretation of the poem in question. Later on in life, I met poetry on a snow-covered land mass called Canada and we became friends. I even published my poems in Maple Syrup.

Sahibaan and Sharaabi gave me the impression that whisky, brandy and other bottled drinks somehow inspire drunkards to great poetic heights. What I like about couplets or poetry in films is the variety in expression, an opportunity to play with words. Modern films fly economy. They have fewer words and restrict themselves to I Love you.

Inspired by whisky
Sanjay Dutt is Kunwar Vijaypal Singh in Sahibaan but everybody calls him The Prince. He lives alone in his castle and recites poetry to every dancing girl that comes to entertain him. His favourite lines are related to drinking, which is what he lives for.

“You are more tender than rose petals
You are more intoxicating than the most potent of wines
I wish I could be drunk on you.”

The Prince finally finds the girl of his dreams Sahibaan (Madhuri Dixit) whose heart belongs to Gopi, the shepherd played by Rishi Kapoor. In one scene, Sahibaan tells Gopi how she escaped from the Prince’s clutches. She is afraid that they might be separated. Gopi moves poetry to a higher gear.

“A rose would shrivel if it were robbed of its colour and fragrance
A lamp would be extinguished without its wick
If it wasn’t for the moonlight, the world would be plunged in darkness
If Gopi were separated from Sahibaan he would die instantly.”

In Sharaabi, Vicky (Amitabh Bachchan) is a drunkard because his father neglected him when he was young. He gave Vicky two teaspoons of brandy if he sneezed or cried so that he could concentrate on his business ventures. When he grew up Vicky had a full bar in the back of his car, complete with glasses.

Munshiji, his father’s friend became his nanny and conscience. He also understood Vicky’s love for poetry. Munshiji said his poetry had no rhyme and weight because he was not in love. Indeed, Vicky met Miss Meena, a dancing girl and his poetry improved.

What is good poetry?
Some critics dismiss poetry as a bourgeoisie pastime. Vikram Seth’s book, A Suitable Boy is a case in point. Kakoli Chatterji, the last born and spoilt daughter of Judge Chatterji always comes up with couplets which show that she is clueless about poetry, unlike Amit, her celebrated brother whose poetry books are prescribed in universities. Poetry is a regular topic at the Chatterji table. What are good poems? My English poetry teacher said it is William Wordsworth.

The poet is not a drunk in Ghazal, an old film directed by Ved-Madan. Ijaaz (Sunil Dutt) an editor of a magazine that publishes revolutionary poetry loses his job when he falls in love with Naaz (Meena Kumari). This inspired him to write love poems something he despised before. In one poem, Ijaaz laments about how the Taj Mahal gives the impression that only kings are capable of love. “A king with the help of his wealth has made fun of the love of us poor people.”

Shah Rukh Khan is Rahul in Aziz Mirza’s film Darr. He is not a drunk but a murderer who is in love with Kirran (Juhi Chawla) and stalks her. He even follows Kirran and her husband Sunil (Sunny Deol) to Switzerland. His bouts of poetry are however peppered with. “I Love you Kirran.”

“Which heart knows what has passed through the breath?
“Everybody has heard the melody that comes out of the instrument.”

Badshah Khan (Amitabh Bachchan) in Khuda Gawah is not a poet but he declares his love for Benazir (Sri Devi) is true poetic form. “My name is Badshah Khan. Love is my faith. Love is my religion.”

Teaching poetry
Poetry or how words are used in film dialogue is the reason why I follow old films. Dialogue writers were like bakers. They mix some ingredients to bake crusty bread and cakes that taste like clouds. My English teachers were wrong. They asked the wrong question, “What did the poet have in mind when he wrote this stanza?’

The correct questions for students are: “What do you make of this poem? What does it mean to you? Does it make you happy, sad and why?

Nonqaba waka Msimang is the author of Sweetness The Novel.



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