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Monday, Oct 14, 2019

A new documentary turns the lens on satirical performance poetry in Dakhani

A Tongue Untied, by writer and filmmaker Gautam Pemmaraju, focuses on Mazahiya Shayari, an old tradition of satirical performance poetry that is just as relevant today

brunch Updated: May 01, 2017 17:01 IST
A still from A Tongue Untied, featuring poet Mohammad Himayatullah
A still from A Tongue Untied, featuring poet Mohammad Himayatullah

Buzdil hai woh jo jeete ji marne se dar gaya,

Ek maich tha jo kaam kuch aur kar gaya

Jab maut aake mere ko karne lagi salaam

Main valeykum salaam bola aur mar gaya

The trailer for A Tongue Untied opens with an elderly man reciting this couplet to rousing applause. The verses capture the essence of Mazahiya Shayari, a satirical form of performance poetry popular in the Deccan region. The poet is talking about death, but the sentiment is couched in humour.

It’s this ability to find humour in the mundane that Mumbai-based writer and filmmaker Gautam Pemmaraju has chronicled in this documentary. The language in focus is Dakhani, a form of vernacular Urdu that, as Pemmaraju puts it, has been the lingua franca of Hyderabad and its surrounding regions for centuries now.

Dakhani is also the language that was caricatured by the late Mehmood in many of his films, including Gumnaam and Kunwara Baap. “Just his drawl and the accent would make people break out into laughter. In popular imagination, the language has always had a kind of comic identity,” says the director, adding that Shyam Benegal’s films Ankur and Nishant showcased a more serious depiction of the lingo.

A spoken vernacular

A Tongue Untied began as an arts research and documentation project to look at humour and satire in the Deccan region, and then evolved into a deeper look at the origins of Dakhani itself. While Pemmaraju has been living in Mumbai for over two decades now, he was born and raised in Hyderabad and has a personal connection with the language. It helped that he had been extensively writing and researching on the Deccan since 2005.  

Starting in 2012, the project soon took the form of a travel documentary, as Pemmaraju travelled to Karnataka, Telangana, Marathwada and even Delhi to engage with poets, historians, linguists and other experts. Apart from profiling contemporary poets like Mohammad Himayatullah and Ghouse Mohiuddin Ahmed (who recites the couplet in the trailer), he also spoke to people who organise mushairas, or poetry recitals. One of them was Mustafa Kamal, who runs Zinda Dilan-e- Hyderabad, literally meaning ‘the lively hearts of Hyderabad’. 

“They’ve been conducting mushairas, seminars and literary conferences since the late ’50s. Interestingly, he says that Dakhani is no longer a language, it’s a spoken vernacular. No literature is written in it, no education conducted in it,” says Pemmaraju. Once, however, there was a great amount of classical literature in the language, which fell into decline in the early 18th  century. “That’s the idea of the film, how it’s being passed down through oral traditions.”

For the film, Gautam Pemmaraju travelled to Karantaka, Telangana, Marathwada and Delhi to engage with poets, historians and linguists
For the film, Gautam Pemmaraju travelled to Karantaka, Telangana, Marathwada and Delhi to engage with poets, historians and linguists ( Aalok Soni )

The audiences for these mushairas aren’t restricted to the Deccan. Pemmaraju says that the Hyderabadi diaspora, in North America and the Middle East has been actively involved in supporting the movement. In fact, one of the poets, Ahmed, was a resident of Mumbai for 60 years, working as a draftsman for BEST. After his retirement, he moved back to Hyderabad and has since travelled the world, conducting mushairas in Chicago and even in Canada.

Portions of the documentary were also shot in Karachi, where several poets migrated after the Partition. “There is an entire neighbourhood of migrants from Hyderabad in Karachi. With the help of some friends, we even tracked down the nephew of Nazeer Dahqani, who recited some poetry for us,” says Pemmaraju.

Laughing at the self

Mazahiya Shayari sessions usually attract an older demographic. And the themes are similar to stand-up comedy routines elsewhere in the world. The poets take digs at politicians and religious leaders, address the concerns of the Muslim community in the region, and reflect on current issues like inflation and unemployment. “There are also the wife jokes and poking fun at the self. Munawar Ali, a well-known poet, is also a compare and an emcee and his pen name is Mukhtasar. It means brief, as he’s 5 feet 2 inches,” says Pemmaraju.

The documentary will be premiering at the ongoing New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF), on May 6. In times when people are quick to take offence, Pemmaraju hopes the film delivers an essential message. “It’s important to keep humour and satire alive, and to laugh at oneself. Something Ahmed said keeps coming back to me – the consequences of laughing at others will be what they are, but the people who laugh at themselves will never be erased,” he says.

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From HT Brunch, April 30, 2017

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First Published: Apr 29, 2017 21:57 IST

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