In Conversation With Master Storyteller And Co-Director Of ‘Peepli Live’ – Mahmood Farooqui

Posted on January 19, 2015 in Books, Culture-Vulture, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

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This post is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of the HT Crime Writers Festival:

By Krishangi Singh:

A lone lit candle casts a beautiful yellow glow on two gentlemen dressed in crisp white achkans, as they sit back and tell you the most interesting tales. Dastans if you will, of the beautiful princess Chauboli, those of Amar Aiyar and even narratives of the partition, among many others.

Mahmood Farooqui, writer and director, has brought back this 16th century Urdu art of storytelling, Dastangoi, back to Indian theatre spaces. Spellbinding as it is (especially when he teams up with the amazing Danish Husain), Dastangoi is just one amongst Faqooqui’s many talents. Co-director of satirical movie ‘Peepli Live’ and author of “Besieged, Voices From Delhi, 1857”, Farooqui knows how to tell tales across different media.

At the recently held HT Crime Writers Festival, Youth Ki Awaaz edged in to catch the reticent author to tell us about this revival of the Dastangoi art, the injustice being done to Urdu, and the tamaasha that always has an eager audience.

1. You’ve been quoted for calling your work in Dastangoi as ‘reinvention’ rather than ‘revival’. Do tell us more about that.

We have never seen anyone perform Dastangoi. It ceased to exist before we came in the scene. We have very scanty information about how it was performed, what was the decorum and other such details. So when I came to do Dastangoi under the guidance of S.R. Faruqi, I drew on my theatre experience and made the innovation of having two people perform the Dastan, unlike the olden times when only one person performed. This innovation made the art more dialogical and brought it to theatre spaces. Secondly, the content that my team and I have created is something the old Dastan didn’t engage in. So because of these two reasons, it is more of a reinvention.

2. You’ve adapted ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as ‘Dastan Alice Ki’. ‘Alice In Wonderland’ is such a visually powered tale, could you tell us a little about the process of translating such a tale into a Dastan, which is a unique oral tradition?

I think these stories work because in a highly visual culture, we force our audience to create their own images. The images that are created in their head are richer than anything we can serve them, so they take back what they give. Thus, when we’re describing the scene of chessboard in ‘Alice..’, everybody is imagining it differently and multiple visuals are being created.

3. Dastangoi stories, such as that of Amir Hamza, predominantly contain ‘adventure’ and ‘magic’ as primary elements. This also echoes in ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’. What is your approach on reinventing stories that do not contain these elements?

We have dealt with those texts as well. But again when you are dealing with such stories you have to imagine everything for yourself, be it the surroundings or the people. So, ultimately the narration comes to life through your own visuals.

4. Popular perception of Urdu is as this exotic language that it isn’t spoken or understood by most, while little do people realise it’s derivative nature and how unconsciously most of us use it in everyday life. The fact that your Dastangoi mehfils see everyone enjoying the tales is testament that language is no barrier. What has been your experience of audience reception?

People tend to think that Urdu is only ‘difficult words’, not realizing how much we use it in our everyday lives, which is a huge injustice to Urdu. We have a lot of currency of Urdu poetry because Hindi cinema music and lyrics draw heavily from it. Earlier even I didn’t know the meaning of words like ‘bulbul’ or ‘gul’ but I had heard it in Hindi songs. So, I agree with you that people think that Urdu is something exotic but they don’t realize how much they use it in their everyday lives.

But at the same time, the advantage we get by working in Urdu is that apart from the language being considered exotic, it also enjoys immense cultural prestige. It is considered to be the language of romance and poetry, the language of aristocracy and courtly behavior. Urdu enjoys recognition in even states like Tamil Nadu and Kerela, and people are aware of something called ‘sher’. I don’t think we would have become as popular if we were working in Hindi or English, or any other language.

5. ‘Peepli Live’ took the issue of farmer suicide and satirised the media and the political circus that forms around the issue. Do you think that media tends to become more counter-productive than helpful while covering such issues, in its bid to sensationalize it?

Well that is true but it’s kind of a packaged deal. It highlights issue and points attention to them but then later uses it for its own ends. So, I suppose it’s a double-edged sword and I don’t see how we can get away from it at the moment.

Media is very young in our country and what we must also understand is that every culture has different views about news. Our understanding of news is that it is something that must ‘entertain’. We also have a taste for wanting to see a spectacle, whether it is a wedding or a festival or people brawling on the street. So in a sense what media is doing is only catering to the popular taste of wanting a entertaining ‘tamaasha’.

6. What inspired you to look at Delhi from the perspective of ordinary people rather than people of influence while trying to articulate the effect of 1857 revolt in your book?

I would say I was very lucky that I found a whole collection of papers that dealt with ordinary people of Delhi in 1857. This interests me immensely because this was my training as a historian, to look at how ordinary people see things and how ordinary people experience history and life.

7. Can ‘Besieged’ be seen as a documentation of the initial suppression and silencing of ordinary voices for a larger political power play, a tradition that continues to plague the country even today?

Delhi had a different experience from other cities. Other cities like Kanpur, Lucknow and Mathura had popular uprising, which Delhi never experienced. Imagine if today suddenly 50-lakh soldiers step into Delhi and settle down. The residents will of course face enormous problems. That is precisely what Delhi faced in 1857. There were a lot of other stories going on in lives of ordinary people in Delhi apart from the fight for independence, which I have explained in the book.

8. What do you think are the biggest challenges in crime fiction narration?

In reading crime fiction, the reader forms an intimate connection with the content on the page. When you perform something, the connection is immediate but it is not intimate as it is a public connection. Therefore, it has always been difficult to bring mystery and suspense on the stage. There are some things that are meant to be read first and some things are meant to be recited and heard first. So there are texts such as Vedas and Quran in which orality is important and texts in which legibility is important. So, when I choose texts for Dastangoi, I try to choose texts in which orality is important.

9. You’re topic of discussion in HT CRW is ‘The World Of Ibn-E-Safi’. Do tell us more about it.

Ibn-E-Safi was this highly popular Urdu writer of 20th century. He wrote these wonderful crime capers that were much more interesting for their narration rather than the mystery itself. He wrote in witty and humorous language that was enjoyed by the masses and he created characters like Colonel Faridi and Captain Hameed, which were a take on Holmes and Watson. He created various quirks in the characters and Indianised them. Where else in the world will you find and Indian secret service which is full of Muslims? It’s only possible in Ibn-E-Safi’s world.


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• What does your writing space look like?

It’s a small study overflowing with books.

• The view from your window…

A new house being constructed

• What keeps you from writing/work?

Classical & semi-classical music

• What aspiring authors must not do…

They must not think of the fate of their book but write it as honestly as they can.

• Tea or coffee? Early bird or creature of the night? Road trip or flying?

Tea. Creature of the night. Road trip.

• Okay to sip wine while writing?

Some wine while writing is a great idea.

• What do you do when you hit the mythical writer’s Block?

I put on music and pour myself a glass of wine. If that doesn’t work, I go for a walk.

• And where does one find that mystical muse?

I think everyone has to find if for themselves as what captivates you is different for everyone. The ideal way would be for your partner to become your muse.

• If not a writer, you’d be?

Academic while still being a writer.

• A character of your own creation you have fallen for?


• A character from a movie or book you wish you could be…

I would want to be a character in a Chekhov story.

• A book’s ending you wish you could change (not yours) and how…

I would change Albert Camus’ The Outsider and would have the protagonist getting happily married, and with children.

• Critical acclaim or crazy screaming fans?

Lots of money!

• The one author you’d be happy to swap lives with?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky. [/alert]


To find out more about Dastangoi, and what the artist is currently up to, check out their blog

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